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Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies Paperback – February 1, 2005
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"When legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Director John Ford's quote prefaces Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies, a book that digs into the facts behind 100 movies that were--supposedly--based on true events including popular fare as Hoosiers, Ed Wood, Seabiscuit, and Erin Brokovich. Previous books of this lineage were usually written by historians who looked at every foible of a film. Here, authors Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen come from a more movie-centric position. They know filmmakers must telescope events, create composite characters, and give the Hollywood treatment to other elements to simply be produced and enjoyed. They are movie fans who can praise The French Connection as a grand film with terrific action sequences, but note the true events were far less visceral (leading to the book title's asterisk "but with more car crashes"). More modern films are examined in these 3-5 page segments with excellent further reading notes including Web sites. The authors also question how truthful a film should be, even great films, praising the accuracy of Ghandi and GoodFellas and delivering harsh blows to Monster, Braveheart, and A Beautiful Mind. Besides the usual chapters of factual films (war, sports, biopics), they also search out films "based" on paranormal incidents that can't keep the "facts" straight. Mentioned often, and placed at the end of the book, is Oliver Stone's JFK, the movie that "gave birth to this book." In one sense, the film "must be the most fact-heavy film in Hollywood history" but the sources materials are so questionable. Perhaps Stone realizes the power of Ford's quote better than any other Hollywood filmmaker. --Doug Thomas
From Publishers Weekly
Films that purportedly document real-life events have a special allure for moviegoers, posit journalists Vankin and Whalen, which is why the phrase "based on a true story" is so prevalent in movie promos. But the term is loose and poorly defined, and in this highly entertaining dissection, the authors examine 100 films, detailing what about them is really true and what's simply a story. Wittily working their way through most of the well-known "true" films of the last four decades—Adaptation, Catch Me If You Can, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Amityville Horror, etc.—Vankin and Whalen categorize movies by type (e.g., crime thrillers, war movies, sports films). Sometimes, what's on the screen diverges wildly from known history, as in the case of Braveheart, and Vankin and Whalen may be overwhelmed by the differences between truth and fiction. Less often, a film really does provide a mirror, like Coal Miner's Daughter, which left only more subtle details of Loretta Lynn's life for the authors to explore. Most of the movies, though, fall between the extremes, including enough fact to warrant the "based on a true story" tag, but not accurate enough to be completely true. Not surprisingly, readers who've actually seen these films stand to get the most out of Vankin and Whalen's often picky but always jaunty analyses. 110 b&w photos. (Feb.)
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The authors take a collection of films based either on history or on some real-life event (a crime or scandal, for instance) and purport to get at the facts behind the Hollywood glamor. And in some instances they do so successfully. Their analysis of "Monster," for instance (for which Charlize Theron won an Oscar) effectively breaks down the movie's misty-eyed view of what was, in truth, a tawdry and foul serial killer.
But too often, especially in their chapters on history films, the authors are more intent on editorializing than analyzing. True enough, they point out factual errors (in some cases better than Roquemore in his own book) but just as Roquemore had a right-leaning perspective, Vankin and Whalen show a left-leaning one that leads them to sarcastic dismissals of what they deem conservative films, while simultaneously giving enormous leeway to some of the goofball fantasies by the likes of Oliver Stone.
Apart from this, the book's tone is off-putting. For supposed professionals, Vankin and Whalen are remarkably snarky, and sometimes profane. Religion and, in fact, good intentions generally are brought up mainly to serve as objects of ridicule. The authors seem to labor under the sophomoric belief that a hip cynicism is sophisticated, when in reality they come across as a couple of high schoolers trying desperately to be cool. More than anything, this undercuts the more worthy elements of their book.
"Based on a true Story" does not make you change your opinion of a movie. When I saw "Shakespeare in Love," I fell in love with Gwyneth Paltrow and enjoyed the conjecture of her being Shakespeare's muse. Finding out that the story is impossibly wrong doesn't change that. Similarly, "Raging Bull" made me appreciate the veracity of a boxer. The fact that Jake LaMotta testified to the movie's fidelity in an interview simply made me wonder how the guy never ended up behind bars, but didn't diminish "Raging Bull". A good movie resonates and makes me want to learn more about what I just saw. I enjoy being taken away also but I also enjoy a re-entry into everyday life. Once the mesmerization is over, there are some special movies that I simply want to hear more about the story behind the story. For that reason, I enjoyed this book. There is no need to read the book in order. "Based on a true Story" is set up like a reference book - you can jump around at will - but reads like a conversation with the authors; Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen. If you enjoy movies, then this book is probably for you. Vankin and Whalen did the research on the story behind the story. They help the reader recognize the intricacies and staggering detail that motion picture filmmaking requires and how sometimes the creative interpretation of true events leads to a more colorful story.