Gotcha Film Journalism: Where Fact-Checking Fails Us

When James “Whitey” Bulger, South Boston’s notorious crime lord hit the run after the full details of his actions had come to light, he did so with his common law wife, Theresa Stanley. But in the movie “Black Mass” he takes off by himself. Instead he calls his only brother, then-Senator William Bulger to say goodbye, and drives off into the dark night. But that’s another thing: Bulger had two brothers, and three sisters.

As Oprah says "What is the truth?"
As Oprah says “What is the truth?”

As in any biopic or movie based on true events, “Black Mass” takes liberties. And as a film, that’s not intrinsically bad. They are, as with any decision in a movie, artistic choices, made to service the overarching artistic vision. It means in movies like “Black Mass” whole people get lifted out of “history,” or films like “Selma” where dynamics are simplified, and in flicks like “Gravity” NASA safety protocols are nonexistent.

And yet with the release of every film we get a historian telling us someone wasn’t done justice, or a scientist telling us that it’s nice to look out but isn’t close to reality. And in those cases audiences get caught in the middle of this tussle they have nothing to do with.

And in many ways they are right; when movie-makers boast their commitment to the research and development of a film, recalling with pride all the work they spent in getting a story just right, they deserve to be held accountable for an accurate portrayal. But audiences also have to know that they are not walking into a theater to watch a documentary. Hell, even when they are there infinite biases, opinions, and beliefs that shape any storyteller. It’s up to the viewer to discuss what the film’s were, why the creators departed where they did, and whether you think it was a worthwhile exercise.

For me the approach in “Black Mass” made zero sense. They seemed committed to portraying an accurate timeline in all the ways that would most bore their audience, while everything else was a free-for-all. “Gravity,” on the other hand, took an inaccuracy and built out a dynamic and thrilling adventure. “Selma” glossed over some details of MLKJr. and President Johnson’s relationship because—while fascinating, and worthy of their own epic in someway—they less to do with the matter at hand, which was the march in Selma.

Obviously I can’t draw the line in the sand for everyone; if your favorite thing about picking apart what you just watched is fact-checking the content then I suppose that’s your prerogative. But when I discuss my dismay with “Black Mass,” I want to make sure it has more substance than the movie itself. It’s more fun that way—trust me.

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