Fact vs. Fiction: 5 Oscar Movies Criticized for Taking Creative License


Every film based on real-life events takes some measure of creative license. But as proven year after year, those discrepancies can lead to heaps of controversy, especially when there’s an Oscar race involved.

Four of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture this year are adapted from true stories (American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory of Everything), and all of them, as well as one of major acting contenders (Foxcatcher), have come under fire from the fact-checking brigade. Here’s an overview of the various complaints lodged against these Oscar contenders.

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.


American Sniper

What’s Different: The key differences between the autobiography Chris Kyle (known as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history) and Clint Eastwood’s film are mostly minor: Kyle quit bull-riding after he was injured badly (not after a breakup); was only 24 or 25 when he enlisted (not an “old man” at 30 as played by 40-year-old Bradley Cooper) and that was not motivated by the U.S. embassy killings in Tanzania and Kenya; Kyle’s first kill was a woman but not a child; there was no such person as “The Butcher”; and the rivalry between Kyle and insurgent sharpshooter Mustafa was highly exaggerated.

Who’s Complaining: The box-office sensation Sniper has been the source of plenty pundit adulation and outrage, but that hasn’t had much to do with fact-checking. Instead the film’s patriotic overtones and details like Kyle’s use of the term “savages” to describe Arabs have provided fodder in the ongoing right-vs.-left culture war, with heavy support from Fox News and much-ballyhooed criticisms from the likes of Michael Moore, Seth Rogen, and Jesse Ventura.



What’s Different: Writer-director Bennett Miller loosely based this dark wrestling drama on Mark Schultz’s autobiography, Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold, and admitted in the press notes that his film is “fact to fiction as a vehicle back to truth.” Entertainment Weekly enumerated a handful of differences between Schultz’s and Miller’s accounts, including the fact that Schultz (Channing Tatum in the film) was initially recruited by du Pont (Steve Carell) to coach at Villanova before coming to live on du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate, never made that flattering speech about du Pont, and wasn’t hooked onto cocaine by the tycoon (according to Schultz’s account, du Pont ask him where he could find the drug).

Who’s Complaining: The loudest and most emphatic? That’s easy: Mark Schultz. After initially supporting the film in Cannes where he joined Miller and cast for its world premiere, Schultz went on a Twitter rant against the director in late December, calling him, among other things, a “punk,” “p—-y,” and “liar.” “”Everything I’ve ever said positive about the movie I take back. I hate it. i hate it. i hate it. I hate it. i hate it. i hate it. I hate it,” he tweeted. “#Foxcatcher couldn’t have portrayed me more inaccurately if they tried,” he added. (Many of the tweets have since been deleted.) Schultz went into more detail on a Facebook post (also since deleted), in which he criticized Miller for a couple specific liberties he thought the filmmaker took, like du Pont’s physical abuse of the wrestler (“If du Pont ever slapped me I’d have knocked his head off”) and one darkly lit scene’s sexual implication (“Leaving the audience with a feeling that somehow there could have been a sexual relationship between duPont and I is a sickening and insulting lie”). He later apologized, and now appears back in the film’s corner. As recently as Feb. 2, Schultz wrote on Facebook that “Channing and Foxcatcher were robbed” of Oscar nominations, and that “The least the academy can do is give one to Bennett, Mark, or Steve. You have to watch it more than once to get it.”


The Imitation Game

What’s Different: Based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, Morten Tyldum’s biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the genius mathematician focuses primarily on Turing’s time decrypting Nazi communication code during World War II. In a comparison of the book and novel, Slate notedThe Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park,” adding that “the central conceit — that Turing singlehandedly invented and physically built the machine that broke the Germans’ Enigma code — is simply untrue.” Slate is also one of many outlets to report that Turing was much more openly gay than the film represents.

Who’s Complaining: The film’s handling of Turing’s homosexuality has drawn much of the criticism. ”The Imitation Game is far from a brave movie in any way when it comes to Turing’s personal life; it backtracks on his sexuality,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman. “But Is It Gay Enough?” queried a headline on Gawker. Turing’s homosexuality isn’t revealed until the film’s third act (he would ultimately be convicted of indecency, be chemically castrated, and later commit suicide), but as Slate’s L.V. Anderson writes, “Hodges’ biography is filled with instances in which Turing boldly made advances toward other men — mostly without success. Turing also told his friends and colleagues about his homosexuality.” Screenwriter Graham Moore responded to the complaints recently at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, telling reporters, “Most of the movie takes place at Bletchley, where he was famously celibate… It’s not like we cut it out. It never came up.”



What’s Different: Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. drama starring David Oyelowo focuses on the civil rights leader’s Alabama marches of 1965 in the lead-up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There are some minor fictionalizations for the sake of simplification — like the fact that the ill-fated Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) died a week later in the hospital, not in the diner where he was shot. And also some timeline discrepancies: Though King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech appears to take place around the same time of the church bombing, it came one year later; and TV viewers did not watch the violence of Bloody Sunday live like the film suggests, but hours later. The element of the biopic that’s received the most ink, however, is the portrayal of the testy relationship between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson; MLK tirelessly urges a resistant LBJ to act throughout the film.

Who’s Complaining: In late-December, Johnson historian Mark K. Updegrove called the film’s depiction a “mischaracterization,” writing that “in truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.” The film came under further scrutiny days later when Johnson’s top assistant at the time, Joseph A. Califano Jr., penned a pointed op-ed in the Washington Post where he criticized the filmmakers for “taking dramatic, trumped-up license” and argued that “Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement.” DuVernay responded to his claim on Twitter, telling Hitfix editor Gregory Ellwood, “[The] notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) black citizens who made it so.” DuVernay also pointed to a New Yorker article from 2013 that reported Johnson had in fact asked King to wait while he first passed legislation on the War on Poverty as well as other bills.


The Theory of Everything

What’s Different: Like Sniper, Foxcatcher, and Imitation Game, the Stephen Hawking biopic Theory of Everything (starring Eddie Redmayne as the famed theoretical physicist and Felicity Jones as his wife) is also based on a book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking. Time magazine pointed out several differences from the source material, including that Hawking’s celebrity status after the publication of A Brief History of Time (“he behaved like ‘an all-powerful emperor’”) and his increasingly stronger atheist beliefs both may have played factors in the separation, which comes across surprisingly rosy in the film.

Who’s Complaining: Like Sniper, it’s not necessarily factual differences that have followed Theory. Slate’s Anderson writes that, “On balance, the film is fairly faithful to Travelling to Infinity, but it makes Hawking out to be more sympathetic than he comes across in the book.” Some film critics derided Theory for focusing too heavily on Hawking’s personal life and not enough on his scientific achievements (“It loses track of the source of its subject’s fame,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times). Hawking, however, weighed in on the movie’s fact-versus-fiction dilemma, calling it “broadly true.”

Photos: Paramount (2), Focus Features, The Weinstein Co., Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Classics