April 4, 1997 in Seven

Filmmakers Strive For The Truth But Can Give Only One Viewpoint

By The Spokesman-Review

You can’t get away from it. Movies based on “real-life” events typically stretch the truth beyond recognition.

Some prevarication, of course, is only natural. After all, how is it possible for a filmmaker to literally know not only what someone said at any given moment but also what he or she was thinking? Easy answer there: It isn’t.

Sure, you can search out primary and secondary sources - ranging from memoirs to taped recordings, transcripts, interviews, etc. - but even these are open to interpretation. Assuming everyone were interested in telling the literal truth about historical matters, and that’s a pretty big assumption, the resulting stories likely would still differ. And sometimes greatly.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone explains it best to historian Mark C. Carnes in the book “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.”

“If you had five men in a room when an important decision was made, no two of them will agree later on what happened,” Stone says. “They might agree on what time of day it was, or whether the blinds were drawn, but I don’t think you can ever put together an objective viewpoint.”

Stone, of course, is one of the central figures in the movies-as-history controversy. His movies, particularly “JFK” and “Nixon,” have staked a claim on defining contemporary history.

Yet his attempts have more to do with a reading between the lines than a confined study of the actual circumstances. Stone’s interest, as he admits, is “probing into the subterranean and unknown areas that make a human life fully rounded.”

The issue of objective reality and how it relates to the movies is especially pertinent this week with the video release of “Sleepers,” Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s best-selling book (see capsule review).

When Carcaterra’s book was originally published, and again last year when it debuted as a theatrical film release and promptly jumped to No. 1 at the box office, it attracted a number of negative notices. The story upon which the “true-life” film is based, went the cry, is bogus.

Despite intense investigation, no such criminal case was ever found to exist. And both the church entity that Carcaterra refers to and the Manhattan district attorney’s office denied that such a story could have happened.

Even Carcaterra admitted that he didn’t exactly stick to the truth. “You have to change dates, names, places, people,” he said in one interview. “The way they looked, you have to make them look a different way. If it happened here, you have to make it happen there.”

And so on.

None of that, however, held director Levinson back in the slightest. He was “taken by” the story when he read it in galleys, and the book’s “basic truth” overrode any problems he might have had with specific details.

That ostensible “truth,” Levinson told the New York Times, involved such themes as “the concept of neighborhood, the influence of neighborhood, the pluses and minuses of that, the nature of friendship.”

In other words, literal truth is not as important as the points that filmmakers want to make.

Take this contention for what it is. But while watching such films as “JFK” or Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning” or Raoul Walsh’s “They Died With Their Boots On” or even Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,’ try not to confuse what you’re seeing with what actually happened.

And remember the words of Darryl F. Zanuck: “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”

Sleepers ***

Forget that there’s serious doubt about the veracity of the book upon which this film is based, written by New York Daily News writer Lorenzo Carcaterra. As a simple story, director Barry Levinson has shaped Carcaterra’s book into a moving look at how corruption of innocence can alter lives forever - and how that alteration, in this case, leads to a plan for revenge whose complexity rivals anything dreamed up by the elder Alexandre Dumas. When two killers (Ron Eldard, Billy Crudup) shoot a man to death in a Manhattan restaurant, they are prosecuted by a childhood friend (Brad Pitt) who conspires to get them off. Why? Because the dead man was among the guards at a youth facility who had sexually abused them years before. Levinson pushes some scenes beyond credibility (a judge likely would not allow a prosecution witness to self-destruct on the stand), but he gets the most out of his cast, which includes Jason Patric, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and a quartet of young actors led by Brad Renfro (“The Client”). It may not be real, but it’s mostly enthralling. Rated R

Spitfire Grill **-1/2

Ellen Burstyn portrays the owner of a Maine cafe, and Allison Elliot is the young convict who comes to work for her. Between them, they concoct a means of providing Burstyn with a retirement nest egg that ends up revitalizing the whole town and, in the process, uncovers a painful secret or three. While there is much to like about this little film, especially the relationship between Elliott’s character and an abused wife (Marcia Gay Harden), the ending is pure absurdist wish-fulfillment. The film just doesn’t know when enough is enough. Rated PG-13

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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