Information is Beautiful's Based on a True True Story? purports to rate recent films by how closely they stuck with the facts of the story they were purporting to tell. It's a really nice, slickly presented site but in the end it stands or falls on the quality of the fact-checking. Which, funnily enough, turns out to be less straightforward than it seems.

The two top-rated films illustrate this point nicely:

The Big Short, which earns the top rating of 77.9% even when the pedantry setting is turned up to Only the absolute truth, may just be a particularly bad example to test this system against. Drill down to the scene-by-scene True or False ratings to see why:

  • The scene relatively early in the film where a couple of the characters go out to Florida to investigate the housing market because their boss wants evidence of whether mortgages are really being handed out to people with little prospect of repaying them and they find lots of relatively newly built housing occupied by borrowers who don't have anything like enough income to support the debt they've taken on and who are totally unaware 1 of the trouble they're going to be in gets a False rating because although some of the staff did visit Florida and did find plenty of evidence of how bad things were, they didn't actually encounter a crocodile in a swimming pool.
  • The celebrity-cameo scenes - where Margot Robbie explains why packaging good and bad loans together as bonds was such a bad idea, and where Selena Gomez pops up to illustrate how disconnected from reality the crowd's bets on her winning at blackjack were - are rated as True. The idea is that though obviously neither celebrity was in any way involved in the events the film was depicting, and for obvious reasons they didn't make a cameo appearance in the book upon which the film was based, the explanations they were proffering about how packaging mortgages as bonds masked the low quality of many of the individual mortgages and synthetic CDOs worked were in the book.

I really liked the cameos by Robbie, Bourdain, Thaler and Gomez - I thought they worked really well as the equivalent of what I would imagine was a bunch of lengthy footnotes in the book - but I find it very hard to swallow that these scenes' True ratings contributed to the film's overall rating. Perhaps there needs to be a third rating - Stylistic Choice - 2 to indicate when the film-maker isn't trying to show something that actually happened in the story they're telling and exclude that scene from the truth rating altogether.

I'm much happier with how the truth rating approach applies to the second most truthful film listed, Rush. It confirms that some of the scenes I liked in the film 3 aren't based in fact (or at any rate, there's no evidence that they went down that way), but speaking as someone who paid attention to Formula 1 back then I didn't come out of the film feeling that either of the major characters had been hard done by in how the story depicted them. Hunt was an immensely capable driver who had the talent to drive consistently fast (but who allowed himself to drift away from the top of the sport really quickly after winning the drivers' championship), and Lauda was the sort of remorseless, clinical competitor who understood the risks he was taking and applied his undoubted talent to win the big prize multiple times.

So, 'Truth' turns out to be something that can be hard to reduce to a percentage figure. Who knew?

  1. Because the mortgage brokers had been happy to gloss over that side of the mortgage transaction when getting their clients to sign up for the mortgage, in the interest of grabbing their commission on the deal and letting the liabilities when the whole thing collapsed be Someone Else's Problem.

  2. I know: not remotely catchy enough, but I can't think of a good one-word way to express what I'm getting at here. I thought Illustrative of A truth (as opposed to Depicting an event truthfully), but again, Not Catchy Enough.

  3. Like Niki Lauda's first encounter with his future wife starting with her not knowing who he was and ending with his demonstrating just how fast a driver he was capable of being (to the delight of the two tifosi in the back seat, who knew that he was Ferrari's new driver and couldn't believe their luck). Or the scene where Hunt's response to a journalist who asked Lauda how his marriage would be affected by the disfiguration caused by his accident was to catch up with him afterwards and do some damage to his face.