Fact-based Oscar contenders have faced inaccuracy accusations for years, but they seldom do real damage
Pssst, have you heard?
Captain Phillips wasn't really a hero.
And Solomon Northrup may have fudged a few details about those 12 years he spent as a slave.
And Sandra Bullock should wear a diaper when she's in zero gravity.
Quibbles about the accuracy of fact-based movies are inevitable, and it wouldn't be awards season without a few good whispering campaigns against Oscar contenders. So when you've got a batch of contenders that are also based on true stories, or are supposed to be scientifically accurate, it should come as no surprise that complaints are being aired.
“It's just a matter of course that this happens with most fact-based contenders,” veteran awards consultant Tony Angellotti told TheWrap. “And if you are perceived as a contender, expect it.
“But it's a naïve, rookie mistake to think that it will change positive opinions to negatives.”
On the heels of the big opening for “Gravity” this week, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that the film got the the orbits wrong for the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station, that the astronaut played by George Clooney wouldn't use a jetpack, and that when Sandra Bullock removes her suit and strips down to her skivvies, she should be wearing an adult diaper.
A couple of weeks earlier, the New York Times looked at the book on which “12 Years a Slave” was based, and said scholars have long wondered whether parts of it were fictionalized to meet the expectations of the audience of the time, and whether Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film, wrote it or turned it over to white ghost writer David Wilson.
And this month, ABC and CNN dug up three-year-old interviews and a four-year-old lawsuit filed by crew members of the hijacked Maersk Alabama against their shipping company alleging that their former captain, Richard Phillips, ignored warnings and recklessly led them into dangerous waters.
Phillips is played by Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” and is shown receiving warnings but also acting heroically during the ordeal.
But did they dig up the footage on their own, or is this just another awards-season whispering campaign quietly launched by a rival?
That's the tricky thing about whisper campaigns – they're designed to be untraceable, and to offer plausible deniability. Why wouldn't CNN have pulled out a three-year-old interview that ties into a big movie opening in a few days? Why wouldn't reporters looking for “Gravity”-related stories talk to astronauts and astrophysicists?
Common sense aside, much of Hollywood assumes that any negative word written about an awards movie was planted by a rival. But whether or not strings are being pulled, there's little reason to think that complaints about Sandra Bullock's underwear or Solomon Northrup's scholarship or Richard Phillips’ heroism will do much damage to those films’ awards chances.
“Ever since ‘The Hurricane’ and to some extent ‘Amistad’ fell prey to some degree to scuttle campaigns, people mistakenly feel that picking apart fact and fiction can have an impact,” said Angellotti.
“This is the entertainment business – everybody knows that you can never present fact-for-fact exactly what happened and sell a ticket. Scenes, lines, dialogue all have to have dramatic purpose. Otherwise we call them documentaries.”
Still, the potshots continue. Last year, the three fact-based Best Picture nominees all faced charges of inaccuracy. “Zero Dark Thirty” was hit hard by charges that its depiction of torture was misleading, and condemnations from congressmen helped derail the awards momentum the film's rave reviews had given it.
Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln,” meanwhile, was pilloried in Connecticut for misrepresenting that state's votes in the battle over the 13th Amendment.
And “Argo” was slammed after its Toronto Film Festival debut by outraged Canadians who said it disrespected that country's role in the rescue of American hostages, and criticized by others for the fact that its climactic scene was almost wholly invented.
Of course, “Argo” quickly changed one end-title card to placate the Canadians, and shrugged off the other complaints all the way to the stage of the Dolby Theater.
That's a path “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” would be happy to follow.