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...
Photo: Getty
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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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