Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies

Films like Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty demonstrate that we empathise much more easily with characters when we believe we are witnessing real events.

This year’s academy award nominations of Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, attest to our fascination of watching “true stories” depicted on the screen. We adopt a special set of expectations when we believe a movie is based on actual events, a sentiment the Coen Brothers parodied when they stated at the beginning of Fargo that “this is a true story,” even though it wasn’t. In the science fiction spoof, Galaxy Quest, aliens have intercepted a Star Trek-like TV show and believe the program to be a documentary of actual human warfare. As a result, they come to earth to enlist Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), star of the TV show, to help fight the evil warlord Sarris (named after the film critic, Andrew Sarris), as they believe Taggart to be a true war hero rather than merely playing one on TV.

Movies that are “based on a true story” blur the boundary between documentary and make-believe. We, much like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, expect such movies to depict an authentic portrayal of actual events. The story of Argo — about a CIA agent who helps individuals escape from Iran by having them pose as a film crew — would almost have to be based on actual events, otherwise no one would buy into such a preposterous plot! Interestingly, the climatic chase scene on the airport runway is completely fictional, though I think we forgive the filmmakers for some poetic license, particularly as the scene is so exciting. We are much less forgiving in the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, to the point where producer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have been reprimanded by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain for suggesting that torture was effective in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Yet even documentaries distort the “truth” by slanting history through biased portrayals. Should movies “based on a true story” be viewed as completely accurate documents of history?

One psychological point is clear: our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real. Studies by Richard Lazarus and others have shown that physiological markers of emotion, such as skin conductance (i.e. sweaty palms), increase when subjects believe a film to depict an actual event. In one study, subjects watched a film clip depicting an industrial accident involving a power saw. Those who were told that they were watching footage of an actual accident (rather than actors re-enacting the event) exhibited heightened emotional responses. Thus, people watching the same movie may engage themselves differently depending on the degree to which they construe the events as realistic portrayals.

Even when we know we are watching a re-enactment, as with Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, I suspect we become more emotionally attached when we believe we are witnessing actual events. We more readily empathise with characters and buy into the story. Of course, the authenticity of a movie depends not only on us having prior knowledge that a movie is based on actual events but also on how realistic the characters appear in their actions and predicaments. As wonderfully realistic and engaging as Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were, in my opinion the most “realistic” movie among this year’s Academy Award nominees is the entirely fictitious Amour, in which the elderly Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must care for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva), whose mental abilities are deteriorating from strokes. The superb acting and unusual editing (e.g. exceedingly long takes) amplify emotions and engage us as if we are watching a true and heart-wrenching story.

Arthur P Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies(ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, Psychocinematics: Cognition at the Movies.

This post first appeared on the OUP blog here, and is crossposted with their permission.

Ben Affleck in Argo, a film with such a preposterous plot it has to be based on actual events...
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Strictly: Has Ed (Glitter) Balls got the winning moves?

Will the former Westminster high-flyer impress the judges and fans?

Ed Balls once had dreams of Labour leadership. Now, according to flamboyant Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli, the former Shadow Chancellor should be aspiring to “imitate the hippopotamus from Fantasia” every Saturday night, preferably while basting himself in fake tan.

Welcome to my world, Ladies and Gentleman. A place where the former Westminster high flyer  is more famous for sashaying around in sequins (and ineptly tweeting his own name) than for his efforts with the Bank of England. It’s a universe so intoxicating, it made political correspondent John Sergeant drag a professional performer across a dance floor by her wrists in the name of light entertainment.

The same compulsions made respected broadcaster Jeremy Vine alight a prop horse dressed as a cowboy (more Woody from Toy Story than John Wayne) and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe fly across the ballroom like an inappropriate understudy in an am dram production of Peter Pan. It is a glorious, if unnerving domain.

Ed Glitterballs, as he will henceforth be introduced at every after-dinner speaking engagement he attends, has trotted out many well-rehearsed reasons for signing up: getting fit, being cajoled by his superfan wife, Yvette Cooper, regretting a missed opportunity. But could it be that, as he relentlessly plugs his autobiography, he’s merely after a bit of Strictly stardust for his post-politics career? 

Let’s start with the basics. Politicians are generally unpopular, while anyone with a vague connection to Strictly is treated as a demi-God. So the chance for “the most annoying person in modern politics” (David Cameron’s words, not mine), to bask in reflected glory is a no-brainer.

It’s a valuable opportunity to be humble and self-deprecating — qualities so rarely on display in the House of Commons. Which of us sitting at home scoffing Maltesers, wouldn’t sympathise with poor old Ed being chastised by his impossibly svelte partner for having a beer belly? Early polls suggest the dads’ vote is in the bag.

When Widdecombe appeared on the show back in 2010 — one of the most astonishing rebranding exercises I have ever witnessed — Westminster colleagues warned she would lose gravitas. “My reply was yes I would, but what did I need it for now?” she said.

Strictly Come Dancing gives the nation an extraordinary capacity to forget. Maybe it’s the fumes from the spray tan booth, but Widdecombe’s stern bluster was soon replaced by the image of a sweet old lady, stumbling around the dance floor with gusto. Her frankly shameful record on gay rights evaporated as she traded affectionate insults with openly gay judge Craig Revel Horwood and won us all over with her clodhopping two left feet. Genuinely incredible stuff.

Balls won’t be another Ann Widdecombe. For a start he’s got the wrong partner. She had untouchable fan favourite Anton Du Beke, more famous than some of the celebrity contestants, who happily provided the choreography and patience for her to shine. Balls is with an unknown quantity — new girl Katya Jones. 

His performance has been hyped up by an expectant press, while Widdecombe's had the all-important shock factor. Back then nobody could have predicted her irrepressible stomp to the quarter finals, leading to a career in panto and her own quiz show on Sky Atlantic. And unlike John Sergeant, who withdrew from the competition after a few weeks owing to sheer embarrassment, she lapped up every second.

Neither, however, is Balls likely to be Edwina Currie. If you forgot her stint on the show it’s because she went out in the first week, after failing to tone down her abrasive smugness for the ballroom. Balls is too clever for that and he’s already playing the game. Would viewers have been so comfortable with him cropping up on the Great British Bake Off spin-off An Extra Slice a few months ago?

My bet is that after a few gyrations he’ll emerge as amusing, lovable and, most importantly, bookable. The prospect of Gordon Brown’s economic advisor playing Baron Hardup in a Christmaspanto  is deliciously tantalising. But what happens when the fun stops and the midlife crisis (as he takes great pleasure in calling it) loses its novelty? Can he be taken seriously again?

When asked about Labour’s current Corbyn crisis, Balls told The Guardian: “If I got a call saying, ‘We think you can solve the problem, come back and rescue us,’ I would drop Strictly and go like a shot.” Well, Jeremy Vine came out unscathed — he hosts Crimewatch now, folks! — and thanks to Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson casually led us out of Europe. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Great news all round for Balls, then, he’d have to work really hard to come out of this badly. But there’s a reason he’s the bookies’ booby prize, with odds of 150/1 to lift the glitterball trophy. An entertaining but basically useless act has never won the show. We’ll be bored by November.

“But Ed might be sensational!” I hear you cry. Unfortunately his brief appearance on this year’s launch show suggests otherwise. This weekend — the first time he and Katya will perform a full routine —  he will be giving us his waltz, one of the more forgiving dances, and a style Balls has already expressed fondness for.

After that come the sizzling samba, the raunchy rumba and the cheeky Charleston. These can be mortifying even for the show’s frontrunners. As a straggler, Balls may find himself dewy-eyed, reminiscing about the time Bruno compared him to a cartoon hippo. But if he can just cope with a few weeks of mild ridicule, the world could be his oyster.

Emma Bullimore is a TV critic