Autumn has finally come to the multiplex, meaning that spectacles featuring comic-book superheroes and the umpteenth sequel to “The Hangover” have been banished, at least for the moment. With awards season looming and splashy premieres in Venice, Telluride and Toronto behind them, studios have now started trotting out their more serious films — more than ever of which this year seem to begin with the words “Based on a true story.”
This week, Tom Hanks will take viewers on a white-knuckled journey through a harrowing maritime abduction in “Captain Phillips,” based on the 2009 encounter of real-life merchant mariner Richard Phillips with Somali pirates. Next week, audiences will watch the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch channel enigmatic WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate,” and Chiwetel Ejiofor deliver a searing portrayal of Solomon Northup in the historical drama “12 Years a Slave.”
Those are just a few of the fact-based films that have arrived and will continue to crowd into theaters during the next few months, a field that will ultimately include “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Rush,” “Parkland,” “Blue Caprice,” “The Dallas Buyers Club,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
In a culture awash in information — delivered in a constant shower of tiny bytes and the occasional mind-numbing data dump — fact-based dramas have become our de facto digests: nutritional, well-balanced Lean Cuisines to offset the infobesity epidemic. But they serve a higher purpose, as well. Putting facts and raw information into a frame, and shaping them as story, not only gives coherence to incomprehensible or random events, but imparts meaning and moral consequence.
“Films aren’t journalism, and they’re not history,” said “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass while visiting Washington with Hanks. “But cinema can also contain some truths. It can give you an experience, it can give you a clear sense of character, it can give you a sense of the collisions of an event, it can suggest layers and depths and meanings alongside a sort of simple story that drives you on.”
And, considering that the three most-talked-about films of last year’s Oscar nominees were also based on true stories (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln” and “Argo”), it’s easy to see why Hollywood keeps serving them up. Movies inspired by actual events lend themselves not just to exciting on-screen stories (often providing their own three-act structures), but attractive off-screen narratives, with the real-life protagonists offering plenty of colorful “earned media” in marketing and awards campaigns.
And, perhaps most important when it comes to getting made within a risk-averse movie industry, they are known quantities — literally. “The studios enjoy them because the story is familiar to them,” Hanks said during a visit to Washington last week. “They know what the story is.”
The same might be said of audiences, for whom fact-based dramas are a higher-end, more substantive version of the moving comic strips of summer. Both types of film have their own “pre-sold,” or built-in, audiences, viewers who flock to them because they offer predictable, well-known plots and characters within artfully constructed contexts. Seen as its own well-established and ritualized genre, the fact-based drama has developed its own economy, a superhero spectacle for history buffs, news junkies and the socially engaged (or at least vaguely aware).
Real-life stories and characters have been reliable movie fodder since the birth of cinema. But too often, the results have been starchy, adoring biopics, ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation flicks or revisionist propaganda. But in recent years, the genre has notably matured, having been vigorously resuscitated by such directors as Kathryn Bigelow, David Fincher and Ron Howard, and their screenwriting collaborators: Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Rush”).
Whether one calls them “poetic narrative nonfiction,” “reported films” or fact-based fiction, their movies share a devotion to aesthetic realism, taut, lean pacing and technical and intellectual rigor. In the hands of the new fact-based auteurs, the term “docu-drama” no longer carries the stigma of low production values or suspect intentions. Rather, it’s a respectable form enjoying what could arguably be called a new golden age.
If any filmmaker ushered in the current era, it’s Greengrass, an Englishman and former documentary director who is best known for “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy” but frequently makes films based on true stories. In 1989 Greengrass made his feature debut with “Resurrected,” based on the story of a British soldier in the Falklands; in 2002 he made “Bloody Sunday,” about a 1972 civil rights protest in Northern Ireland; and in 2006 he directed “United 93,” about the doomed flight that went down in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Throughout his career, and frequently working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Greengrass has perfected what has become his signature style: shaky, verite-style camera work, little by way of flowery speeches, zero sentimentality and a fiercely meticulous attention to atmospheric details. Straightforward, free of polemic or cant, utterly devoid of conventional “movie” moments, Greengrass’s films epitomize the filmmaking axiom to show rather than tell. (It was Ackroyd’s work with Greengrass that led director Peter Landesman to hire him to shoot “Parkland,” about the John F. Kennedy assassination. “I hired Barry because of ‘United 93,’ ” Landesman said. “It didn’t overreach. It didn’t try to explain. It just showed.”)
All of those fundamentals are on display in “Captain Phillips,” which Greengrass directed from a script by Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”). And they’re what led Hanks to want to work with him. “Paul brought this verisimilitude to it that was palpable, and it comes out in the movie.”
Perhaps the most cardinal feature of Greengrass’s films is the fact that, regardless of their documentary-like observational style, they’re not coldly detached but deeply personal. His gaze is both dispassionate and compassionate, simultaneously.
“You’ve got to have both,” he said. “When I go to film schools and talk to students, I say that one thing you have to have as a filmmaker is a point of view. And that’s not the same as loading the dice or telling people what to think. You have to present a view of the world that’s truthful as you see it: authentic, accordant with the facts, not propaganda, not a lecture, not trimming it to suit an agenda, but honest and from yourself. . . . I’m not going to tell you lies, [but] you’re going to feel how I see the world. And people respond to that, or not. That’s different than having an agenda. It’s an openness to say, ‘Here, this is how I see the world. Do you?’ ”
For his part, Greengrass isn’t sure there are more fact-based movies today than in past years. “Look at the history of cinema, the history of Hollywood. There have always been strains which make up the whole, one of which is escapism and pure entertainment — fantasy, comedy, romance, song and dance, glamour. But from its earliest days, it’s always engaged with the world and they’ve sort of coexisted.”
Still, if the number of films hasn’t changed much, the stakes have become higher. Notwithstanding such quick turnarounds as “All the President’s Men” — which came out less than two years after President Richard Nixon’s resignation — dramatized versions of recent events are coming out far more quickly than ever before, with films like “The Social Network,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Fifth Estate” processing the news as mass entertainment virtually as it unfolds.
The dangers are obvious: Such immediacy militates against ambiguity and the reflection necessary to find enduring meaning, and it’s prone to reductive judgments and facile editorialization. Important stories that aren’t amenable to sound, sight and motion — the lingua franca of 21st-century media — may be locked out of the canon of consensus history that movies have so much power to define. What’s more, if the radical subjectivity of Bigelow’s and Greengrass’s films plunge viewers firsthand into the maelstroms they portray, those films may be playing into the narcissism of an age when the only things that matter are the things that happen to us.
But at their best, nonfiction dramas can break through that very narcissism to forge deeper channels of understanding — from the flawed, hopeful life behind the murder headline in “Fruitvale Station” to the issues of globalization, poverty and geopolitics that violently converge in “Captain Phillips.”
That volatile mix is never literally spelled out in Greengrass’s film, but it clearly animates every action of its protagonist and his abductors. Somehow, in his steadfast, narrow focus on the intricacies of human behavior, the filmmaker illuminates something much larger, a universe fraught with complex, contradictory and intractable forces that leave most observers feeling paralyzed or helplessly confused.
“You can’t spend your life thinking about the problems of the world, but somewhere, insistently, the world’s knocking on the window,” Greengrass said, explaining the abiding allure of fact-based stories. “In other words, it’s not filmmakers choosing to do [these stories]. I think it’s that people, in their entertainment choices across a given year, want one or two of these films. Which is why they’re made.”