Ava DuVernay’s (A Wrinkle in Time) Selma tops the list as most truthful, with a staggering 100 percent providing you allow for some artistic license — by Information is Beautiful standards, this means that while every word uttered might not be exactly how it went, it’s close enough to the verified truth that it might as well be 100 percent accurate. Even if you apply the most rigid standards, however, Selma still tops the list at 81.4 percent true.
The scene-by-scene breakdown for the movies offers some insight into the realities of the films, often showcasing either how far the film went in creating its narrative or how meticulous it was in presenting fact. Of course, depending on how pedantic you want to be, that can be a lot or a little. For example, in the most pedantic viewing of Selma, the film loses points for showing characters dying immediately in an attack versus dying two days later in real life.
It’s an interesting way to break down the licenses filmmakers often need to take in order to bring their stories to the screen. In the case of American Sniper and The Imitation Game, the number of liberties taken are staggering, proving that you can’t always take “based on a true story” at strict face value. In the end, it doesn’t seem to take much in order to earn the true story label.
That in itself isn’t terribly surprising. These are, after all, still just movies, and the limits of the form means that license sometimes needs to be taken in order to hammer certain themes home. Perhaps we should look at these “true stories” as jumping-off points for understanding the bigger picture. Even with meticulous effort, parts of the story are bound to get condensed or left out or, in some cases, get made of whole cloth. That doesn’t make them any worse as movies, but that does mean that often there’s plenty more story to be told when the lights go up.