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12 February 2013

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.

By Arthur P Shimamura

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.

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