Friday, June 05, 2009

True Stories

Recently, I came across a 2004 movie on cable that told a true story (with a few minor alterations).

The movie was called "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." It starred Sean Penn, who did not play Nixon but rather a man named Samuel Byck who tried to hijack a plane in 1974 and fly it into the White House, and it made me think of other historical films I've seen in my life.

History has been an interest of mine since I was a little boy, and I've always been intrigued by movies that told the stories of real events. But "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" differed from most historical films in the sense that it did not tell an uplifting story or contribute to greater understanding of an historic event — or, at the very least, it did not teach the audience a valuable lesson based on an actual event.

In the movie, as in real life, a depressed and paranoid Byck shot an airport security policeman, stormed aboard the plane and shot both pilots before being shot through the plane door window by a police officer. He died a few minutes later. The plane never left the ground and Nixon's schedule for the day was unaffected.

I don't recall hearing much about the attempted hijacking at the time, and it was never mentioned in the years that followed. Perhaps that was a media attempt to prevent "copycat" crimes — but the only similar crime I know of occurred nearly 30 years later, when Islamic terrorists hijacked four planes on Sept. 11, 2001. More than half of those hijackers were born after Byck's failed attempt — including at least two of the pilots — and, although the incident received a brief mention in the 9/11 Commission's report, it did not suggest that the relatively obscure event inspired the attacks, only that it had been mentioned more than a year before the attacks in a 34–page Justice Department memo that warned about the possibility that airplanes could be used in such a way.

Since watching the movie, though, I've been thinking about historical films that I thought were good or unique or contributed to greater understanding. I've divided them into the following categories — sports films, biographies, historic events/periods — and I've listed my top five in each category.

Before presenting my top fives, I want to point out that I have purposely omitted religious films. My reasoning is that debate persists as to whether holy texts are literal histories, and I want my lists to focus on people and events that are easily verifiable. Films like "The Passion of the Christ" may be true to the accounts in the texts, but they can't meet my verification standard.

First, sports films:
  1. "Pride of the Yankees" (1942) — This is probably my favorite sports history film because Lou Gehrig's bravery always struck me as being so inspirational. A few liberties were taken with the story, and the details of Gehrig's career as a baseball player didn't get the attention they deserved, but the tale was mostly factual and undeniably inspirational.

  2. "Miracle" (2004) — I saw the U.S.–U.S.S.R. hockey game in the 1980 Olympics, and I was skeptical that a film could do justice to the event. I still wonder if anyone who wasn't alive in those days — or was too young to understand it at the time — can comprehend what an astonishing accomplishment that victory was for the Americans. But the film did a great job of telling the story, and I felt as if I had been transported back to 1980. America could use that kind of shot in the arm again today. I know I could.

  3. "Brian's Song" (1971) — I remember reading the book about Brian Piccolo's brief life, "Brian Piccolo: A Short Season," when I was about 12 or 13. I remember having his football card when I was a few years younger. And I remember being moved by the TV production. It remains one of the best made–for–TV films I've ever seen, thanks to the performances of James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. I'll admit that I didn't watch the remake in 2001. I simply figured you couldn't improve on perfection.

  4. "Hoosiers" (1986) — I'm really not much of a basketball fan, and the film isn't strictly the story of a small–town basketball team that wins it all in 1952, but it was inspired by the real story of a small school that won the Indiana high school basketball championship in 1954. There were differences between the movie story about "Hickory" and the real–life story of the Milan, Ind., basketball team, but the depiction of the championship game closely resembled the one Milan won, right down to the last–second, game–winning shot. And anyone who wasn't stirred by Dennis Hopper's performance must have ice water in his/her veins.

  5. "Eight Men Out" (1988) — This dramatization of the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal was an authentic re–telling of the story. As far as I could tell, no names were changed. And the performances were superb.

    I thought it was a brilliant production, even though it told perhaps the saddest story in baseball history.

    But it's an important story for modern ballplayers to know. Too bad Pete Rose didn't pay attention to the cautionary tale it told. He might be in Cooperstown today if he had — instead of being on the outside looking in with the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

  6. Honorable Mention: "Raging Bull" (1980) — Martin Scorsese's film about Jake LaMotta got mixed reviews. It is undeniably violent, as boxing films are apt to be, and the material is upsetting, but how can a film that is directed by Scorsese and stars Rober De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty go wrong?
And now, biographies:
  1. "Gandhi" (1982) — Richard Attenborough's film opens with a bit of a disclaimer ("No man's life can be encompassed in one telling ... least of all Gandhi's, whose passage through life was so entwined with his nation's struggle for freedom") and then proceeds to do about as good a job of telling the story of Gandhi's life as anyone could. The film was mostly accurate, and the characters were real, not fictitious or composites. The complaints I've read (and there weren't many) focused on minor points.

  2. "Amadeus" (1984) — I'm not exactly sure whether to include this, since this film

    • seems to be more about Salieri than it is about Mozart, and

    • much of the story seems to be speculative.

    But I want to include it, for several reasons. It has an 18th century appeal to it, in its costumes and music and its general ambiance, that certainly suggests that, if the story is mostly a fantasy, it's a plausible one.

    And, aside from the uncertainty surrounding the Salieri–killing–Mozart tale, the rest of it seems authentic enough.

  3. "Nixon" (1995) — Oliver Stone's film intrigued me. It contained a lot of biographical information, virtually all of the characters were real people, as were the events that were re–created, but some parts were clearly fictional or composite accounts. Was it pure biography? Well, not in a strictly literal sense. But it's biography in the way that many of Shakespeare's plays were considered biographies.

    And Nixon's life got a richly deserved Shakespearean treatment in Stone's hands. And why shouldn't it? Nixon was a man who achieved his heart's desire, only to see it slip through his fingers and crash on the floor.

  4. "Wilson" (1944) — Often overlooked, it was a box–office flop in spite of the fact that critics gave it generally good reviews and it won Oscars for editing, writing, cinematography, art direction and sound.

    It told Woodrow Wilson's story honestly and well. And, frankly, I've always thought the star, Alexander Knox, bore a resemblance to William Christopher, the actor who played "Father Mulcahy" in "M*A*S*H."

    But that isn't the important part. What is important is the film's depiction of the major events that occurred during Wilson's presidency and his reactions to them. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was a great admirer of Wilson. If the film wasn't the legendary achievement Zanuck hoped it would be, it was still a great film that, unfortunately, has yet to be released on DVD. Fortunately, it is still shown, from time to time, on cable.

  5. "Patton" (1970) — George C. Scott gave a masterful performance as Gen. George Patton. It was a performance that won him an Oscar that he returned to the Academy with a note that said he didn't feel he was in competition with other actors.

    The story seems to be authentic, and it contributes greatly to an understanding of World War II. It may contribute even more to an understanding of Patton himself.

    Honorable Mention: "Monster" (2003) — Charlize Theron won an Oscar for Best Actress, and deservedly so, for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

    The story is apparently an accurate telling of Wuornos' adult life, but tells little about her childhood. It is a very disturbing story that lives up to its title.
And, finally, films about specific historic events/periods:
  1. "Gettysburg" (1993) — I could have chosen several films for the top spot on this list, but I chose "Gettysburg" because it is a faithful re–telling of the story of the epic three–day battle that ultimately decided the outcome of the Civil War.

    It has a great cast — Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Richard Jordan (in his final role). The film is adapted from Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel "The Killer Angels."

    Of the many remarkable facts about the film, perhaps the most remarkable is that the National Park Service permitted a film crew to film scenes on the Gettysburg Battlefield. That was a first.

  2. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970) — Other films have been made about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but none were as faithful to the facts (at least, those that were known in 1970) as this one.

    It is said that the cast was made up largely of actors who were not box–office stars so as not to detract from the story. To a great extent, I think that is true, although I would argue that people like Jason Robards (who won a couple of Best Supporting Actor Oscars later in the decade) were on the brink of stardom while others, like Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam and E.G. Marshall, had already made their marks and were approaching the twilights of their careers. As far as big box–office names were concerned, though, the cast had none.

    The film contained some minor flaws that would only be noticeable to people with detailed knowledge of planes and ships from that era. The most serious shortcoming, I feel, is the somewhat sparse treatment the film gave to the torpedo modification used by the Japanese. The film mentioned the absence of water depth in the harbor and the need for torpedoes that would not strike the bottom of the harbor when dropped from the planes. But it never discussed the solution that was used, which was key to the success of the attack.

  3. "Mississippi Burning" (1988) — Although the film was loosely based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and wasn't a strict re–telling of the story, perhaps no other film tells the tale of the segregated South as well.

    When it was released, the film was criticized as a "cinematic lynching" of history, portraying the FBI and the Justice Department as being more heroic and protective than they actually were, but testimony from a contract killer for a crime family suggested that the film version may well have been closer to the truth than originally believed.

    The details of the period are authentic — at least, as far as I can recall. I grew up in neighboring Arkansas, and I was 4 years old at the time the civil rights workers were murdered. But the movie's presentation of small–town Mississippi reminds me of the small town in Arkansas where I grew up.

  4. "The Right Stuff" (1983) — Manned space travel may seem routine today, but this movie accurately depicts the dangers that were involved in early space exploration.

    It really wasn't possible, I suppose, to devote as much time and attention to the training and missions of the Mercury Seven as they deserved, but for a three–hour film, I thought it did pretty well.

    The film presented many elements of the story with which modern audiences — even those at the time the film was released — were unfamiliar. But there was much more to tell, so much more that actor Tom Hanks mused a few years ago about producing a miniseries that would give more detailed information.

  5. "Apollo 13" (1995) — Mostly technically precise, the film took a few liberties with the facts, creating more tension between the crew members than there actually was.

    Almost all of the dialogue was taken verbatim from transcripts and recordings. Most notably, though, the line "Houston, we have a problem," is not exactly what was said. During the ill–fated mission, the statement was made in the past tense — "we've had a problem here" — instead of the present tense, for dramatic effect.

    As a side note: Director Ron Howard said that a member of the film's first test preview audience complained on a comment card that it was a "typical Hollywood" ending, that the crew never would have survived. But that wasn't a Hollywood ending. That was the people at NASA doing their jobs so well that it merely looked like a Hollywood ending when committed to film a quarter–century later.

    Honorable Mention: "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) — It's only right, I suppose, on the eve of the 65th anniversary of D–Day, to mention this film.

    It isn't strictly about D–Day. For that, I would recommend "The Longest Day." It's mostly a dramatized account of the story of Frederick Niland, one of four brothers who served in World War II.

    But I would recommend watching it even if you only watch the dramatization of the Normandy landing, which is perhaps the most realistic depiction of warfare I have ever seen.

    I also considered "JFK" (1991) for my list. But, while the costumes are authentic and the characters are accurate, the story is still mostly speculative. What is true is that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Who was really behind it is something that may never be known.