The five scariest words in cinema: "Based on a true story."
That familiar disclaimer is so ubiquitous as to be virtually invisible. But consider those five words more closely: At once grandiose and weaselly, full of both historical gravitas and mushy ambiguity, proclaiming both fact (it's a true story) and fiction (not so fast, we said "based on"), they elegantly, if inadvertently, distill the ethos of a movie industry that has always strived to have it both ways.
Whether it precedes a biographical film or a historical drama, "based on a true story" has come to convey several, often contradictory, ideas simultaneously to wary filmgoers: The events about to transpire on screen really happened, to the very people you're about to see, at the same time, and to the same end.
Except, of course, when they didn't happen and the people didn't exist and we scrambled the time frame and changed the ending. (Hey, we said "based on.") This is our story, we're sticking to it, and we've left the fact-checking to picky historians, outraged family members, alert critics and Wikipedia.
The stakes wouldn't be so high if movies weren't so effective. Because the cinema -- with its outsize scale, sensory immersion and heightened realism -- tends to colonize our imaginations so completely, biographical and historical dramas are graded on a higher curve than any other genres.
Consider "American Gangster." A hit at the box office and with critics, it's been hailed as an epic crime drama that tells the story of real-life Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his Javert, N.J., prosecutor Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) with equal parts style and soaring ambition. But nothing gold can stay: Roberts, who with Lucas served as a consultant on Ridley Scott's film, has complained that Scott punched up his personal story to make him less sympathetic (abandoning children he never had, for example). And several critics have excoriated the film for burnishing Lucas' image, making him out to be an upright, churchgoing family man with a romantic, outlaw shadow life.
Then there's "I'm Not There," Todd Haynes' biopic about Bob Dylan that stars Cate Blanchett -- along with five other actors -- as one of several Dylan personas. Less a biopic than a fever dream of impressions, digressions and speculations, "I'm Not There" is preceded by the disclaimer, "Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan."
And so it goes. We love our biopics, sometimes we hate our biopics, but one thing's for certain: We desperately need our biopics. Since Thomas Edison's 1895 "The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots," film has been the favored vector for creating a usable past, from "Young Mr. Lincoln" to "Walk the Line." Biopics have told a nation who our heroes are, what deserves to be remembered, what counts as history. They tell us who we are. And precisely because movies are such a potent form of forging historical consensus, not only are they expected to hew to particular aesthetic standards but factual standards as well.
The poster boy for operating a camera with too much artistic license, of course, is Oliver Stone, whose 1991 film "JFK" still stands as its era's master narrative of postmodern historical revisionism, breathing life into a grand unified conspiracy theory and sending viewers down a hallucinatory double helix of baby boomer paranoia and nostalgia. (The outrage of "JFK's" detractors was mirrored three years earlier by critics of "Mississippi Burning," which sinned in both erasing African Americans and elevating white FBI agents in the civil rights story.)
"JFK" is still driving fact checkers crazy, but no fact-based movie can be released now without the requisite push back from a truth squad, usually composed of academic historians, geeked-out buffs or, most commonly, outraged friends and family members.
Just this summer, the family of Ralph "Petey" Greene announced their displeasure with "Talk to Me," in which Don Cheadle portrayed the late Washington disc jockey. The movie, they said, misrepresented Greene as an alcoholic womanizer, and it mischaracterized his relationship with radio executive Dewey Hughes.
For her part, "Talk to Me's" director, Kasi Lemmons, said she intentionally stayed away from reading Greene's biography, for both legal and artistic reasons. "I thought I might get distracted with too much reality," she said when the movie came out. "And I wanted a movie, not a biopic."
In defending her decision to stray from the literal facts, Lemmons reveals myriad truths about the perils of making -- and watching -- a fact-based drama, perils that are both philosophical and aesthetic. What are the ethics of portraying actual lives and historical events on screen? (And do movies, with their uniquely potent ability to burrow into the collective consciousness, have an added obligation to the factual record?)