10 Movies Only Sort-Of Based on True Stories

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On August 28, 2003, a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells walked into the PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania with a bomb strapped to his chest. It was placed there by a pair of criminals who told Welles that if he did not acquire $250,000 from the bank, the bomb would detonate. Forty minutes later, Welles was apprehended by police; he frantically explained his predicament and begged the officers on scene for help. Twenty minutes later, the device exploded, blowing a softball-sized hole into Welles’s chest that killed him.

Hilarious, eh?

The writers of 30 Minutes or Less (which hits theaters tomorrow) apparently thought so, since they took the broad strokes of Wells’s strange story and turned it, improbably enough, into an ‘80s-style chase-heavy buddy summer action comedy. Sure, the names have been changed, as have a few of the details—for example, though 30 Minutes protagonist Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is an ignorant victim, a subsequent investigation in the real case revealed that Wells was involved in the planning of the scheme, though he thought the bomb would be a phony (family members maintain his innocence). And—spoiler alert—they obviously changed the ending, since a softball-sized hole in Jesse Eisenberg is not exactly the cheeriest capper for your summer laugh riot. But the similarities between 30 Minutes and the Wells case, particularly in the details of the motive for the crime, are extensive (Movieline’s Jen Yamato provides a comprehensive rundown); nonetheless, Sony reps insist that though the writers were “vaguely familiar with what had occurred,” (vaguely!) “neither the filmmakers nor the stars of 30 Minutes or Less were aware of this crime prior to their involvement in the film.” Riiiight. Ain’t coincidences crazy?

Whatever the outcome of the controversy, and however you feel about 30 Minutes trying to spin a dead pizza guy into comic gold, it certainly doesn’t mark the first time that Hollywood has taken certain, shall we say, creative liberties with real life. We could fill the entirety of Flavorwire with instances of historical inaccuracies in the cinema; in the interest of brevity, we’ve instead selected ten particularly noteworthy cases of films that egregiously blurred the line between fact and fiction.

The Social Network

The David Fincher-helmed Facebook origin story was one of last year’s most critically acclaimed films, with much of the accolades bestowed upon Aaron Sorkin’s witty, literate, screwball-snappy screenplay. It won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, though it might have been more appropriately placed in the Best Original Screenplay category, since it was (as most know by now) basically a work of fiction. There were numerous alterations to the real story in Sorkin’s script; its primary fabrication is the importance of girlfriend Erica Albright, whose dismissal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launches that story and whose approval serves as the “Rosebud” for Fincher’s digital-era Citizen Kane. In reality, Zuckerberg has been with current girlfriend Priscilla Chan since before the launch of thefacebook. At the time of the film’s release, in an interview with New York magazine, Sorkin defended his choices: “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling,” and later asked, “what is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”

Cadillac Records/Who Do You Love

Darnell Martin’s 2008 film is a compelling and marvelously-acted dramatization of the rise of the legendary Chicago blues-and-soul company, Chess Records. It also leaves out one minor detail about the company and its beginnings. The picture focuses on Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), the Jewish founder of the label, and his interactions with his African-American recording artists, including Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Where it comes up short is in his relationship with his brother, Phil Chess, who started the label with him and co-owned it throughout those glory years. But Phil is barely mentioned in Cadillac Records, which places Leonard front and center in the story.

Strangely, the Chess Records legend begat another motion picture the same year; that film, Who Do You Love, covered much of the same territory, but with much more focus on the dynamic between the two Chess brothers. So hey, they got that right. But Who Do You Love has an oddity of its own: while, as in Cadillac Records, many of the musicians from the label appear as characters in the film, Etta James is conspicuously absent. Instead, the film gives us a fictional James stand-in, one “Ivy Mills,” and the juxtaposition is peculiar; here we’ve all of these other characters using the real names, but then there’s this thin beauty singing “At Last” and jonesing for smack who isn’t Etta James. Then again, Ivy Mills also meets with a decidedly different fate than Miss James—one that is a cleaner fit with the conventional Hollywood narrative of his biopic.

The Cat’s Meow

The 1924 murder of silent movie mogul Thomas H. Ince is one of Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved mysteries. It followed a brief stay on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, a voyage shared with such luminaries as Charles Chaplin, newspaper columnist Louella Parsons, and Hearst’s longtime mistress, screen actress Marion Davies. The official story was that Ince fell ill on board and was transported via water taxi to a train and then to his Hollywood home, where he died of a heart attack. But the suspicious circumstances of his death, and the multiple conflicting stories of those onboard (as well as Ince’s quick cremation) led to rumors of foul play onboard. Peter Bogdanovich’s 2001 film The Cat’s Meow dramatized the most popular of those theories: that the wildly jealous Hearst, believing he was catching Davies fooling around with Chaplin, mistook Ince for the silent film star and shot him in the back of the head. The film makes a persuasive case, though there’s no way to confirm whether the events portrayed in The Cat’s Meow are fact or a fanciful fiction.

JFK

Oliver Stone’s 1991 docudrama utilized — effectively, it must be said — New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s prosecution of accused Kennedy assassination conspirator Clay Shaw as a framing device for a wide array of questions, theories, and lingering doubts about the Warren Report-sanctioned “official version” of JFK’s murder. The picture comes to a head with the devastating sequence (running over 30 minutes) of Garrison’s closing argument, in which he decimates that official version and posits his theory of “what really happened,” persuasively intercut with archival and reenactment footage. Yet, Garrison does not convict Shaw. Man, thought this viewer, on first viewing of the picture way back in 1991, how could he have lost if he gave that amazing closing summation? Ha, ha, maybe he wouldn’t have, because he didn’t deliver it. Though Garrison himself gave a brief closing summary (some of which made it into the film version’s final, Capraesque speech), he turned most of it over to his fellow prosecutors, with decidedly less dramatic results.

Mississippi Burning

Perhaps the most visceral scene in Alan Parker’s 1988 dramatization of the FBI’s investigation into the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers comes at about the midway point. A no-good rural mayor is kidnapped and taken to an isolated shack, where he is intimidated by an African-American FBI operative (Badja Djola) into divulging information about the murders. One problem: As Howard Zinn (and many others) pointed out, there were no black FBI agents in 1964. It’s one of the many problems posed by the picture, which is both a powerful mediation on a particular time and place (as Roger Ebert wrote, “No other movie I’ve seen captures so forcefully the look, the feel, the very smell, of racism”) and a gross whitewashing of the Hoover-era FBI, which anyone with any interest in the subject knows was no friend of the civil rights movement.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Tobe Hooper’s terrifying 1974 horror classic begins with an opening crawl, voiced by then-unknown John Larroquette: “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths… The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” That solemn opening, giving the impression that the events to follow are based entirely on a real story, casts a documentary realism over the rest of the picture, heightened by Hooper’s low-budget, almost snuff-film-level cinematography. It’s not true, of course; the film was inspired not by a real family of Texas chain saw killers, but by Hooper’s visit to the hardware section of a Montgomery Ward’s. The closest thing to fact in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the appropriation of a few elements of the notoriously grisly Ed Gein case (which also inspired films from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs), though the film’s publicity materials have long claimed that it is “based on a true incident,” and the 2003 remake trumpeted in trailers that it was “inspired by a true story.”

Fargo

“This is a true story,” reads the opening text of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 black comedy Fargo. “The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Except it wasn’t, because the Coens made the whole thing up, from that disclaimer forward. There was no case even remotely resembling Fargo in Minnesota (or anywhere else), not in 1987, or before, or since. But that didn’t stop most of the film’s reviews from breathlessly calling it a true story. Guess they didn’t stick around for the closing credits, which include the standard verbage: “All characters and events in this film are fictitious. Any similarity to actual events or persons, living, dead, or undead, is purely coincidental.”

Titanic and Pearl Harbor

Both James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster and Michael Bay’s watered-down 2001 rip-off are based on actual tragedies, and go to great lengths, in their storytelling and their recreations, to get the details of those tragedies right. What neither film does is focus its narrative on actual people who were there; the stories of Jack, Rose, and Cal and of Rafe, Danny, and Evelyn were manufactured out of whole cloth. And that’s probably for the best—after all, there couldn’t possibly have been any compelling true stories among the victims and survivors of those events. Better to just make up some love triangles, amIright?