We’re living in gray times, bobbing in a sea of information where there is no longer much black or white. We have access to more content than ever — plus raging uncertainty about how much is fact or fiction.
Some folks are convinced they can’t trust politicians or news reporters or even medical experts, and it often seems that no amount of Googling gets us to the truth of many matters. Which brings me to Hollywood and its current crop of films and quasi-documentaries.
Example: Paramount+ is running a 10-part series called “The Offer,” about the making of 1972’s mob epic “The Godfather.” It’s riveting and made all the more compelling by the implication that this is the real backstory of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic. Turns out screenwriter Michael Tolkin got rather carried away in inventing plot lines. He’s been quoted as saying he prefers to forget what’s real and what’s not and “just write.”
Consider the recent Netflix multi-parter “Inventing Anna,” about the con artist who called herself Anna Delvey. The series is based on a well-reported piece in New York magazine, but by the time it was massaged by Hollywood — and padded to fill nine installments — it required the snarky on-screen disclaimer: “This whole story is completely true, except for all that parts that are totally made up.”
Maybe Hollywood needs some parameters, like the kind used for peanut butter and jelly. Federal law says a product must have 90 percent peanuts to be called peanut butter, while jelly requires at least 45 percent actual fruit. So what about movies — especially the supposedly fact-based kind that are popular these days on streaming services? What percentage of facts should a film have to be considered true?
Hollywood has a long history of altering details to fit the screen. But today’s streaming services have expanded the market for content loosely based on real people or real events. It comes at a time when Americans are already struggling to separate truth from lies in cable-TV news coverage. And it plays into the muddle of semi-truths on social media.
HBO recently wrapped up a multi-part series about the Los Angeles Lakers called “Winning Time,” but complaints about accuracy of the production are far from over. The real-life Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West have all complained bitterly about how they were depicted. Abdul-Jabbar wrote last month that the series was “deliberately dishonest,” adding that the show replaced “solid facts” with “flimsy cardboard fictions.”
This is an era some observers are calling Peak TV, but one that might also be termed Bloated TV. Stories that might have made tidy two-hour films are being stretched into multiple installments to accommodate marketing needs of streaming services. Also concerning is the rise of what are loosely called “documentaries” — a genre that once implied journalistic accountability but currently includes a wide range of fictionalized and romanticized treatments.
Showtime’s 10-part drama “The First Lady” examines the historically-significant lives of Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt. The producer, Cathy Schulman, described the creative task as ”imagining the kind of conversations – and arguments – that must have happened inside those White House walls between these events we all know.”
Aaron Sorkin squeezed several year’s worth of occurrences in the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz into a single dramatic week in Amazon’s “Being the Ricardos.” In one pivotal scene, FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover is heard on the telephone declaring that Lucy is “100% cleared” of being a Communist — a call that never actually happened.
Sorkin’s film provides a good example of the struggle viewers face nowadays in seeking out the truth. A few months after its release, Amazon presented a documentary called “Lucy and Desi,” directed by Amy Poehler, which takes a more fact-based look at the showbiz couple. Watching both productions is almost like switching between Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper in search of accurate news.
If it’s true that art imitates life, then producers are inadvertently doing a bang-up job of mimicking what’s so confusing these days in news and politics. Hollywood needs to cut back on what Trump aide Kellyanne Conway famously called “alternative facts.”
Copyright 2022 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at CandidCamera.com.