Foxcatcher starring Steve Carell, Channing TatumIt was inevitable, with so many inspired-by-a-true-story films in the Oscar race, that there would be grumbling about the inaccuracies of various awards-contending movies. This year, however, all those complaints seemed to emerge at once, mostly during the past week. And the gripes are especially bitter, seemingly aimed not just at questioning the movies' factuality but also at sabotaging their chances of winning awards. It's this sort of mudslinging that has many observers wondering if those who complain are actually doing the bidding of campaigners for competing films and performers.

The loudest trash talk last week came from gold-medal-winning Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, who is played by Channing Tatum in the awards-contender "Foxcatcher." Noticing that reviewers of the recently-released films have found a subtext of homosexuality in the movie (though it's all in the way that creepy coach John du Pont, played by Steve Carell, behaves toward Schultz, and not in the wrestler's own conduct), Schultz has taken to Facebook and Twitter to defend himself against what he claims are interpretations that are "jeopardizing my legacy." The target of his ire, however, is not the critics but the movie, and director Bennett Miller in particular.

Schultz's late-blooming revulsion has made Oscar pundits curious, given that, just a few months ago, he was appearing alongside Miller at the movie's Cannes premiere and was praising the film on the same social media outlets where he was now criticizing it. (Tatum, too, has said that Schultz helped him create his portrayal.) Did he only just recently read reviews that he felt questioned his heterosexuality, or did the campaigners behind some rival film put him up to it? After all, he didn't just challenge the film's accuracy; he threatened Miller's career. As he tweeted last Wednesday, "YOU CROSSED THE LINE MILLER. WE"RE DONE. YOU'RE CAREER IS OVER. YOU THINK I CAN'T DO IT. WATCH ME." (And that was just one of many of his anti-Miller tweets, some of which the wrestler has since deleted, but which were preserved by the Hollywood Reporter.) He took off the caps-lock for one tweet that read, "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."

On Friday, his temper having perhaps cooled, Schultz took to Facebook, saying that his main point of contention with Miller was a recent interview in which Miller did not challenge a reporter's question about a scene that the reporter felt implied a sexual relationship between the wrestler and du Pont. Schultz said he signed off only reluctantly on the scene in question, believing that Miller would clear up its ambiguity, at least in interviews. Schultz concluded by apologizing for unwittingly creating a media firestorm and undermining the work of those he collaborated with on the film. "I hope this will help in resolving any undue conflict these actions have created," he wrote, but the damage to the film's Oscar hopes may already have been done.

There have also been complaints about "Selma," notably from Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was an aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, and who wrote an editorial in the Washington Post on December 26 complaining that the film made Johnson out to be too much of an obstacle to Martin Luther King's planned voting-rights march in the title Alabama city. In fact, Califano claimed, the march was LBJ's idea. He concluded that "the movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season."

"Selma" director Ava DuVernay was incredulous, posting a tweet in response, calling the notion that the Selma march was LBJ's idea "jaw-dropping and offensive" to those who organized and participated in the march. In fact, Johnson did urge King to stage a media event to bring attention to the voting-rights issue, but he didn't pick the place or suggest a march. Nor did the two men agree on the timing of the event; King favored immediate action, while Johnson wanted him to wait in order to avoid distracting Congress from the rest of the president's agenda, both domestic (anti-poverty legislation) and foreign (America's growing military commitment to the Vietnam War).

Still, the movie seems to portray Johnson as more antagonistic to King and his goals than he actually was. Even Andrew Young, who was a longtime King associate before his own celebrated political career, has said that the movie gets everything right except for the relationship between the reverend and the president. Nonetheless, it's one thing for Califano to question the on-screen portrayal of that relationship; it's another for him to urge that "Selma" should "be ruled out" for awards consideration and that no one should see it. Again, conspiracy-minded Oscar experts have wondered: what made Califano go to such extreme lengths to dis the movie?

Then there's journalist Christian Caryl's dismantling of "The Imitation Game" in the New York Review of Books. Caryl claims that director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore have gotten plenty wrong about World War II-era codebreaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing. Caryl writes that Benedict Cumberbatch has been directed to play Turing as a geeky, emotionless Vulcan, despite accounts by biographers and contemporaries who found him affable and charming. He says the movie also creates antagonisms between Turing and his co-workers and superiors that didn't exist, downplays his effectiveness as a cryptographer in the early years of the war (preferring to stage a dramatic breakthrough later on), invents a blackmail subplot that didn't happen, and makes Turing a martyr driven to suicide by government persecution over his then-illegal homosexuality. (Caryl says the circumstances surrounding his death are much more complicated and mysterious.) "Monstrous hogwash" is one of the kinder phrases the writer uses to describe the film, and he marvels that there hasn't been more outrage about the picture among Turing experts and surviving members of his circle.

These sort of complaints are par for the course whenever supposedly fact-based historical dramas compete at awards season, with grumblings about accuracy and portraying real-life figures in a more flattering light than they deserved having plagued recent contenders from "A Beautiful Mind" to "The King's Speech." Most notoriously, there was an outcry over "Zero Dark Thirty," with political editorialists and bloggers griping that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal gave too much credit to the use of torture on prisoners in yielding valuable information that led to the successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. (Indeed, the recent Senate torture report seems to bear out this criticism.) As a result, "ZDT" went from being considered a surefire Oscar contender to a near-shutout at awards time, winning an Oscar only for Best Sound Editing.

Then again, Bigelow and Boal were also targeted for criticism for their previous movie, "The Hurt Locker," a fictional drama loosely based on Boal's reporting about real-life bomb squad soldiers deployed in Iraq. Some real-life service members complained that the film not only made bomb defusers look more reckless than their real-life counterparts, but was also rife with inaccuracies about what military service in the Iraq War was like. (Then again, many service members stood up for the film's accuracy; apparently, "The Hurt Locker" was truer to some people's wartime experience than others.) None of the complaints kept the film from winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, but the gripes were especially bitter for a film that did not pretend to be a depiction of actual events or people, and that went out of its way to avoid making a political statement about the Iraq War.

Three things about Oscar mudslinging: First, it's seldom effective in derailing a movie's awards chances, with "ZDT" a notable exception. Last year, there were mutterings about the factuality of "12 Years a Slave" (which went on to win Best Picture), "Dallas Buyers Club," and "Captain Phillips," all of which Academy members seemed to ignore.

Second, it's usually hard or impossible to trace complaints from third-party sources to a rival picture's campaign. People often blame Harvey Weinstein, whose track record of brilliant Oscar campaigning on behalf of his company's films is sometimes said to include anonymously-placed mudslinging against competing movies, but there's never any proof. This week, however, there was a tweet bringing attention to Schultz's complaints about Sony Pictures Classics' "Foxcatcher" that came from an account named "WB Digital." According to the Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. immediately denounced the account as a fake, though the studio later acknowledged that it was a real account belonging to an independent marketing consultant freelancing for the studio, which promptly suspended the account and fired the marketer. After all, the Academy takes campaigning violations very seriously; last year, it disqualified Best Song nominee "Alone Yet Not Alone" after ruling that composer Bruce Broughton, a member of the Academy's music branch executive committee, had abused his authority by touting his song via e-mails to fellow Academy voters. No one contemplating a possible win in the major categories (picture, acting, directing, and screenwriting) wants to be disqualified over a wayward tweet.

Third, the grumbling about accuracy seems to suggest a fundamental misunderstanding about the way historical dramas work. They're not documentaries, and there's always some speculation and fudging for dramatic purposes. Yeah, it's probably not fair to Lyndon Johnson to portray him as a stumbling block to civil rights activism instead of a sympathizer who disagreed about tactics, and it may do a disservice to Turing to oversimplify his life story, but it may also make for more effective drama. Indeed, if Shakespeare had been held to the standards of modern-day screenwriters, historical dramas like "Richard III" would have been written off centuries ago as scurrilous slanders. Even historians will tell you that much of history is never settled, with arguments over interpretations of events continuing endlessly. "Selma," "Foxcatcher," and "Imitation Game" each offer their own interpretations; no doubt none of them will be the last word on the events they depict. Like most moviegoers, members of the Academy aren't historians and shouldn't be expected to serve as arbiters of what really happened. All they can do is determine which narratives work best as movies. The conversations about the truth will and should continue, and at least we can thank these films for starting those conversations. As DuVernay tweeted, "Bottom line is, folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it or LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself."
categories Movies, Oscars, Awards