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...
The Jump/Channel 4
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The most dangerous show on TV: is The Jump becoming a celebrity Hunger Games?

Will it take a life-threatening injury, or worse, before the madness ends?!

First they came for former EastEnders actor Louis Lytton. Then, they came for former EastEnders actor Sid Owen. Then, they came for former Holby City actor Tina Hobley. But now, the third season of Channel 4’s The Jump has moved on from retired soap stars to claim a new set of victims: Britain’s top athletes, including Rebecca Adlington, Beth Tweddle and Linford Christie.

The winter sports reality show The Jump takes your average collection of D-list celebrities, with a few sports personalities mixed in for good measure, and asks them to compete in a series of alpine challenges – skeleton, bobsleigh, snowboarding and, of course, ski jumping – while Davina McCall says things like, “Look at that jump. Just look at it. Are you nervous?”

It sounds fairly mild, but Sir Steve Redgrave, Ola Jordan, Sally Bercow and Melinda Messenger have all withdrawn from the programme after injuries in the past.

Riskier than I’m a Celebrity, Splash! and Dancing on Ice mixed together, the third season of The Jump is fast turning into a dystopian celebrity harm spectacle, a relentless conveyor belt of head injuries and fractured bones.

So far, seven out of the competition’s 12 contestants have sustained injuries. First, Lytton tore a ligament in her thumb, before being rushed to hospital after a training incident at the end of last month. Then, Owen fell on his leg during the first episode having previously complained of “a bad crash during training” for the skeleton.

Adlington (who openly wept with fear when she first gazed upon the titular ski jump, described as being the “height of three double decker buses”) was hospitalised and withdrew from the show after a televised fall left her with a dislocated shoulder: she said the pain was “worse than childbirth”. Hobley soon followed with a dislocated elbow.

Tweddle suffered a particularly bad accident during rehearsals, and now remains in hospital after having her spine fused together, which involved having a piece of bone taken from her hip. On Monday, Christie became the fourth contestant to be hospitalised in the space of two weeks, pulling his hamstring. As of today, Made in Chelsea cast member Mark Francis is the fourth contestant to withdraw, after fracturing his ankle.

In response to criticisms, Channel 4 reminded viewers that 46 of their celebrity participants have so far emerged unscathed across the three series, which seems like a remarkably low bar to set for a major reality TV series: “no one’s been seriously hurt so far” is not much of a safety procedure.

Judge Eddie the Eagle implied that contestents were injuring themselves through their own laziness and coffee obsessions. He wrote in the Daily Mail:

“Those competitors should be up and down the steps relentlessly – jump and go back, jump and go back. Instead too many will have a couple of goes before going off for a coffee and forgetting to return because they're feeling tired.”

But as the celebrity casualty list approaches double figures and more than 12 viewers have officially complained, the channel has begun an urgent safety review of the show, after one insider reportedly labelled it “the most dangerous show on television”.

It all seemed like fun and games when we were watching reality TV stars rolling around in the snow in embarrassing lurid lyrca suits. But will it take a life-threatening injury, or worse, before the madness ends?! Pray for Brian McFadden. Pray for Sarah Harding. Pray for Tamara Beckwith. Pray for the end of The Jump.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.