Based on a True Story

Three films recently watched that all come with the “true story” tag line.

Silkwood (1983)

This is based on the story of Karen Silkwood, a union activist and campaigner who worked at a plutonium processing plant with somewhat less than stringent health and safety measures in place. Silkwood died in a mysterious car accident when she was, allegedly, carrying incriminating documents to a New York Times reporter, documents that were not found in the wreckage. Initially I found this hard going, with an irritating soundtrack and aspects of the kitchen sink drama, as we get dragged into details of Karen’s personal life while the real grist of the story seems to be almost background noise. Slowly and effectively the emphasis changes, and having come to know Karen and her close ones first, we care more about what is going on at the plant. Her fears about radiation poisoning are more forcefully rendered and we can believe in her determination to expose what is going on no matter the cost. As far as that goes, the film plays it safe, not coming down firmly on the side of conspiracy, simply suggesting that Karen’s poisoning and subsequent death by RTA might have more to it than we can see. What impressed me most about the film was the performance of the three main players, Kurt Russell as boyfriend Drew and Cher as lesbian friend and lodger Dolly, and especially Meryl Streep as the lead, a fully rounded performance that gave us a character with warts and all, a heroine with feet of clay. Overall it felt like a downbeat version of Erin Brokovich, inevitably so given the lack of a happy ending and necessary closure.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

Karen Silkwood died (or was killed) in November of 1974. Earlier in the year a failed salesman by the name of Samuel Byck plotted to kill President Nixon by hijacking a plane and having it fly into the White House. Needless to say things did not go according to plan. This film is the story of the events in the life of Samuel Bicke (note name change) that led up to this event. With the lead role played by Sean Penn, it is at heart a character study. We see the shy Bicke fail as a salesman, with his overbearing boss undermining him at every turn. We see his rejection by estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and Bicke’s failure to grasp that things are over between them, that she is moving on with her life and he doesn’t get a say any more in what she does or how she dresses. We see his failure to join the Black Panthers and the way in which he tries to manipulate a black friend into feeling resentful of authority. We see the way in which he pushes his successful brother into a corner, through double dealing, until the guy has no alternative but to reject him. And we see the way in which his dreams of starting his own business flounder when a bank loan is rejected. Bicke is largely the author of his own misfortunes, but he seems to blame just about anyone else, finally in the figure of Richard M. Nixon finding a suitable target for his ire. Penn’s portrayal is superb, giving us a man who is not particularly likable, but at the same time showing us that he too once had hopes and dreams, aspirations that were crushed. It’s not an uplifting film, and it doesn’t try to be, instead offering a compelling depiction of a descent into a peculiar form of madness, one that is almost impossible to look away from. And, while I don’t like Bicke at all, and find his reasoning completely bonkers, I have some sympathy for his view of the political and financial elite. Reflecting on the film I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from a Henry Miller book (though I suspect he is channelling Cervantes) – “By being crazy is understood losing one’s reason. Reason, but not the truth, for there are madmen who speak truth while others keep silent.”

Valkyrie (2008)

This film is based on the 20 July plot of 1944 by a number of high ranking German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler and seize control of the country, then sue for peace with the Allies. Of course, we know that they failed, and so the appeal of the film lies in seeing the plot put together, with the various elements slotted into place, and then discovering exactly what went wrong. Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the driving force behind the conspiracy, the man who, at least in this iteration, overrides the jitteriness of his superiors and forges ahead regardless. The key idea is that once Hitler has been assassinated, the Reserve Army will be mobilised (Project Valkyrie) to take control of Berlin and overthrow the Nazi party and the SS. Unfortunately the bomb planted by the Colonel fails to kill Hitler and so, after some initial confusion, it becomes business as usual, with everyone trying to cover their tracks or standing in front of a firing squad. It’s a fascinating film to watch, like a chess match using generals and colonels and soldiers, and the actors perform their roles to perfection, but at the end of it all I didn’t really feel that it had done anything more than entertain me (which is a perfectly laudable ambition for a film). I’d learned nothing I didn’t already know about history, at least as far as the broad strokes go, and gained no compelling insight into the workings of the fascist state. At the end, it was just another trip to the well of Nazi evil, with Tom Cruise getting to add the role of good German to his repertoire, something he did with his usual aplomb (Scientology nonsense aside, I like the guy and invariably like his films).

So, what true stories have the rest of you watched recently, if any?

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2 Responses to Based on a True Story

  1. Rolnikov says:

    The last one I can think of is Frank, which I loved, though it mixes together the stories of several musicians – mainly Frank Sidebottom, Mark E. Smith, Captain Beefheart, and Daniel Johnston – rather than being the true story of any one of them. The DVD of Control has been sitting on our shelf for years – we always shy away from watching it.

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