Telling a story using real people has been done for a very long time. For example, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar isn't exactly historically accurate (e.g., Caesar's last words probably weren't "Et tu, Brute?"). But the play uses a historical event to expound on themes of honor, ambition, and betrayal.
Given there were more than a few centuries separating late-16th century England from ancient Rome, there probably weren't many people picketing the Globe Theatre over an unfair portrayal of Cassius or Brutus. However, modern biopics are usually based around people and controversy from recent memory. That makes the situation a ripe one for disagreement. And it leads to an argument over whether there's a limit to what events you can invent or words you can put in the mouth of a fictionalized version of a real person.
Some will argue that many might form their view of history based on the inaccuracies in movies and TV shows. Others will respond that that is not the problem or responsibility of movie-makers, since cinema is not claiming the mantle of history, but just telling a story.
From Bilge Ebiri at Vulture:
These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. (And even documentaries don’t always need to be totally accurate — just ask Werner Herzog.) They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves — to the demands of drama, to the demands of (yes) entertainment, and even to the demands of the broader truths they’re trying to evoke. There are limits to that, for sure: A movie about Hitler that tried to play down or deny the Holocaust might not exactly fly. An Obama biopic that shows him as a secret Muslim would be rightfully ridiculed, though I’m sure a certain segment of the population would embrace it. (But let’s not give Dinesh D’Souza any ideas.)
- When it comes to the subject of Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, everyone can agree Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL and a sniper who served four tours in Iraq. Anything beyond that is a matter of opinion. The movie is based on Kyle's autobiography, in which he's described as a "legend" and the most lethal sniper in the history of the American military. Whether the stories told by Kyle were true or tall tales was the subject of much controversy. Also, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall present a much kinder depiction of Kyle which many find at odds with Kyle's public persona—with Kyle described by some as an "American psycho" and a "hate-filled killer"—and invent situations that did not happen in Iraq to create tension and obstacles for Kyle to overcome in the film's climax. The film uses those elements to create a nuanced view of Kyle and the effects of war. Where Kyle argued the righteousness of his actions and the policy that those actions supported, Eastwood and Hall argue that it took a toll on Kyle that he either couldn't recognize or wouldn't acknowledge.
- Ava DuVernay's Selma engendered a lot of controversy over its depiction of the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. At issue is whether the depiction of President Lyndon Johnson is so at odds with history as to be a malicious lie. Selma was one of the first major motion pictures with King as its central figure, and it was lauded by critics. The production's accomplishment becomes even more interesting when you find out that the filmmakers couldn't use any of King’s actual speeches in the film because the rights to them had been licensed to Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks. But the use of LBJ in Selma raised hackles from historians and former aides of the president. The film either presents Johnson as dragging his feet on civil rights, performing actions to impede King, or erases the historical record between LBJ and King. The most contentious and controversial event in the movie is a scene in which it's strongly suggested that Johnson ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send secretly recorded tapes of MLK's infidelity to Coretta Scott King. There is no evidence Johnson ever did anything of the sort, and MLK's own words don't agree with the movie's view of Johnson. For her part, DuVernay stated that she was not going to argue about history, but wishes the film wouldn't be reduced to just its depiction of President Johnson. When the controversy was at full force, others claimed there was a tinge of sexism and racism against a black female director, and the backlash against the film was motivated by its portrayal of black characters at the center of their own struggle and not being helped by a "great white father."
From Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times:
The criticism of the film’s depiction of the president has come not just from Johnson loyalists, but from some historians who said they admired other aspects of the film. “Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” said in an interview.
“But with the portrayal of L.B.J.,” she continued, “I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”
- Dallas Buyers Club was critically lauded, earned Jared Leto a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Matthew McConaughey a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Ron Woodruff. As a movie, the story captures the stigma of HIV/AIDS, the attitudes towards the LGBTQ community within that stigma during the particular point in history, and the desperation of people who had few options. However, there were some questions about the historical accuracy of the characterization of Woodruff, and the way the antiviral drug AZT (azidothymidine) is portrayed. The film makes a point of showing Woodruff as a straight man who’s “as racist and homophobic as they come,” with part of the character’s growth coming from how his attitudes change over time because of his experiences. But people who knew Woodruff claim to have never experienced any homophobia, and state he was openly bisexual. Moreover, beyond a final title card at the end of the movie explaining its effectiveness, Dallas Buyers Club gives an pretty negative impression of AZT, while simultaneously playing up drug alternatives offered by Woodruff which were either found to be not effective at all or had a history of being linked to deaths during drug trials.
- Clint Eastwood was accused of playing fast and loose with history again over Sully, which dramatized the investigation of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River and its effects on Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks). The main conflict of the film entails Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) having to defend against doubts and second-guessing by antagonistic National Transit Safety Board (NTSB) investigators. In real life, the NTSB supported Sullenberger’s decision at almost every step of the process, which even Sullenberger states as being true in his own 2009 memoir, Highest Duty, which Sully is supposed to be based on. In the film, the NTSB accuses Sullenberger and Skiles of making the wrong choice to ditch in the river after initial simulations show a return to the airport was highly possible. In reality, the simulations showed the exact opposite. The NTSB complained about being turned into a villain for the film, and investigator Robert Benzon accused the film of hurting his reputation, comparing the events depicted as being about as accurate as somewhere between Sharknado 2 and Sharknado 3.
From Christine Negroni at The New York Times:
There is no question that the film’s version of the inquiry veers from the official record in both tone and substance, and depicts the investigators as departing from standard protocol in airline accident inquiries. The N.T.S.B. released a statement saying the agency regretted that the filmmakers had not asked them to review the movie for accuracy.
Moviegoers are led to the conclusion that the N.T.S.B. team was prosecutorial and closed-minded and that, without guidance from Captain Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks, the facts of what happened that afternoon might never have been known.
“We weren’t out to hose the crew,” Mr. Benzon said. “There were no rubber hoses being brought out, no bright lights,” he said after being told of the confrontational nature of the scenes between the pilots and the investigators. “Sully is worried about his reputation, but this movie isn’t helping mine.”
- The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, came under criticism for how it changes events in the life of computer scientist Alan Turing. The film is based on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, but takes liberties in how it depicts Turing's sexuality, social awkwardness, and even the nature of his work in cryptography. Hodges himself objected to the film exaggerating aspects of Turing's love affair with a woman (Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley) and inventing out of whole cloth a relationship with another historical figure. Others have praised the film's message, while acknowledging the changes as necessary for the format of a film.
- Wrestler Mark Schultz posted a series of angry tweets against Foxcatcher because the film hints there might have been a sexual relationship between Schultz (played by Channing Tatum) and John du Pont (Steve Carell). Schultz called the film "a sick and insulting lie," among other things including at one point threatening to kill director Bennett Miller. About six months later, Schultz recanted his previous comments and claimed he had been “temporarily insane,” calling Foxcatcher a “miracle” which would “help wrestling.” But two months after that he was unhappy again.
Angelina Jolie's Unbroken is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Several critics have complained the film is "watered down" and fails to convey the extent of horror and torture Zamperini faced at the hands of the Japanese as a prisoner of war. The movie also leaves out a significant piece of the book, namely Zamperini's religious conversion after the war and forgiveness of his Japanese captors. Those events are reduced to an on-screen text epilogue at the end of the film.
The 1946 film Night and Day is a biopic of composer and songwriter Cole Porter’s life starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith, which fashions his story of writing over 800 songs as being based in a love affair between Porter and his wife Linda Lee Porter. While it is correct the couple were married for 35 years, the depiction of their relationship wasn’t even believed at the time it was released, including by Porter who after reading the script is quoted as saying: “None of it’s true.” However, whether Porter was bothered by this front presented to the world has to be understood in the context of him being a closeted gay man. From all accounts he had great affection for Linda Lee, and in its own way was a loving relationship. But it was not a love affair in the way the film depicts. According to at least one biography of the man, Porter had a “ferocious sexual appetite” which he sought to satisfy in “casual encounters with sailors, truck drivers and male prostitutes.”
- The Egyptian and Moroccan governments decided to ban Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings for historical inaccuracy and for presenting a "Zionist view." Egypt has previously banned Darren Aronofsky's Noah and DreamWork's Prince of Egypt. Egypt is not a big fan of movie portrayals of the Old Testament. Scott's Exodus also stirred controversy for the decision to cast white actors in an ancient Egyptian setting. Scott defended the decision as a matter of economics, saying a non-white cast wouldn't get financing. Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox financed Exodus, threw more fuel on the fire by claiming the casting decision was correct because Egyptians are white.
- Pocahontas is the 33rd film in the Disney animated canon. To say the film is not based on actual history would be the same as acknowledging water is wet. However, the film has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes about Native Americans. Beyond the lack of helpful forest animals and talking trees during song-and-dance numbers, many historians doubt Englishman John Smith's story of being saved by Pocahontas (also known by the names Matoaka and Amonute). There wasn't a romance between her and Smith. And even if one accepts Smith's tale as gospel, Pocahontas was around 11-years-old during their encounter. Disney has never claimed the film represents historical fact, but is a story "based on the fable and folklore that surround" the legend of Pocahontas, with the Disney iteration of Pocahontas being considered one of their “princesses.”
- The Oscar hopes of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty were believed to have taken a hit because of the controversy surrounding the film's portrayal of torture and its use in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film was denounced as endorsing torture by some—including Senator John McCain—while others, like director Michael Moore, praised the movie for depicting the brutality of torture as it existed.
- Steven Spielberg's Lincoln ran into arguments similar to the ones that surround Selma. Some critics and historians objected to the lack of black voices, such as Frederick Douglass, in the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Furthermore, it was claimed the film presented an outmoded vision of history with a great white man as savior.
- The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a scathing column castigating The King's Speech as a well-made "falsification of history" which invests in the British royal family's "post-fabricated myth of its participation in 'Britain's finest hour.'" Hitchens’s criticism was largely based around the film side-stepping and outright changing some of the issues and positions of the historical figures surrounding Britain’s Nazi appeasement policy and how it related to Edward VIII. King George VI was not a fan of Winston Churchill, who in fact supported Edward VIII in his attempt to marry Wallis Simpson. Both Edward VIII and Simpson have long been suspected of being Nazi sympathizers, with arguments about Edward VIII’s abdication speculating his Nazi ties may have had more to do with being forced from the throne than marrying a divorced woman. Also, George VI and the Queen Mother strongly supported Neville Chamberlin’s appeasement policy, which had the popular sentiment given memories of World War I were still fresh.
- Michael Bay made a movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer was quoted saying: "We tried to be accurate, but it's certainly not meant to be a history lesson." And true to Bruckheimer’s word, the film has many elements which deviate pretty far from the truth. There are anachronistic elements of modern military equipment which hadn’t been invented yet appearing in the film. No actual historical member of the United States military was present at and took part in the Battle of Britain, flew defense during the Pearl Harbor attack, AND took part in the Doolittle Raid. And there are also events and depictions of actions by real historical figures which never happened. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt are both shown saying and doing things there’s no record of. There is no evidence Yamamoto’s quote of fearing Japan has “awakened a sleeping giant” through attacking Pearl Harbor ever occurred, and its origin may be from another movie (1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!). Also, the attacking Japanese planes are shown flying over a little league baseball game on their way to Honolulu. But the attack occurred at 7 in the morning.
- David Fincher's The Social Network was knocked for some of the deviations taken in telling Mark Zuckerberg's story. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay posits the creation of Facebook as the result of Zuckerberg's rejection by a woman and inability to have friends. The ultimate irony is that a man who created a social network that's connected billions of "friends" has none of his own. However, Zuckerberg and others have denied the characterization and dispute the film represents anything near the reality of what actually happened. However, Sorkin won an Oscar for his work, and has stated in interviews that his fidelity was not to the truth, but to the story.
Mark Zuckerberg: Where do you wanna start? I mean, I don’t know. It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right. Like every single fleece and shirt I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own. You know, so there’s all this stuff that they got wrong, and a bunch of random details that they got right. The thing that I think is actually most thematically interesting that they got wrong is—the whole framing of the movie, kind of the way that it starts is, I’m with this girl who doesn’t exist in real life, who dumps me, which has happened to me in real life, a lot—and basically to frame it as if the whole reason for making Facebook and building something was because I wanted to get girls or wanted to get into some sort of social institution. And the reality for people who know me is that I’ve actually been dating the same girl since before I started Facebook, so obviously that’s not a part of it. But I think it’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley—building stuff. They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.
- U-571 caused an international incident, with then Prime Minister Tony Blair complaining the film was an “affront” to British sailors. The movie depicts the capture of a German Enigma cipher machine by the United States Navy during a daring raid of a U-boat by the USS S-33. The reality is the Enigma was captured by the crew of the HMS Bulldog in 1941. The real U-571 and USS S-33 were never even in the same oceans during the war.
- Stonewall, directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Jon Robin Baitz, plays like an Afterschool Special made by people who went with the worst creative decisions at every step in the process. The film inserts fictionalized characters around the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riots, a seminal moment for the LGBTQ community. When the first trailer for the movie appeared online, Stonewall became controversial for inserting a white protagonist, Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), as a central figure in the event, instead of a character based on the real-life transgender women, lesbians, and drag queens of color which were present during the riots at significant moments. Emmerich didn't help things by stating it was an intentional decision in order to have a character straight audiences can sympathize with and root for. This led to calls to boycott the movie on the grounds it's "whitewashed propaganda.”
- Best Picture winner Braveheart plays very fast and loose with the history of William Wallace. There is no evidence jus primae noctis—the right of a nobleman to take the virginity of serf maidens within his lands—was ever asserted by nobility, or that King Edward I (Longshanks) ever had a plan to breed Scots out of Scotland. King Edward II may or may not have been gay, and had at least one illegitimate child. Isabella of France was 9 years old when Wallace was killed, and was definitely not carrying Wallace's illegitimate child. At the Battle of Stirling Bridge, there actually was a bridge present during the fight, unlike what's seen in the movie. Also, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace never met, and Bruce never betrayed Wallace. Mel Gibson acknowledged all of these changes from history, but defended them in the name of dramatic license.