5 Problems With Movies About History (From A Few Years Ago)

If the craziness of 2016 has blocked out everything bad that came before, you might not remember all the details of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. To summarize, two bombs exploded at the finish line, killing three people and wounding 264 others. For the next four days, Boston and the surrounding area were basically shut down as thousands of police officers and FBI agents searched for the culprits, who were eventually-

Oh, sorry. Spoiler alert!

Google MapsTechnically, any map that still has Boston on it gives away the ending too.

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If you'd like to know all the horrific details of that tragic event, you're going to have to pay to watch it on the big screen like the rest of us. Patriots Day, the tale of the Boston Marathon bombing starring Mark "I could have stopped 9/11" Wahlberg is the latest in the new "documentaries are for nerds" genre, in which studios try to make quick buck by shooting the 9 o'clock news. It is far from the only film of its kind we've seen in the last decade. Reliving recent tragedies is suddenly hip in Hollywood. This needs to stop. Here's why.

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5
Making A Movie About An Ongoing Event Affects The Outcome Of That Event

We've told you before about the CSI effect, and how because of the show's highly inaccurate depiction of forensics, juries started expecting the prosecution to be able to prove someone was a murderer because of the unique type of mud on their killing boots. Their expectations were so outrageous that criminals were released because nobody bothered to show them a hair sample. But the glory days of CSI were several NCISs ago. These days, there is a new culprit: the true crime show.

NetflixHe's totally innocent, except for repeatedly stalking the murder victim, the multiple domestic abuse charges, and setting a cat on fire!

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Netflix's unbelievably popular Making A Murderer was fascinating to watch -- so much so that people seemed to forget that it was a piece of entertainment. And entertainment needs a good story and plotline. That might be why the filmmakers left out key details about the case, many of which made Steven Avery look guilty as sin. But viewers assumed they were being given all the information from an unbiased point of view and were sure they had witnessed a gross miscarriage of justice. Soon there were petitions asking President Obama to pardon Avery -- even though a president can only pardon federal prisoners and Avery was convicted by the state of Wisconsin. Similar shows and podcasts like HBO's The Jinx and NPR's Serial all contribute to the collective idea that prosecutors and the police can't be relied upon to get it right, and that the viewer is the one who can really figure out what happened. Because solving a real murder and guessing who the killer is three minutes before Columbo does are the same thing, right?

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And sometimes it's just waiting for them and their alibi to both run out of gas.

But at least in those cases, the trials had already happened. What about when movies come out and the case hasn't been closed yet? Unfortunately, we have proof of what effect they have because of the Chris Kyle case. Kyle was the Navy SEAL whose career of headshotting bad guys during the Iraq war was chronicled in American Sniper. Kyle was killed at a gun range by another combat veteran who was suffering from PTSD. That man, Eddie Ray Routh, was put on trial for the murder after the film had already come out. Not only that, but at least two of the jurors had seen the movie. Now, you could argue that seeing a movie that makes the victim out to be an American hero couldn't have that much influence on the outcome of the trial, but you'd probably be wrong. In this case, it took the jurors only three hours to return a verdict, which is ridiculously fast in such a complex case. We'll never know what was said in that jury room, but you have to wonder how often someone declared it was their patriotic duty to avenge the guy from The Hangover.

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4
It's Always The Same Directors Who Keep Making Them

It would be one thing if these movies were coming from a broad range of people -- filmmakers with different backgrounds and different takes on the events. That would at least allow the viewer to see things from several perspectives. You know, like how there are so many movie Robin Hoods, but only one movie Unabomber. Unfortunately, if you want nuance in your patriotism porn, you're s**t out of luck, because almost every one of these movies has been directed by someone from a small group of older white dudes.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty ImagesThough we suppose it's not fair to blame them for being like the rest of Hollywood.

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The most infamous director of these sorts of films is probably Oliver Stone, who has managed to cover World Trade Center, JFK, and Snowden -- though he's still better-known for Natural Born Killers and Platoon. The director of Patriots Day, Peter Berg, also made Deepwater Horizon, about the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Lone Survivor, about disastrous Navy SEAL mission during the War in Afghanistan. In his downtime, he makes classic action films like Battleship and Hancock. Paul Greengrass directed the Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips, about a boat hijacked by Somali pirates, as well as Bloody Sunday and United 93. In between those, he directs Bourne movies, those bastions of nuanced political storytelling.

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And of course Michael Bay, master of cinematic realism, loves draping his movies with the American flag, like Pearl Harbor and 13 Hours, about the security team at Benghazi (bet you thought you'd never have to hear that word again now that Clinton is retired). He recently also directed Pain & Gain, the true-ish story of criminal bodybuilders, with which he desperately wanted to show that real-life people can be as hammy and stupid as his Transformers characters. If the pattern hasn't become clear to you yet, the guys who like directing these movies that will shape history also like to direct movies of mindless violence and action. And experiencing a real sense of tragedy and watching some dudes walking away from explosions rarely mix.

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But it doesn't mean they aren't sincere in their desire to tell these stories. Berg only directed Battleship so that the backers would "reward" him by helping get Lone Survivor made. And he even took a pay cut for it. But that is nothing compared to the true zealot king of this genre: Mark Wahlberg. Yes, Marky Mark is the driving force in how we portray our most recent tragedies. He's not only starring in Patriots Day, but has been in The Perfect Storm, The Fighter, Pain & Gain, Lone Survivor, and Deepwater Horizon.


The first draft had him plugging the oil spill with his dick.

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Half of his career is "based on a true story." When he talks about being in them, you can tell he takes it seriously. A bit too seriously. As if these movies are the way he can live out his fantasy of being a real hero. One day, a VR studio is going to release a game wherein you can punch Osama bin Laden in the face until he cancels 9/11, and that will be the last day we'll ever see Wahlberg again.

Warner Bros PicturesWhich will hopefully be the death knell for more Entourage movies.

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Not that he isn't sensitive to the tragedy. Wahlberg said that when making Patriots Day, he not only felt a responsibility to the person he's portraying, but also to the whole city of Boston to handle it "with the proper care and sensitivity." Only it's all but impossible for him to do that, because ...

3
"Telling The Story" Is Always More Important Than Respecting The People Who Lived It

One of the ways Wahlberg and Berg wanted to show proper care and sensitivity to the story of the Boston Marathon bombing was to film in the places the events had actually taken place. That's great for historical accuracy and everything, but the events we are talking about are people being exploded and shot. Those are not things the people in that area want to relive, even through a film set. So it should come as no surprise that when the neighbors in the exact neighborhood where a deadly shootout had occurred were informed a movie crew was going to fire blanks for several nights straight, they weren't thrilled. The town manager finally had to shut it down, saying the recreation "wasn't in the best interest" of the neighborhood.

Sarah Fisher/Boston Magazine"Also, you're kind of a douchebag."

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The 9/11 films United 93 and World Trade Center have been even more controversial. United 93 came out less than five years after the event, meaning emotions were still raw for people who had lost loved ones on that day. The original trailer was so violent and got so many complaints that the AMC theater chain pulled it completely. Family members who saw the film admitted to being emotionally drained. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center paid two survivors $200,000 each to be advisors. Understandably, the widows of the men who died rescuing those two guys then accused them of cashing in on the tragedy. Other family members said they approached the production to help and were turned away, meaning the filmmakers weren't interested in getting additional information that might have helped more accurately flesh out the story if that meant extra people in the line for the craft services table.

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There are also times when filmmakers will blatantly make s**t up to better suit their narrative. Not all family members of United 93 victims were "lucky" enough to have their loved ones merely exploited for box office money. One German widow had to watch Paul Greengrass cast an actor known for playing Nazis to portray her dead husband as a coward, because hey, every good story needs a villain.

Universal PicturesLike terrorists who want to crash a plane full of civilians, as an example.

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It's also jarring to note how quickly pre-production of these kinds of movies starts after a tragedy has occurred. Steven Spielberg was attached to direct American Sniper months after Chris Kyle was murdered (although it would eventually go to Clint Eastwood.) Columbia Pictures acquired the life rights of Captain Richard Phillips within weeks of his rescue. And Sony bought the rights to the Steve Jobs film on October 7th, 2011 -- a whopping two days after he died. That's fast enough to suspect that Sony has someone who went to four years of law school in order to do nothing but sit at a desk refreshing TMZ, hoping a celebrity will die that day.

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But besides the general ghoulishness of seeing a tragedy and immediately making room in your business diary, there's another moral implication to rushing these kinds of things ...

2
There's No Way These Films Can Accurately Portray An Event That Is Still Unfolding

Bradley Cooper had already optioned the book American Sniper, and the film script was almost finished when Chris Kyle was killed. They managed to tack on his murder on to the end, which must be the first time someone had to rewrite an ending because the news told him his hero had died. But how does that not mean your entire script is now worthless? The whole arc of this guy's life had changed because of how it ended. You would think it would be important enough to have to start over from scratch. Or, y'know, at least wait and see what happened in the trial -- which, as we already discussed, didn't even get underway until after the film was released. No one seemed interested in the fact that his killer was thrown in prison instead of getting proper mental health treatment for his PTSD and paranoid schizophrenia, even though that seems like an important detail to include in the film about PTSD.

Warner Bros Pictures"Look, Bradley Cooper is gonna deadlift somewhere. It might as well in our movie."

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United 93 came out so quickly after the fact that they hadn't even released the audio recordings from inside the plane. Rarely do you get such solid evidence for what happened as a black box recording from a plane crash. If they had waited a bit longer, filmmakers could have used the dialog and events as we know they happened, instead of having to pick on some poor German guy.

You might have noticed that no one seems to agree what happened at the embassy in Benghazi, considering Congress keeps looking into it and Clinton couldn't get away from questions about it while she was running for president. But why is that, when there is one scholar who knew exactly what had happened? After all, Michael Bay assured us his 13 Hours is an "accurate retelling," even though actual CIA agents disagree, even letting slip that there was never a "stand-down order" issued.

Paramount Pictures"There was. I just put it in a Jell-O mold."

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As for Patriots Day, it probably shouldn't be coming out while the DA is still trying to piece together precisely who fired what shots in the aftermath of the explosion, meaning there is absolutely no way the filmmakers are telling an accurate story. Not unless they were part of the terrorist plot itself -- which, incidentally, is the only plot twist that would make Patriots Day worth watching.

The solution to this is simple: If you want to tell a story as historically accurately as possible, you have to wait until that story is finished. We know this from past films based on true events. The closer to the event to film comes out, the less accurate and more like propaganda it is. Go back and watch any films about World War II made during or right after it finished. The films about that war we make today have a completely different look and feel. That's because movies now have more information to draw from and more distance from the event emotionally, and they aren't needed to serve as propaganda. Also, Nazi-killing special effects have gotten way better.

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But sometimes, the old ways are still best.

1
These Films Rarely Have Staying Power

There are plenty of classic "based on a true story" movies, but almost all of the ones worthy enough to wind up as questions on movie trivia night were released well after the events in question. Compare The Green Berets to Apocalypse Now. The former was released in 1969, in the middle of the Vietnam War, and was a straight-up propaganda film supported by the U.S. military that was absolutely destroyed by critics. It's hard to make a film saying that a war is immoral while people are still out in the field dying in that war. Meanwhile, Apocalypse Now came out four years after the fall of Saigon, so people were more cool with the fact that it portrayed the U.S. military as a bunch of psychotic Looney Tunes characters.

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While the filmmakers might believe in the stories they are telling, if studios rush these films out, it's a clear sign of a cash grab. It's an easy way to make a quick buck off people's raw emotions. They want to get them in front of our eyeballs before we move on to the next awfulness. That's why it's easy to measure the quality of these movies by comparing how they perform at the box office to how they plummet in home video sales, like how World Trade Center did:

The NumbersMaybe "plummet" was a poor word choice.

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And like United 93 did:

The NumbersAnd remember, this is when people were still buying DVDs.


Even Lone Survivor's tiny budget couldn't save it because of its terrible home video numbers:

The NumbersDon't listen to them, your budget is perfectly normal. In fact, some people prefer smaller ones.



And some movies, like Deepwater Horizon, with its huge $110 million budget, simply bombed:

The NumbersBut with that money, they can cover almost 0.2 percent of the total cleanup cost!

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This year, Sully might be making a lot of "Best Films of 2016" lists, but it will go into the digital bargain bin like the rest of them. These based-on-true-life stories, though sometimes well-crafted, only ever escape their movie-of-the-week status for as long as the pain stays in the zeitgeist. Who knows if we'll even remember Patriots Day by the end of 2017? Someone tell Mark Wahlberg he should stick to making Transformers movies. At least in those, everyone knows when they're rewriting history.

One of our most popular episodes from 2016 was when we invited Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark from 'My Favorite Murder' to talk about some of the best true-crime stories out there. So successful, in fact, that we're resurrecting it (get it?) for a part two! Metal Fang, the Strangling Executioner, and the murderer living in the attic just weren't enough. So Jack O'Brien, Dan O'Brien, and the Cracked staff welcome Karen and Georgia back for another creepy hour of serial killers and urban legends that are bound to make you terrified to go outside or talk to a stranger or do anything.

Get your tickets here:

Also check out 5 Real People Screwed By 'True-Story' Movies Based On Them and 7 Oscar-Nominated 'True Story' Movies (Are Based On Lies).

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