It’s the job of those fantastic people who make movies to entertain us with captivating stories; whether fantasy, fact or somewhere in between. But whether we realise it or not - and we movie geeks probably should - in doing so the good people of Hollywood have a huge impact on how we see the world. Movies can shape fashion, culture, and our interests and aspirations.
Movies can also affect our perceptions of history, and of real people past and present. With a recent slew of movies such as ‘The Revenant’, ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ and ‘Legend’ inspired by real people and events, maybe it’s time to look at the grey area between fact and fiction, and whether we can tell the difference between artistic license and historical accuracy.
Take the movie ‘Braveheart’ for example – a fantastic movie, but about as historically accurate as ‘Inglorious Bastards’. And that’s the crux of the problem, we all know ‘Inglorious Bastards’ is fiction that uses some real historical figures, but how many people knew when 'Braveheart' was released that Robert the Bruce, a villain in the movie, was actually the hero who earned the nickname Braveheart? Not Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace.
As with ‘Braveheart’, artistic license can completely change the nature of a story. This is demonstrated brilliantly in the contrast between ‘Rob the Mob’, and the more recent ‘The Wannabe’.
These movies have something in common - aside from the fact that the male lead in both movies has previously starred in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ - they’re both loosely based on the exploits of real people: Tommy and Rosemarie Uva.
In essence, the plot of both movies is the same: in New York during the 1992 trial of mob boss John Gotti, two ex-junky, ex-cons fall madly in love, and after a brief period of going straight, start holding up mob owned businesses with an Uzi. They have some success, but ultimately, it ends in inevitable tragedy.
So why is the story completely different? Well, the endings differ because nobody knows exactly what happened, and there are different theories that the movies draw from. However, we see a very different version of events long before the final scenes, due to the differing mind-set and motivations of the characters. In ‘Rob the Mob’, Michael Pitt’s Tommy is a determined, fairly level-headed young man who would probably ‘go straight’ if he felt it was a viable option; he hates the mob and has dreams of eventually leaving a life of crime behind. In contrast Vincent Piazza’s Tommy in ‘The Wannabe’ is a dangerously unstable, hopeless drug-addict; he’s delusional and idealises mobsters.
There’s the rose tint of Hollywood charm in the ‘Rob the Mob’ version of events, the characters seem more honourable, and the situations less desperate. In contrast, ‘The Wannabe’ takes such a sombre, indie tone it’s hard to believe that such weak, desperate and delusional characters could ever exist in real life.
The truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in between. Much will have been altered for the purpose of dramatization in both films, besides, the story requires speculation to fill in the gaps. In any case, the story of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva is hardly of such great importance that everyone should know the truth of it, but these two movies can serve to remind us of how portrayal of the same people and same basic facts can shape our perceptions so differently.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter if movies based on real people and events are accurate, as long as they’re entertaining, and perhaps that’s true. But whether we realise it or not, it does impact how we see the world, and it wouldn’t hurt to take an extra pinch of salt with the next ‘based on actual events’ story Hollywood throws at us.