Features Should biopics like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Green Book’ be accurate?
What kind of accuracy do you expect from movies based on real people or events?
Maybe a better question might be: What kind of accuracy do you want? And are you willing to swallow a few falsehoods in the name of good entertainment?
Unlike documentaries, narrative features based on true-life stories tend to occupy this nebulous middle ground between fiction and nonfiction, where details and timelines become collapsed or murky. Side characters or entire moments are created out of whole cloth for the sake of story expediency.
For me, good biopics are shaped around facts rather than fudges. As a journalist, that’s something I think about all the time when I approach my own work: That it’s not only possible but vital to tell true stories in interesting and compelling ways, inconvenient details and all.
The rules aren’t the same when it comes to telling a cohesive story on screen, requiring different skills and nuanced decisions. Film is — and should be — an artistic expression. I want filmmakers to have the space to be creative and stray from the record to underscore certain ideas or themes.
I just don’t want to feel lied to by a movie.
Golden Globe winners “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book” have both been criticised for this and I think with good reason.
I won’t list all the discrepancies here; you can find numerous stories online that go into detail. But let’s talk about key elements from each film that depart from reality. In the case of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is about the band Queen and its charismatic front man Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), one aspect is the timing of Mercury’s HIV diagnosis.
Writing about movies for a living means thinking about what kinds of stories they tell, so I rang up some of my colleagues to get their take.
Here’s Kevin Fallon, the senior entertainment reporter for
“I understand when you’re distilling a person’s life into a twohour movie, there’s going to be the need to play with things a little bit in order to have a narrative chug along,” he said. “But what this movie does is falsify things in a way to manipulate an audience into a reaction and I find that gross.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” moves up Mercury’s diagnosis by two years to1985, which means the moment lands with an added intensity “to make it seem like it was the impetus for that performance of his career at Live Aid,” is how Fallon put it. “They changed the facts for purely dramatic reasons — to manipulate an emotional reaction from the audience — but that just wasn’t what happened. I think that it’s a very crass thing to do to Freddie Mercury’s legacy and the AIDS movement, honestly.”
That matters. Even if you think the movie is a good time and you love Malek’s performance.
“Green Book” may feature lesserknown subjects at its centre but it is also based on a true story. It follows the odd coupling of the elegant black pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the white meathead of a driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) that he hires as both chauffeur and bodyguard for a concert tour across the South in the early 1960s. Over the course of their two months on the road together, the brilliant but uptight Don Shirley learns to loosen up a little and connect with his blackness, while the uncouth Tony Lip learns not to be such a racist. And a lifelong friendship ensues.
The film was co-written by Peter Farrelly (who also directs), Brian Hayes Currie and Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, and their source material was drawn from the letters Tony wrote home during the tour, as well as tapes of Vallelonga talking with his father about the old days.
Though the film has been marketed as the true and definitive version of how these two men processed issues of race and racism in the United States, it’s filtered only through the prism of the Vallelonga family memories. (All three of the screenwriters are white.)
And many of us in the media have helped to solidify the movie’s marketing. Here’s magazine, for example: “According to Vallelonga, everything depicted in the film ‘Green Book’ happened in real life.”
The members of Shirley’s family feel otherwise and in a story reported by Shadow and Act have called the movie’s portrayal a “symphony of lies.” (They were not consulted with for the film.)
Here’s one criticism that stands out: Whatever impression Tony Lip or his son may have had about the men’s dynamic, Don Shirley himself did not consider his driver a close friend.
That doesn’t mean Shirley wasn’t perhaps friendly with his employee. But being friendly is altogether different than a deep and abiding personal friendship and it undercuts the story’s message. This is a movie with a moral to its story — and that moral is apparently false (not to mention reductive).
The critic Candice Frederick reviewed the movie for Slash Film and this is what she had to say about biopics and accuracy: “It’s definitely a case-by-case basis. And ‘Green Book’ is a very specific case. When you’re taking artistic license — which I don’t condemn -you have to make sure that you’re not simultaneously disparaging the character. And I think that’s what’s happening with ‘Green Book.’
“The film’s portrayal of Don Shirley isn’t a well-rounded depiction of a person, period. He’s so distant from his humanity, so distant from his blackness, he’s so distant from people that he becomes this alien character who is reflected through the eyes of a white person. Even without knowing anything about Don Shirley’s life, I was like, this can’t be — it didn’t seem plausible that this was all there was to him. So that’s when I’m like, where was the research? Who did you talk to?
“And if you read interviews with Peter Farrelly or Nick Vallelonga, they say the movie is about these two men who are very different and they overcome their differences to become lifelong friends. If that’s what they’re saying and that’s not true, then what are we doing?”