Biopic accuracy

"Based on a true story", reads the tagline on the movie poster. But how factually accurate are Hollywood's blockbuster biopics? A new study has done the math to find out.

David McCandless, a data journalist and information designer who runs the website Information Is Beautiful, has undertaken a scene-by-scene breakdown of recent Oscar winners, including Spotlight, The Wolf Of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave and The King's Speech, and charted just how closely the films stick to their real-life inspirations.

The clear winner? Ava DuVernay's Selma, which scored a perfect 100 per cent.

And ​the least impressive: The Imitation Game, 2014's Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, which scored a 41.4 per cent.

"This movie painstakingly recreates events as they happened, and takes care to include everybody who was involved. Which explains the larger-than-usual-for-Hollywood cast," McCandless writes of Selma, the 2014 Best Picture Oscar nominee.

"Alan Turing did work as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park during the war and was arrested for homosexuality after the war. That much is true. Most of the rest of the film isn't ... [It] just rips the historical record to shreds," writes McCandless.

Other films highlighted for their accuracy include the Wall Street comedy The Big Short at 91.4 per cent; last year's Best Picture winner Spotlight at 81.6 per cent; and Steven Spielberg's war drama Bridge Of Spies at 89.9 per cent. ("The truth level probably explains the film's dullness-level," McCandless offers).

Of course, the reasons behind factual inaccuracies in the films on the shame pile are manyfold.

Some, like Stephen Frears' Philomena (69.8 per cent) or Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (56.9 per cent) wear their lack of verisimilitude on their sleeves, less interested in details than a certain tone.

Others, like Dallas Buyers Club (61.4 per cent) and Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street (74.6 per cent) are already working off dubious source material ("Take everything in this film with a pinch of salt," McCandless writes about the latter, "as the source material is the autobiography of a famous, disreputable salesperson.").

In a knowing nod to such concerns, the site allows readers to rank films by "Pedantry Level", ranging from "Flexible – C'mon it's movies!" to "Only the absolute truth".

Still, for kids looking to do their homework the "easy way", rather than, say, hitting up the library and poring over encyclopaedias, McCandless' research might prove invaluable.

Biopics ranked

  1. Selma (2015) – 100.0%
  2. The Big Short (2016) – 91.4%
  3. Bridge of Spies (2015) – 89.9%
  4. 12 Years a Slave (2014) – 88.1%
  5. Rush (2013) – 81.9%
  6. Spotlight (2015) – 81.6%
  7. Captain Phillips (2013) – 81.4%
  8. The Social Network (2010) – 76.1%
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) – 74.6%
  10. The Kings Speech (2010) – 73.4% 
  11. Philomena (2013) – 69.8%
  12. Dallas Buyers Club (2014) – 61.4%
  13. American Sniper (2015) – 56.9%
  14. The Imitation Game (2015) – 41.4%

Written by Rob Moran. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz.

Related links:

5 movies you didn’t know were based on true stories

Most traumatic scenes in kids’ movies

100 greatest films since 2000

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