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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Anthony Horowitz’s New Blood is the most accurate portrayal of London millennial life on TV

 “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

The police procedural is hardly the most cutting edge televisual format, burdened as it is by generic clichés and tired characters. But every now and then, one comes along attempting to do something new with an old format – from Life on Mars to Happy Valley. The latest effort is the BBC’s New Blood. Created by Anthony Horowitz, it follows two (extremely handsome) junior investigators, both second-generation immigrants in their early twenties living in London: Arash Sayyad (Ben Tavassoli), working for the Met, and Stefan Kowolski (Mark Strepan), who works for the Serious Fraud Office.

On the surface, there is nothing revolutionary about this programme – it has all the usual hallmarks of its genre. Stefan and Rash dislike each other at first, but find circumstance thrusts them together on numerous unlikely occasions – who woulda thunk these two oddballs would become partners in crime prevention!!! Both have older bosses who raise exasperated eyebrows at their unconventional but often effective methods. Each work on cases at first, seemingly unrelated to one another, but each time slowly are revealed to be intertwined.

But there is something slightly strange about this programme that’s apparent from the very first episode. As Radio Times critic Huw Fullerton wrote in his review of the show’s opening case, New Blood is “obsessed” with the London property market:

“Throughout the first few episodes lead characters Stefan and Rash regularly suspend their investigations into murder and corruption to fret about getting on the housing ladder, the rights they have to fixed rent and the logistics of getting a mortgage on a low salary.  Even one of the series’ villains couldn’t resist getting in on the property action, evilly swilling a glass of wine and threatening his niece with eviction from her rent-free Zone 1 flat if she didn’t keep supplying him with illicit information.”

“I know how hard it is for young professionals in London,” the villain in question purrs. “House prices are ridiculous.” And as further cases have unfolded, including last night’s finale, this streak has only become more extreme. Some of the series most significant events are motivated by people hoping to preserve the value of their luxurious central properties; Rash’s sister gives him the details of a potential room in Wandsworth as a kind of present; Stefan and Rash are thrown together by their shared desperate need to find somewhere affordable to live. One of the highest-octane moments of the series’s final episode involves an action montage of the pair running across London after a traumatic car accident to make their scheduled time for a flat viewing. It’s almost laughable.

But it’s not just property that drives the characters and plots on New Blood. It’s all the concerns of millennial life in London – immigration levels, transport, the environment, isolation and mental health. Stefan and Rash cycle to their insecure jobs (both are constantly being fired) and undercover meetings with big pharma bosses and property developers, trying to right the great wrongs of the city. Stefan uses his Polish language abilities to communicate with the low-paid workers often exploited by the villains of each case – one of whom says to him, “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

Debates about high-rise developments and corporate greed nestle in with chatty dialogue about being underpaid, unappreciated and undermined by the city. Even the deaths seem to play on urban anxieties: a man tumbles to his death from an E3 tower block, while a woman suffers a fatal fall from a tall escalator at an underground station, her death calmly declared in an announcement that continues, “There is a good service on all other lines.”

The result is an overly earnest but surprisingly accurate portrait of a certain kind of young professional in London – the only thing that stopped me laughing at the constant overwrought references the housing crisis was thinking of how much of my own brain-space is dedicated to thinking about rent, and how much I talk about it as a result.

It also means the show has a refreshing take on villains – there are no stereotypical lone-wolf terrorists or crazed spurned women here. Instead, Stefan and Rash repeatedly attempt to arrest the uber-rich and powerful: criminals who can hide behind facades of legitimacy and wealth. The show’s very premise – the Serious Fraud Office and the police teaming up to form a heroic young double act – rests on the idea that the city’s greatest injustices are made by corporations and corrupt governments hoping to fleece the ordinary individuals that live there.

Many reviewers have criticised the show for being too on-the-nose in its urban criticisms, but for me that’s where the hilarity and the joy of this show lies. Where else could the line, “You wouldn’t want that, any more than you would want to lose this flat” be delivered with such delicious venom?

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