There’s a certain perversity in the decision to open “fact-based” movies at the close of an election season. After months of political noise, facts have become something like black holes in our public conversation – rhetoric in search of truth.
Still, having been trained as a newsman, I habitually welcome films like Green Book, The Front Runner, Roma and First Man — stories forcefully based on real lives and real events. Fact-based movies offer an authenticity and verisimilitude (that ugly word from school) that are missing from Hollywood dramas like A Star Is Born. But the genre also offers its own afflictions: Films can be pedantic, or by contrast, aggressively ambiguous, and hence particularly vulnerable to critics. Pure fiction can be attacked as dopey; a fact-based movie can be dismissed as “fake news.”
The healthiest antidote to months of political noise, of course, is to avoid the genre completely and bask in vintage MGM musicals, or perhaps Abbott and Costello clips. This is mind-healing fare; but then there’s the less cowardly option: Getting real.
The four films I cited are studies in contrast: Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly, is a male-bonding road movie set in the racially divided ‘60s South. The Front Runner focuses on the obliteration of Gary Hart’s political career in 1988. Roma is a cinematic meditation on Alfonso Cuarón’s youth. First Man focuses on the psyche of Neil Armstrong, the moon-walker.
All have this in common: They are based on first hand accounts, whether letters (Green Book) or books by insiders (Front Runner). But if their voices are vivid, even painfully so, they’re often frustrating. In The Front Runner, Jason Reitman retreats from taking a point of view on Gary Hart. Shot in the cinema verite style of The Candidate (the Robert Redford film directed by Michael Ritchie), Reitman’s movie dotes on ambiguities. Reporters are the good guys, as in Spotlight, but also the hiding-in-the-bushes bad guys, bent on invading Hart’s privacy. After the film was shot, we learned that Hart’s fall was, in fact, carefully crafted by Republican hit men, not the result of sharp investigative reporting.
Ambiguities also impact First Man. Scrupulously researched and superbly shot, its key scenes focus on a man who is an emotional void. Ryan Gosling is convincingly chilly — the death of a child is suggested as the trigger. But as Anthony Lane points up in the New Yorker, the movie becomes as chilly as its protagonist.
In Roma, Cuarón summons up his extraordinary filmmaking gifts to depict a family caught up in fires, earthquakes, student riots and personal betrayal, but his focus is on the nuances of humble Mexican family life – clearly Cuarón’s. As some critics point out, its characters never come to grips with their destinies, their aim is simply to quietly endure. Hence there is no hint of resolution.
In his own quirky way, Farrelly has a more defined story to spin in Green Book, but he, too, has been hassled by some critics for doing so. Farrelly is himself odd casting for this movie. He and his brother, Bobby, gave us There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, and glints of comedy spark the harrowing road movie he’s now fostered. “If I see an opportunity for a joke, I can’t resist,” Peter concedes, and to my taste, the comedic asides reinforce the story.
The movie’s title stems from the actual survival guide called The Green Book, created by black travelers of that period who were forced to navigate “whites only” hotels and restaurants. The trek in this case involves a rough-hewn Mafia-style driver and bodyguard, played by a surprising Viggo Mortensen, and a brilliant concert pianist (Mahershala Ali, who won plaudits in Moonlight).
As the road movie unfolds, each character puts himself at risk in saving the other. To some critics, Green Book is inflicted with Driving-Miss-Daisy sentimentality – it is the polar opposite of 12 Years a Slave. But Farrelly’s showmanship, and the skills of his cast, help him overcome that challenge. In fact, Green Book was co-written by Tony Vallelonga, the son of the driver-bodyguard based on his father’s letters which could not be referenced before his death.
So do facts survive their ambiguities? Surveying these movies, I would argue that they embellish them. But I think I’ll still need those old MGM musicals.