Rating the “Truthfulness” of Movies

For this blog post, I was looking around on a data visualization website called Information is Beautiful. The website was started by David McCandless, an author who designs infographics. The purpose of the website is to “distil the world’s data, information and knowledge into beautiful and useful graphics & diagrams.” McCandless also boldly states that his “pet-hate is pie charts,” so I figured he at least knows a little bit about presenting data in a truthful way.

As I was scrolling the home page, a post titled “Based on a *True* True Story” caught my eye. The researcher, Stephanie Smith, went through 17 different “Based on a True Story” movies scene by scene to calculate how truthful they are. Each scene was rated on a “truthfulness” scale – True, True-ish, False-ish, False, and Unknown – with a color to represent each level. After coding the whole movie, Smith created data visualizations for each movie, like the ones below.

Movie Infographics

On the website, you can click on each individual bar, which represents a scene, and a box will pop up, explaining why it was labeled the way it was. Another interesting feature of the data set is that there are three different pedantry levels— “Flexible – c’mon, it’s movies!” “Can bear some dramatic license,” and “Only the absolute truth.” The movies have a different rating for each level. For example, under the “flexible” and “some dramatic license” levels, Selma was given 100%. However, on the “absolute truth” level, Selma is only given an 81.4% truth rating.

Overall, I thought this visualization was really informative and helpful. One thing that I found interesting was that there was no explanation or analysis of the data—it is just placed on the page for the reader to draw their own conclusions. On the one hand, I think this good because they are just giving you the facts, not interpreting them for you. On the other hand, though, it would be helpful if there was a written explanation of the methodology. While they do provide a google sheet which breaks the information down scene by scene for each movie, there still was not a summary of the method. An explanation of the methodology would be helpful because I don’t quite understand how Smith assessed the different pedantry levels—how did she decide that a scene was true under one level, but false under another?

Another concern I had was that Smith was treating each “false” as equal. In other words, it doesn’t matter how serious a falsehood is, they all measure the same. Take The Big Short and Bridge of Spies for example. One scene in The Big Short depicts Geller and Shipley wandering around the empty Lehman offices after the big crash. This didn’t actually happen, so the scene is labeled “false.” In Bridge of Spies, the antagonist is depicted as spending the night in jail, which is also “false.” While both falsehoods are treated the same, I don’t personally think they are equal. Showing two people walking around an empty office is different than showing someone in jail—I think the latter is more severe. I do wonder, then, if you can really compare the truth percentages of movies against each other. One movie might have a lot of falsehoods that are not all that crucial, while another might have fewer falsehoods that are more crucial.

Despite some of my uncertainty about the methods, I still think these visualizations are really helpful if you want to know more about how “true” a movie is. I know that when I see “Based on a True Story” I sometimes take that statement at face value. Sure, I understand that there is some truth-stretching and creative additions, but unless I am really interested in the topic, I usually don’t research more. I understand that the movie isn’t totally accurate, but I don’t know what and how much isn’t true. This post definitely got me thinking about how I need to be a more responsible consumer of movies, especially when they claim to be based on a true story. I also wonder if writers and producers need to be more accountable when they create these movies. Perhaps there should be more specificity than “Based on a True Story?” I don’t think that movies should have to say “Warning: only 74% true,” but I do think that there needs to be either more accurate storytelling or more transparency about what “based on” means. I think there needs to be more accountability because there might be a lot of people out there who have misconceptions about historical events because of something they saw in a movie (maybe an interesting topic for my next post?).






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