3 ‘True Story’ Movies from 2023 That Lied to Make Their Characters Look Better
At the risk of not sounding cynical, 2023 had some pretty good movies. And when it came to movies based on true stories, filmmakers got creative. A decade or two ago, seemingly every mainstream Hollywood biopic stuck to a formula, always venerating their subject and always hitting the same beats. Now, we’re getting films taking different perspectives and telling stories in new ways.
Still, some of these movies sucked, and even when they didn’t, you can never trust a Hollywood movie to tell you the full truth. At best, they should inspire you to read up on the subject on your own. That’s when you learn the true true story.
‘Dumb Money’ Bends Over Backwards to Make Its Investors Likable
Dumb Money tells the story of the 2021 campaign to invest in GameStop, which resulted in the stock briefly exploding in value before falling back down again. You may have seen a few different dramatizations these past few years of companies like Theranos and WeWork exploding in value before collapsing, and the stories generally end on a note of, “This was all very stupid. Let’s take care to avoid something like this happening again.” Dumb Money takes the opposite approach.
The movie is based on a book by Ben Mezrich, whose previous books and their film adaptations present a lesson in what artistic license can get away with. In 2002, he wrote Bringing Down the House, about the MIT Blackjack Team, which later inspired the Kevin Spacey movie 21. When the movie came out, readers pointed out the Spacey character was actually just a teaching assistant in the book, not a professor like in the movie. But when people investigated more closely, they found that the movie was a far more faithful adaptation of the book than the book was of real life. In reality, Spacey’s character didn’t exist at all — or rather, he was a composite of several people, none of whom were MIT staff. In fact, just about every interesting scene from the book or movie was made-up.
In 2009, Mezrich wrote The Accidental Billionaires, about Facebook’s founding. This is credited as the basis for The Social Network, which departs heavily from the true story of Facebook. The movie still ended up being very good, possibly because despite having the rights to The Accidental Billionaires, the screenwriter didn’t read it before writing the script. In 2021, Mezrich declared that he was writing a book about the GameStop story, and he was calling it The Antisocial Network. The book contains some justification for the title, but the real justification was he wanted to link it to The Social Network in people’s minds. This worked. MGM bought the film rights to this book before he’d even written it.
When Dumb Money isn’t showing actors playing the famous figures from this saga (that’s the good part of the movie), it alternates between montages of actual news broadcasts and vignettes of the small-time retail investors who bet on GameStop. These investors are so boringly and insufferably likable that it feels more like one of those rom-coms showing unrelated people celebrating a holiday than it does a true story. The investors also come off a little differently from their counterparts in the book.
In both the book and the movie, we’re introduced to the Reddit forum r/WallStreetsBets through an overworked nurse, who explains Reddit to a coworker. In the book, she’s a Trump supporter, proud of tracing her lineage to the American Revolution. She found r/WallStreetBets through the now-banned Trump forum r/The_Donald, and when she's not checking GameStop’s price, she’s looking for updates on how Biden stole the election. If you’re telling a story about Americans rebelling against those they see as the elites, a Trump voter may well pop up the side of the rebels, but the film’s target audience might not sympathize with such a figure, so those details had to go.
In the book, the investors include college students, in the form of two bros with a rich father. We’re introduced to these characters on the golf course. Rich dad buys in on GameStop even harder than his sons. This, too, would conflict with how the movie wants all the retail investors to be virtuous underdogs. In the movie, the college students are instead a delightful interracial lesbian couple. We’re not going to hunt down those bros, though, to ask them what they think of the change because it’s a Ben Mezrich book, and it’s unclear those bros are even meant to be based on real people.
For reference, the book also contains an odd chapter from the point-of-view of Elon Musk. He has a working Neuralink brain chip, he fights sentient A.I. with a flamethrower, he eats vegetables grown on Mars and he was secretly elected Galactic Federation President. The book doesn’t explicitly tell us this chapter is a joke, but we imagine a little blatant fiction would form the basis for a defense if you accuse anything else in the book of being inaccurate.
In the movie, these united retail investors all buy into GameStop when it’s cheap. The price soars, and they either sell at the top or miss this opportunity and wind up only slightly richer than before. Fine, fine. But what about the real-life retail investors who bought at the top, when the fever was at its highest, and then lost everything? Such people existed. That’s where the profits from selling the stock came from. It didn’t come just from the hedge funds shorting the stock, whom the retail investors were competing against — many hedge funds weathered the storm, and even the one who lost big didn’t close out at the worst moment.
And how about the hedge funds who bet with the retail investors rather than against them? That’s right, hedge funds weren’t all shorting GameStop, while small investors were all buying GameStop. The stock rose so high in part because it had large amounts of professional money behind it. One hedge fund made $700 million selling GameStop at a profit (selling it to retail investors who thought it would keep rising). Can you guess what made the hedge fund realize it was time to sell because the meme was about to die? According to them, it was when Elon Musk tweeted support of the stock.
Matt Damon’s ‘Air’ Dude Was Already a Marketing Superstar
The movie Air is interesting if you want to learn a bunch of trivia about Nike and shoes. Mostly, this trivia comes in the form of characters interrupting conversations to tell each other these trivia facts (we noted some of these and previously listed them for you). As for the narrative of the film, it’s the story of whether Nike will sign Michael Jordan, which is the sort of story Hollywood loves, because the entire Hollywood business is about pitching to each other and who signs whom.
To get us to love the same story takes some skill. After all, if Jordan turns Nike down (we know he won’t, but let’s pretend this isn’t a foregone conclusion), he’ll just sign with some other company to great success, and there’s no special reason we should side with this company over that one.
The movie makes up some reasons. Matt Damon’s character, sports marketer Sonny Vacarro, goes to the Jordans’ home, which shows he cares. This didn’t happen in real life. Also, there’s some special drama between him and Jordan’s mother, because she makes the unprecedented request that Michael get a percentage of all sales. That request also didn’t happen in real life (she did convince MJ to take the deal, but the percentage idea was not hers).
Above all, the movie makes us care because they put us in the shoes of Sonny Vacarro, who’s a talent scout with everything to prove. But in reality, Vacarro was already the king of sports marketing before Nike signed Jordan. He was the guy who’d come up with the idea of cutting deals with coaches to make student athletes wear branded shoes, which is approximately the second-biggest innovation in sports marketing ever (right after “endorsements, just in general”). He was a superstar even without signing Jordan. Which is just as well, because according to Jordan, Vacarro played no significant part in his signing. No, the key figure in the deal was really George Raveling, portrayed in the movie (very briefly) by Marlon Wayans.
Either way, Vacarro was no underdog pre-Jordan. This Rolling Stone piece calls him the Oppenheimer of the sneaker industry even before the Jordan contract — and no, that wasn’t their attempt to connect Air to the film Oppenheimer, as their story came out months before Oppenheimer. Nor will we now talk about Oppenheimer, as it sounds like everyone’s already analyzed it thoroughly. Instead, let’s move on to how...
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Removes Leonardo DiCaprio’s Character’s Most Evil Act
Plenty of movies put you in the shoes of a criminal, and we all know crime’s wrong. We enjoy watching it anyway because it’s cool, or because it’s exciting, or maybe because it’s funny. Killers of the Flower Moon is an exception. We follow Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he murders a bunch of Osage people, and the movie doesn’t want us rooting for him or liking him or getting any vicarious thrills watching him. They make him dumb and dirty. His crimes are cruel and unskilled. They could have made him the antagonist, instead putting us in the shoes of the D.C. agent who comes in and saves the day, but that would be too easy. The movie makes us stick with the guy whom they make us despise.
Still, Ernest shows some traces of humanity (he is, after all, human). For example, two hours in, he kills his in-laws by blowing up their house. Seriously — this is one of his more sympathetic moments because we walk with him as he surveys the wreckage, and he looks anguished.
You might be unsure why he’s so anguished. He’s killed before, more intimately than this. He’ll kill again; remorse hasn’t pushed him to a turning point. Maybe he’s just not a fan of explosions. It’s easy to forget, since DiCaprio plays him, but this character’s in his 20s and fought in the Great War a couple years ago.
This bombing was a bigger deal for the real-life Ernest Burkhart. The movie doesn’t mention it, but that night, Ernest tried to kill not just his in-laws but also his own wife, four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son as well. All three of them were due to spend the night in that house when Ernest planted the bomb, but the little boy James had an earache, so they stayed home and avoided death.
Of course, Ernest does go on to try killing his wife, via slow poison. That’s a major part of the film. But killing your small children is another level of evil. In fact, when his daughter dies of whooping cough later in the movie, he breaks down, and that motivates him to turn state’s evidence against Robert De Niro’s character, who ordered all these murders. Maybe the movie left out that Ernest had already tried murdering the girl for fear that it would render this later response incoherent.
The movie does leave in something else related to the bombing. It leaves in the baby’s earache, which serves no plot purpose without it saving the trio from the bomb. Maybe that’s Scorsese’s way of saying, “Okay, I didn’t include everything. But everything I don’t elaborate on still happened.”
It sounds like the boy, James Burkhart, didn't go on to forgive his father. When Ernest died, the will asked that his family scatter his ashes over the Osage Hills. Instead, James just chucked the box of ashes off a bridge.