7 Movies Based On A True Story (That Are Full Of It)
When a movie uses the words "inspired by a true story," a lot of times they actually mean "sorta resembling something the screenwriter half-heard while snorting coke." We've established that pretty well by now. When it's a biographical movie, though, we assume they'll at least make sure to respect the spirit of the real person's life story -- otherwise, why bother?
And yet the following biopics have as much in common with the true events they depict as Zardoz does with the Vietnam War, often to the annoyance of the people being "honored."
Argo -- The Finale Is the Opposite of What Happened
Argo depicts the CIA's insane scheme to secretly rescue six Americans in Iran during the hostage crisis in the late '70s (which we told you about a year before Hollywood did). The plan called for CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to fly over to Iran, dress everyone up in silly outfits, and say they were a movie company scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff in Tehran. In the gripping final scene, the Iranian guards at the airport find out the Americans' true identities just as they're about to leave and literally chase the plane down the runway with AK-47s.
"Stop them! They have 200 milliliters of toothpaaaaste!"
Things look hairy for a moment there, but the plane manages to take off just as the guards are about to get in front of it, and the Americans are free. USA! USA!
Actually, that should be: "CANADA! CANADA!" The movie makes it seem like it was all the CIA's idea, but Canada was responsible for at least 90 percent of the operation, and that's according to President Jimmy Carter. Ken Taylor, the Canadian diplomat who risked his neck by hiding the Americans and going out to gather intelligence, called the CIA a "junior partner" in the rescue.
"... for politely shutting up as we steal all the credit."
Also, that tense scene at the airport? Never happened. According to Mendez, the escape went off "without a hitch." In the movie, the CIA calls off the mission at the last minute and cancels the plane tickets, presumably because Affleck accidentally slipped into a Boston accent. In reality, Canada responsibly bought the plane tickets well ahead of time, and the group just walked through the airport and left with their fake storyboards and real '70s mustaches.
Apparently the fake movie was half sci-fi, half porno.
At a Toronto screening, Affleck got so much heat for the oversight that he went "Oh, right" and changed the movie's post-credits text to acknowledge Canada's contribution. Apparently he'd never noticed that the mission he was recreating was nicknamed "The Canadian Caper."
Catch Me If You Can -- Frank's Father Was Honest, Tom Hanks' Character Wasn't Real
In the title that inaugurated the "Leonardo DiCaprio is a dick with money" genre of movies, Leo plays Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenage con artist who successfully impersonated doctors, lawyers, and pilots in the 1960s. According to the movie, it all began when his mom divorced his shady-as-hell dad, prompting Frank Jr. to run away from home and start pulling scams to survive. Eventually Abagnale is caught in France by the agent who chased him for years (played by Tom Hanks), but not before he steals millions of dollars and bangs a small country's worth of beautiful women by age 19.
That last part required DiCaprio to really flex his acting muscles.
In his biography, Abagnale says that if he wanted to "lay down a baby con," he would lie about his childhood. Well, that's exactly what the movie did. All the stuff about Abagnale's dad being a hustler is made up -- the real Frank Sr. was not only a straight shooter, but also one of Frank Jr.'s first victims, since the kid started his criminal life with petty scams involving his dad's credit card. He once racked up thousands on a spending spree before his dad got the bill. The man got screwed by his son, and then he got screwed again when he was played by the shadiest looking actor in Hollywood.
Abagnale objected to the casting choice because "zombies are so overdone."
As for the FBI agent Tom Hanks plays, he wasn't misrepresented in the movie because he didn't exist. Some FBI agents did occasionally chase Abagnale, but he didn't have a Batman/Joker relationship with any of them, and he certainly didn't call them every Christmas. As Abagnale himself points out with flawless logic: "Why would I do that? I didn't want the FBI to know where I was."
As for Abagnale's capture, represented in the movie as a tense standoff in a warehouse where Hanks manages to con the conman, it was somewhat less dramatic in real life: Someone saw Abagnale on a wanted poster and recognized him while he was shopping for groceries. That's it. There was no operation. He was buying milk.
Milk got its own inaccurate biopic in 2008.
The Butler -- The Butler's Insanely Tragic Family Life Is Made Up
The Butler is the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen (renamed "Cecil" in the movie for some reason), who worked under eight white presidents before finally meeting the first black one. Born on a plantation, Allen proceeds to Forrest Gump his way through historical moments like the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, and that one time Lyndon Johnson whipped out his huge dick and dropped it right on the table.
Or that time Eisenhower went on a wacky 45-minute monologue in faux German.
Right from the beginning, the movie gets to work on making Eugene/Cecil's life as miserable as possible: As a kid, his father gets murdered and his mother gets raped. Sure, that's some heavy shit to drop in the first 15 minutes, but how could they leave it out if it really happened? Only of course it didn't -- the filmmakers threw that in to, you know, spice things up a bit.
What about Allen's son dying in Vietnam, and his other son joining the Black Panthers? Nope and nope. He had one son who went to Vietnam, but he totally survived and went on to work for the State Department, which as far as we know isn't a wing of any revolutionary organizations. In the movie, his drunken wife (played by a possibly-not-acting Oprah) deals with her alcoholism by having an affair, but that's complete hogwash too. We're guessing the screenwriters added the drunkenness/adultery combo so they could cross off two items in their "tragic biopic shit" bingo.
In a deleted scene, her abusive closeted brother/lover gives her a miscarriage, resulting in cancerAIDS for all involved.
To recap, that's four close family members treated brutally by the filmmakers just to give Eugenecil an excuse to get off his ass and get a job at the White House. Even the way he got that job is a ridiculously convoluted fabrication: He didn't get caught stealing cake from a hotel, get hired as a waiter, and later impress a White House administrator who happened to be there. He just applied for the job. Like a normal person.
Cool Runnings -- The Team Didn't Get Bullied or Make It to the Finals
Cool Runnings is a retelling of the story of the famous 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, who, against all odds, made it to the finals and crashed at the last second, prompting the invention of the slow clap.
And ushering in a fresh decade of dope fashion.
There really was a Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Olympics ... and that's about as far as the similarities go. First of all, the members were not failed sprinters who approached a disgraced gold medalist to train them; they were recruited from the army by American businessmen, who saw the Jamaicans playing around with pushcart street races and figured hurtling them down a giant ice slide at 100 miles per hour in a metal box was a logical next step. They held open tryouts, and when that wasn't enough, they turned to an army colonel who "donated" his helicopter pilot, apparently working off the logic that if you can drive one dangerous vehicle, you can drive any of them.
For the film, they made him a bathtub pilot.
The movie shows the other teams being openly hostile toward the Jamaicans, presumably out of jealousy for their awesome uniforms, but the real team felt nothing but support from the others. As Devon Harris, one of the real bobsledders, told the Guardian, "We didn't experience any animosity from other teams as depicted in the movie. One of the East Germans smiled at me and gave me a badge." Yes, an East German smiled. They should have made the movie about that.
Finally, the famous scene where they crash did sort of happen, but it wasn't the final race. It was during the qualifiers. They didn't even qualify for the first round. But what about the moment when the team carries the sled to the finish line, otherwise known as the whole point of the movie? Didn't happen: Some other dudes pushed it out as the team members got out of there as fast as possible.
"See ya. Don't wanna miss women's figure skating."
Oh, and the crash wasn't mechanical failure -- it was human error. But to be fair, you'd probably make a few human errors if, say, tomorrow the tourism board for your state volunteered you to play in the Super Bowl.
The Sound of Music -- The Father Was Kind, and Maria Had a Bad Temper
Georg von Trapp, a cold Austrian war hero who treats his children like they're his regiment, hires a nun nanny (a nunny?) named Maria to take care of his half-dozen devil-kids. Against Captain von Trapp's wishes, the cheerful Maria brings joy and music into the lives of the ungrateful little bastards. Pretty soon, the captain falls for Maria, and the whole family merrily skips over the Swiss Alps to escape the Nazis.
And the captain punched Hitler right in the jaw.
The movie portrays Captain von Trapp as an ogre who can't stand the thought of his children liking that newfangled hip-hop. The actual von Trapp children didn't appreciate this portrayal, since their father was a kind man who greatly enjoyed musical activities with his kids -- he even rocked the violin during family concerts. On the other hand, the real Maria wasn't quite as endearing as her onscreen persona. In a 2003 interview, one of the real von Trapp children confessed that she had a "terrible temper ... from one moment to the next, you didn't know what hit her."
Neither did little Gretl on the right, when Maria clocked her with the guitar.
And while the movie couple married right before the Nazis rolled in, the marriage actually occurred 10 years earlier, and, according to Maria, it was of convenience: "I really and truly was not in love ... I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children." What? Jesus, Maria, no. That's illegal.
Finally, the famous escape scene involves the entire family secretly trekking 300 miles on foot across the Swiss Alps to freedom, when in fact they literally just hopped on a train without any trouble. As one of the kids stated: "We did tell people that we were going to America to sing. And we did not climb over mountains with all our heavy suitcases and instruments. We left by train, pretending nothing."
It's just as well, since the hills out of town led straight into Germany.
Gangster Squad -- Mickey Cohen Was Caught for Tax Evasion, Not Murder
The gangster squad was a special unit created for the LAPD in the '40s that specialized in unorthodox (read: illegal as shit) police practices. The movie covers the formation of the squad and their attempts to take down famed real-life mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, borrowing some of Mickey Rourke's makeup from Sin City). In the end, the squad catches Cohen after a brutal fight and avenges the murder of the team's beloved wire tapper, Conwell Keeler.
Ah, wire tappers. The government's true unsung heroes.
If Keeler had really been strangled to death in the '40s, it would have made it a little difficult for a journalist to interview him in 2011. Not only did Con Keeler outlive Cohen, but he was one of the last surviving members of the original squad.
"Wait, they made me grow a pornstache for nothing?!" -Giovanni Ribisi, reading this article, right now.
But the biggest lie in the film involves the way Cohen was finally caught. The movie culminates in a giant shootout at his hotel in which dozens of gangsters are mowed down by Tommy guns in slow motion. The leader of the squad, Jack O'Mara (played by Josh Brolin), beats the crap out of Cohen and nabs his ass for murder on a one-way trip to Alcatraz, even slipping in a cool one-liner. In reality, there were no cool lines, because those are kinda hard to come up with when you're arresting someone for tax evasion.
The cops just dug through Cohen's trash incinerator, found some evidence, and confronted him about how he could afford to pay 50 grand to decorate his house, all while shooting zero bullets. Yes, it was his addiction to dick statues that finally did him in. Also, by the time Cohen went away for a really long time in 1961, O'Mara was retired, and he watched the trial as a civilian. We guess stumbling through burned garbage and reciting tax law didn't make for as climactic an ending.
Public Enemies -- They Actually Made the Gangsters Look Less Badass
While we're on the topic of gangsters, this Johnny Depp/Michael Mann vehicle brought us the story of famed bank robber John Dillinger and how, out of all the enemies of the public, they crowned him #1. There are also a bunch of other gangsters in there, but who cares -- they were all pussies compared to Dillinger anyway, right?
The plural in "Enemies" refers to Dillinger, his massive gun, and his other massive gun.
If by "pussies" you mean "relentless badasses," then yes, they were gigantic pussies. In a complete inversion of what happened in Gangster Squad, this movie made the gangsters less awesome than in real life, for some reason. You'd think the director of Heat would know better.
In the movie, the first public enemy to get gunned down by the FBI is "Pretty Boy" Floyd, but that's doing the man's reputation a great disservice: Floyd was a durable bastard who died three months after Dillinger. They also left out the fact that his funeral was the largest in Oklahoma history, attracting an estimated 20,000 people.
It was like Woodstock, but with less crime.
The next one to get a shitty deal is "Baby Face" Nelson. In the movie, the agents chase down Nelson during a raid of Dillinger's hideout and send him and a bunch of others to the county jail in the sky. In reality, this was Nelson's most famous escape, and every single criminal got away unharmed. Dillinger and Baby Face went on to rob more banks, and again, Nelson wasn't killed until after Dillinger.
By then, he was Tween Face Nelson.
Even Dillinger himself got toned down: We've mentioned before that he didn't fool three prison guards with a wooden gun; he fooled 17. It's like they took reality and decided to give it a more down-to-earth, gritty reboot. You know, to make it more realistic.
For more true stories you may not have known about, check out The 23 Most Surprising (True) Facts About Awful People.
Related Reading: Speaking of things that got reality wrong, no one can replicate the results from Super Size Me. We believe a lot of oddly specific lies about foreigners, like that some of them have sex through sheets. And if you believe the Romans were all about orgies, you've bought into another lie.