Movie Biopics Are Fake News for the Soul

Battle of the Sexes bends the facts to give us a message of hope—but that's exactly what we need right now

Photography Courtesy of TIFF
A still shot from the movie Battle of the Sexes, courtesy of TIFF

There’s a moment in Battle of the Sexes that seems too perfect to be true. The film centers on the titular 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world at the time, and Bobby Riggs, an avowed chauvanist, shameless self-promoter, and former men’s tennis champion. In real life, as in the film, Riggs challenged King to a match after boasting that, even well past his prime, he could still win against the sport’s best woman player. Yet, while Battle is ostensibly a movie about a famous inter-gender tennis match and its effect on feminism and equality in sports, the heart of the narrative is a dreamy and warm dramatization of King coming to terms with her sexuality.

The too-perfect moment in the movie happens as King (Emma Stone) is preparing to speak to the press after the match. It’s then that she has a heartfelt talk with her friend and tailor, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who gives a brief but stirring speech, envisioning a future where people are free to love whomever they choose. It not only serves as the first time King openly acknowledges her sexuality to a friend but it also ties the events of an exhibition tennis match in the 1970s to the struggles and politics of today. In one tiny monologue about love and acceptance, Battle finds a way to deliver an uplifting message without trying to convince the audience that sexism was vanquished forever in 1973.

But here’s the thing: it probably never happened. Battle of the Sexes is “based on true events”—a phrase that provides copious room for interpretation. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “took the events of three years and compressed them into one year” to make the storyline flow. And so we get real-life events that have been tweaked and fictionalized for maximum drama: King’s tumultuous affair with Marilyn Barnett coincides perfectly with her tennis performance; Riggs earns redemption through saving his marriage; everyone says the right thing at the right time. “Ultimately,” Faris says, “our depiction of what happened is our version of it, and there could be a hundred different versions of any event. I don’t think total accuracy is possible, but we were inspired by these events.”

A story can have various truths, in other words, none more accurate or “right” than another. The beauty of a film, after all, is in its ability to end—giving our lives neat and tidy conclusions. When we watch these moderately fictionalized chapters of someone else’s life, we accept that the purpose is not to experience everything exactly as it happened but to gain something from the experience. That “something” is often insight into our own lives and the world around us. In so-called true stories, real-life complexities—and consequences—are often sacrificed for good storytelling. Battle of the Sexes convinces viewers to emotionally invest in King and Barnett’s love story without being burdened by the fact that Barnett would later wage a lawsuit against King and also, the same year that trial concluded, attempt suicide.

Playing with facts to create something crowd-pleasing leads to the kind of escapism that can keep me afloat while the world tries to drown me with anxiety. Take last year’s uplifting biopic Hidden Figures. The story of Katherine Johnson, the “human computer” who calculated flight trajectories by hand and ultimately became an integral part of America’s moon landing, deserved its mainstream success. The fact that it outright invented several scenes that magnified the racial challenges Johnson faced as a black woman, and portrayed white people as helpful allies of equal rights, was a minor matter. I’ll take what I can get.

As a writer and a person of colour, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the world at large. To be a well-informed member of a minority group in 2017 is to be inundated with daily evidence of how far you have to go to claim the dignity you deserve and how many people are dead set against you achieving that goal. It’s a never-ending chain of setbacks and tragedies that you cannot divorce yourself from; they’re not just happening to people, they’re happening to people like you. A well-crafted narrative that educates and entertains me while giving me hope for the future is the exact type of distraction I need right now and for the foreseeable future; it’s a lie I can trust.

The 2017 selection of films at the Toronto International Film Festival included many movies that have played with the truth, such as The Current War, Borg/McEnroe, The Disaster Artist, The Death of Stalin, and Battle of the Sexes. The Current War takes a bizarrely pro–Thomas Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) stance in a world that is well aware of his crimes and indiscretions; Borg/McEnroe stumbles where Battle succeeds by overestimating the historical importance of a tennis match (and attempting to give a tragic origin story to Bjorn Borg); The Death of Stalin turns a real moment in Russian history into a comedic political satire. None of these movies are overly concerned with objective truth, and some of them would be worse for embracing it.

Film provides a canvas for such philosophical ponderings: there is no consensus on how true stories should be represented on film. Werner Herzog, the well-known documentary maker, calls for embracing “ecstatic truth” (which he says can only be reached through “fabrication, imagination, and stylization”) on one hand and claims that “facts do not constitute truth” on the other. Michael Moore urges documentarians to embrace their role as entertainers. Even Howard Hughes, of billionaire hermit fame (and also the producer of many Hollywood films), had an opinion on the topic: “Never check an interesting fact.”

Ultimately, truth in film has always been more about feelings than facts. We seek not a factual truth but an emotional one. When the story ends, we are presented an epilogue of cherry-picked details about the main characters’ later lives, assuring us that everybody got what they deserved, good or bad.

In a time where it is a daily struggle to find gems of good news, I welcome any stories that sift through the mess of real life and offer a contained, informative, and uplifting narrative for me to consume. In many ways, if even one person watches Battle of the Sexes and chooses to look deeper into the origins of the women’s liberation movement or the history of gay rights in America (just like sales of the nonfiction book Hidden Figures shot up around the film’s release), then the art has justified its own existence. This kind of bending of the truth can feel justified, even bold. Yet that confirmation bias can work both ways. And when it comes to truth and film, taking liberties can also mean perpetuating harmful stereotypes and reinforcing pernicious social structures.

For an example, we can turn to the first feature-length documentary to find critical and commercial success. In 1922, Robert J. Flaherty, an American arctic prospector, author, and amateur filmmaker, released Nanook of the North. The film chronicles Flaherty’s real-life expedition to the Hudson Bay region of the Canadian Arctic. Viewers are guided through the quotidian trials and tribulations of an Inuk hunter named Nanook: we watch him hunt with spears, navigate ice floes with his kayak, and marvel in wonder at a gramophone playing music. The film ends with Nanook, his two wives, and his children sleeping together in an igloo, nestled under a bed of furs as their huskies rest outside.

The work single-handedly changed the world of film: pre-Nanook documentaries were travelogues (glorified travel selfies, really) or simple captured footage of a real-life event (like a newsreel). In comparison, Flaherty’s character-focused look at the daily life of Nanook resonated with audiences; finally, there was a story, with a beginning and an end. But in reality, Nanook’s name was Allakariallak, and he was a hunter who preferred rifles and shotguns to spears and harpoons. His igloo? It was a ceilingless structure built by Flaherty and his team so they could get the shots they needed (real igloos generally can’t accommodate a full family and a film crew). And his wives? They had no relation to Allakariallak; in fact, they were reportedly Flaherty’s common-law wives, helping him out with his project.

A few months after the film’s release, Flaherty released a popular essay, explaining how he staged scenes and stretched the truth. In it, he said that he pushed Allakariallak to portray a lifestyle that hadn’t been seen in Inuit communities for about a century. He also told Allakariallak that the film would be a comedy, to encourage the hunter to act bewildered by technology on camera. And, of course, he also renamed the man, pleading pronunciation (and alliteration).

But he faced little scrutiny as a filmmaker, and, until his death, faced no blowback for the liberties he took with the truth (in 1989, Nanook of the North was enshrined in the United States National Film Registry, a nod to its artistic and cultural merit.) Less is made of how the film also started the trend of omissions in movies causing real-world harm: the film launched the stereotype of the smiling, spear-throwing, simple-minded “Eskimo” that endures even today.

Many contemporary true-story films make a similar bad habit of important and glaring omissions from the lives of real people, excised in a cynical bid to appeal to a hypothetical “mainstream audience.” Look no further than the downplaying of Alan Turing’s gay romances in The Imitation Game, Dr. Dre’s alleged history of violence against women in Straight Outta Compton, and the bizarre whitewashing and use of invented characters in Stonewall. If the positive outcome of sharing true stories is inspiration, then the negative outcome is the erasure of the struggles and existence of marginalized group and the conflation of entire swaths of the human experience with “messy details” that can be expunged from a narrative with little consequence. It’s one thing to simplify a narrative and quite another to sanitize or sensationalize it.

In a world where it feels like awful things will keep happening all the time, forever, there is emotional and mental value in a story that makes us think and feel while sparing us the rough edges of the big picture. If entertainment is escapism from the struggles of real life, though, where does that leave entertainment based on true events? How can you be comforted by the exact same thing you need comfort from? The solution: create an alternate universe. One recognizably similar to ours, with shared events and a sense of accuracy, but with quality-of-life edits that allow you to lose yourself in something pleasant or meaningful. A better world.

And what other way is there to describe our daily, constant trips into our echo chambers and carefully curated worlds than by calling them alternate universes? But there’s a reason why movies end, a reason that exists outside of the practical limits of creating on-camera fiction: we need to take those lessons back into the #nofilter world we all share. Movies based on reality give us a hyperfocused shot of a person’s life, a moment in time presented as a lesson or goal. They shake us by the shoulders and say: “These are the stories that represent the extremes of human achievement. How will your life compare?” They give us an outsized example to live up to but never let us fully mistake the drama for reality.

A curated world becomes one of caricature and extremes. Every cherished belief of yours is supported, every opponent is monstrous. The narratives of fiction don’t work in reality because our lives cannot be summed up in one critical moment that adheres to the three-act structure. We need facts as a baseline, as a commonly agreed-upon reality. Otherwise, we’ll take up full-time residency in these alternative worlds, and it will likely destroy us. We need anchors and hard truths just as much as we need escape and comfort.

Mike Sholars