During all the soccer mania last week, I thought it would be a good time to watch The Damned United, the (very loose) story of the rise of Brian Clough, one of England’s most successful (and colorful) football managers in the 1970s. It was a fun, lighthearted movie: Michael Sheen is fast becoming one of my new favorite British exports, and it was nice to see Timothy Spall acting as anything other than, well, a rat. It’s a classic story of ambition, rivalry, and friendship, and the story arc was so satisfying that when it was over I was left wondering how much of it was true to life.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that — according to Clough’s family and sports historians — very little of it was true at all. I assumed they took a few liberties here and there, but the family was so offended by the changes that they refused to attend the movie’s premiere. One of the footballers portrayed in the movie actually sued the film company, eventually settling out of court.
No one could make a biopic without selecting material from the morass of available data, speculating about the unknowable and giving their work a shape. Biographers, historians and journalists have to do the same things. They, however, are expected to contain their flights of fancy within the bounds set by the known facts. Film-makers, on the other hand, feel free to present what they know to be false.
They get away with this even though biopics frame popular impressions of celebrated personages with far more potency than most other kinds of chronicle. That potency must be all the greater when the subject is a football manager fading from public consciousness, rather than someone like Gandhi or Che whose image is more firmly established by the time his simulacrum hits the screen.
That’s probably true. Not knowing anything about Clough before seeing the movie, the filmmakers could have pulled anything and I wouldn’t have known the difference. Then again, even movies about the vastly more famous have gotten away with some whoppers of their own — think Elizabeth, Braveheart, and so on — and it certainly didn’t hurt their popularity.
So how much fudging of details is allowed when telling supposedly true stories? The Guardian‘s film blog offered the rule of thumb of William Nicholson, the writer of Shadowlands: “The test is to imagine the real person watching the film with you: if you die with embarrassment, you’ve done something wrong.” Or perhaps even more simply, if you’re going to put title cards on the screen, they shouldn’t print flat-out falsehoods (a bar that United doesn’t actually reach).
Does that cut it? Just how much “truth” do we require in our “based on a true story” films? And if the movie is successful as a film in its own right, does it ultimately matter?