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...
Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror