Selma is 100% historically accurate but Imitation Game just 41.4%, says study

A scene-by-scene analysis of recent Oscar contenders by data site Information is Beautiful gives full marks for historical accuracy to Martin Luther King biopic

The liberties taken by films purporting to retell real-life stories vary enormously, a new study has found. The data-based site Information is Beautiful looked at 14 key fact-based Oscar contenders since the turn of the decade, examining the veracity of each scene.

They found that while every single incident in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s “painstaking” biopic of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, seemed sound, other similar films fell short. However, the study does not allow for omitted information, simply examining those scenes which the film chooses to include.

Only 41.4% of the scenes in Alan Turing movie The Imitation Game were deemed “real”. “To be fair,” said the analysts of the first film, “shoe-horning the incredible complexity of the Enigma machine and cryptography in general was never going to be easy. But this film just rips the historical record to shreds.” Graham Moore’s screenplay picked up the film’s sole Oscar in 2015.

Both scores concur with the grades issued by Alex von Tunzelmann, the historian who wrote a weekly series for the Guardian rating the historical accuracy of films. She praised Selma as “well-researched, accomplished and fair-minded”, while her verdict on The Imitation Game was that it was “as much of a garbled mess as a heap of unbroken code. For its appalling suggestion that Alan Turing might have covered up for a Soviet spy, it must be sent straight to the bottom of the class.”

Said von Tunzelmann of the report: “The results are mostly in the right ballpark, but I’d be reluctant to issue such precise percentage-point scores on historical accuracy. It’s a nice touch that you can alter the pedantry level on the site. Even so, historical truth isn’t a binary: you need fuzzy logic.

“Furthermore, some lies are bigger than others. Most films have to alter details of character and timeline to fit their stories into a 90 or 120 minute runtime. That is much less historically offensive than, say, what The Imitation Game does, which is to falsely allege that Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, was mixed up with the Cambridge Spies, some of Britain’s most notorious traitors.”

There was also scant praise from Information is Beautiful for American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s film about Navy Seal Chris Kyle, which was judged 56.9% accurate. “A lot of the events in the movie did happen,” it said, “but Kyle’s involvement in them was repeatedly exaggerated. His tragic hero status was a Hollywood flourish – by all accounts (including his own) he thrived off his job and it didn’t bother him much.”

Overall, scores were high, with last year’s best picture winner, Spotlight, taking 81.6%, financial crisis drama The Big Short 91.4%, Bridge of Spies 89.9%, 12 Years a Slave 88.1%, and Rush 81.9%, Captain Phillips 81.4% and The Wolf of Wall Street 74.6%.

Slightly less impressive were the percentages for The Social Network (76.1%), The King’s Speech (73.4%), Philomena (69.8%) and Dallas Buyers Club (61.4%).

The strictness of this accuracy – and the extent to which it matters – has been a subject for keen debate over the past few years, as the number of fact-based awards contenders has risen dramatically.

Those movies vying for awards this year which flout a basis in fact include biopics of Jackie Kennedy (Jackie), the man behind McDonald’s (The Founder) and slave revolt leader Nat Turner (The Birth of a Nation). Also in the mix are Loving, about a couple who fought a ban on interracial marriage; Hidden Figures, about three black female Nasa mathematicians; Lion, with Dev Patel as a man who used Google Maps to track down his long-lost family and Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s second world war epic about a pacifist medic.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp