PolitiFact fact-checked the Oscars — here's what it discovered

James D’Arcy, left, and Kenneth Branagh in a scene from the film “Dunkirk” (Photo: Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
James D’Arcy, left, and Kenneth Branagh in a scene from the film “Dunkirk” (Photo: Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Three of this year’s contenders for the Academy Awards’ Best Picture honor are based on real-life incidents: Darkest Hour, about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s early WWII efforts to combat the threat of Nazi Germany; Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s epic about the evacuation of British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during WWII; and The Post, about the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. All three are acclaimed dramatizations of momentous 20th-century events, but how true are they? A new series of articles now offers the answers.

PolitiFact, which is dedicated to gauging the validity of journalism, turned its attention to cinema and, in particular, those three movies, analyzing the veracity of each big-screen work in decidedly thorough fashion. Its results prove that, in all three cases, the filmmakers stretched the truth — if not outright, by creating imaginary dynamics — in order to bolster the drama. For example, while The Post depicts former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) objecting to the publication of the Pentagon Papers at one point, Politifact reveals that he was actually supportive of the measure, due to his mounting distaste for the military campaign. Similarly, unlike in Darkest Hour, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) never paid a nighttime visit to Churchill (Gary Oldman) in his bedroom, nor did he ride the Underground and gauge commuters’ feelings about the war. And while Dunkirk clearly seems to be the most historically spot-on film of the trio, it reportedly mischaracterizes the Air Force’s role; PolitiFact argues that — counter to Nolan’s depiction — there was no holding back of fighter planes for a later defense of England.

Whether such fudging of the record undercuts the worthiness of Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, or The Post remains a debatable point, but there’s no doubt that this analysis provides a fascinating glimpse into the process of adapting history for the big screen. Meanwhile, we’ll know soon enough whether any of these three films makes history itself when they all vie for Oscar gold at the 90th Academy Awards this Sunday.

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