Official Secrets and true stories: Why movies are obsessed with real life

From the Emmys to the Oscars, documentaries and fictionalized drama expose hard truths.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
7 min read
Atsushi Nishijima

Keira Knightley is watching the buildup to the Iraq war on the TV. But her husband finds the news hard to swallow. "Can't we watch something else?" he asks.

That's a scene from the new movie Official Secrets, but it's probably the sort of moment that has played out for real in your living room. World-changing events are often too big or too awful to comprehend as they unfold on the news, and all too often we end up just watching something else. But in our turbulent times, various new movies and documentaries confront those real events -- and dare us to look away.

The true story is a major trend in cinema. At this year's Emmys on Sept. 22, four out of the five shows nominated for the Outstanding Limited Series award are based on true stories: Escape at Dannemora, Fosse/Verdon, When They See Us and Chernobyl. No less than five of this year's best picture Oscar nominees -- Bohemian Rhapsody, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Green Book and Vice -- were based on real people and events.

At this year's Sundance Film Festival in January, there were so many reality-inspired movies that the festival featured not one but two films dramatizing the exploits of real-life intelligence agency whistleblowers. Official Secrets, which opens in US theaters Friday, Aug. 30, stars Knightley as real-life British spy Katherine Gun. And The Report, which opens in theaters Nov. 15, stars Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, the man who compiled the dossier exposing CIA torture.

These films may be dramatizations, but they crackle with authenticity. "Fiction is my medium for telling the truth," Official Secrets director Gavin Hood told CNET at the film's Sundance premiere. "Fiction, or dramatizing using actors, is a great way of searching for another truth."

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Kiera Knightley tells the tale of real-life whistleblower Katherine Gun in Official Secrets.


Alongside these dramatizations were numerous straight-up documentaries tackling recent scandals. On the subject of technology, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley looks at the Theranos fraud, while The Great Hack delves into the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Silicon Valley and its technological off-shoots have an inordinate influence on our lives that's often invisible, so it's important to shine a light on it.

Meanwhile HBO's Leaving Neverland drew protest from Michael Jackson fans with its unflinching exploration of alleged sexual abuse by the pop superstar, while the searing Untouchable gave voice to the women accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. In 2018 there were two separate retellings of the Getty kidnapping, while in 2019 there'll be both a movie and a TV show about the sexual harassment allegations against Fox News boss Roger Ailes.

Iraq, Theranos, Weinstein. We know these names and phrases from the headlines. But how many of us understand the full significance of even these recent stories? Films like Untouchable or The Report have the power to summarize complex situations, often with the perspective of a few years distance from the events.

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The Theranos fraud was explored in The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley.


The Report, for example, is a stunningly clear-sighted exploration of a dauntingly complex story. It's dense with facts and details about government wrongdoing, but the movie's fictionalized format gives you something you wouldn't get even from the real Daniel Jones' actual 7,000-word report. Not only does the movie compress a huge amount of information about the CIA's ineffective torture program and the ensuing cover-up into an easily digestible and grippingly dramatic form, it also illustrates the wider context. The electrifying film depicts the wheels within wheels of government, shining a light on the connections between the CIA, the White House and politicians on both sides -- all of whom had their own agendas to serve.

Recounting a true story through a semi-fictionalized lens is a practice going back at least as far as Shakespeare's history plays, points out Alex von Tunzelmann, historian and author of the book Reel History. "If you just want the facts, there are plenty of excellent history books and documentaries you can reach for instead," she explains. "Fiction is important because it helps us understand deeper human truths than sometimes straightforward nonfiction can, whether history or current events."

Take the blistering World War II drama The Captain, for example. It tells the true story of a man who stole a German officer's uniform and used the cloak of authority to lead others into unspeakable atrocities. The film ends with a surreal sequence in which the Captain and his men appear on modern-day streets and attack passers-by, drawing a line from the lessons of history to the horrors of today.

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Wrestling comedy Fighting With My Family will clothesline you right in the feels.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Outrage crackles from the screen in The Captain and The Report. The same is true of many of the documentaries and films confronting horrifying real events -- but not all these true stories are so heavy. Some offer insight into uplifting and joyful true stories.

Knock Down the House, for instance, is an up-to-the-minute documentary tracing the rise of a new generation of political candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rocketman took us inside the music of Elton John. Fighting With My Family is a surprisingly heartwarming rags-to-riches tale set in the knockabout world of professional wrestling. And Netflix's drama The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the directing debut for Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, tells the inspirational true story of a young boy in Malawi who invented an unconventional way to save his village from famine.

But in our turbulent times, films have a power to expose true stories with a directness that's often diffused when we're reading or hearing about dark stuff day-in and day-out. We might be guilty of tuning out the continual waves of awful news and revelations about, say, Weinstein. But when we look into the eyes of the women telling their stories in the documentary Untouchable, we understand the full weight of their ordeal.

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Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman, a true story told through the lenses of fantasy.

Gavin Bond/Paramount Pictures

Viewers looking for escapism might be tired of reality -- no wonder the choice at the box office is often between bleak true stories at one extreme and ultrafantasy like Marvel's Avengers at the other. Perhaps we're hitting peak true story -- it's certainly questionable whether we need to see chiseled heartthrob Zac Efron romanticizing serial killer Ted Bundy, for example, in Sundance premiere Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Yet even Sundance's out-and-out fiction movies were often informed by reality. Amazon spent a reported $13 million buying Late Night, a Mindy Kaling comedy skewering the timely subject of women's representation in the media. HBO's bitingly witty Succession is based on the Murdoch family. And the harrowing but utterly compelling Share is a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about sexual abuse. Although it isn't based on a specific true story, it sums up many real-life incidents and the contemporary #MeToo climate.

Using actors and dramatizing the story is attractive because it allows us to explore the events we can't otherwise see. We don't have cameras inside the CIA or Britain's GCHQ, so The Report and Official Secrets use actors and imagined scenarios to show what happened. These films allow us to turn the tables on the government's operatives -- for once, it's us spying on them.

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Actors Maynor Alvarado and Manuel Uriza re-create true events in drama/documentary hybrid The Infiltrators.


Another approach to telling a true story is to blend documentary with dramatized reconstruction. The Infiltrators won awards at Sundance with its hybrid approach, as part of the film is made up of real footage of activists campaigning against migrant detention and deportation in the US. Actors are then used to act out what happened inside a detention center. This combination of footage and fiction is a novel approach that could be confusing because you have to remember two sets of faces and match them together. Fortunately, directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra deftly manage the two different sides of the retelling.  

The problem with fictionalizing true stories is that we're left to wonder whether what we're watching actually happened or if we're dealing with a lot of artistic license. The 2018 crime satire American Animals cleverly explores the nature of "true stories" -- it combines fictionalized storytelling with interview footage of the real-life criminals telling their tale, only to yank the rug from under you with a twist questioning how much was real.

Compressing events and combining several real people into one fictional character makes events easier to understand and helps the audience pick up on the underlying themes, but for any film there's a line where "fictionalized" could become pure fiction. On that note, The Report has a surreal meta moment when the characters react with dismay at the depiction of torture in another reality-based movie, 2012's contentious Zero Dark Thirty.

"It's always a battle between fact and fiction," explains Dome Karukoski, who directed a biopic about Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien. Tolkien's family pointedly distanced themselves from the film, but Karukoski believes Tolkien himself would respect the way the story was told. "What the film tries to do is flush out the emotional truth of the character," he told me.

And as Alex von Tunzelmann pointed out in an article for the Guardian, "Even the most inaccurate film can prompt questions, spark debate, sharpen our ability to assess and analyze".

There's a danger that these questions, debates, assessments and analyses may come too late. Documentaries and films help us understand the major events of our time, but only after the fact -- we can't do anything about CIA torture or Weinstein now. Those things are history. But what we can do is get angry about what happened and work to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.

The Report, for example, draws a line between the use of torture under President George W. Bush and the subsequent use of drone strikes under President Barack Obama. The documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? focuses on Cohn, a political fixer who was infamous for his work with Joseph McCarthy and who later represented a young Donald Trump. These films make clear the past is intertwined with the present.

The lineup of reality-based Emmy and Oscar nominees shows the true story is here to stay. Films and documentaries are doing more than ever to illuminate and explain world-changing events -- it's our responsibility as viewers not to look away.

Which may be the hardest truth of all.

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This story was originally published on Feb. 18, 2019.