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In John 8:32, Jesus says the truth will set us free. But to Hollywood, truth is often a burden. A hindrance. It constricts creativity. If anything, filmmakers want to be set free from truth. Think about it. How true to life are action heroes who dispatch eight bad guys with a six-shooter while running unscathed through a hail of gunfire? And while one in four sexually active 12- to 17-year-olds will get an STD this year, that won't be reflected in raunchy teen comedies. Such realism just spoils the fun. Hollywood's unwritten code is this: Don't ever let the truth get in the way of a marketable story. In late 2001, however, the motion picture industry came under increased fire, specifically for playing fast and loose with the facts in movies claiming to be "based on a true story." Artistic license notwithstanding, families of people misrepresented or unfairly maligned onscreen are having a fit. Some have even filed lawsuits. All because they recognize film's ability to create a lasting impression in the minds of viewers.

"If you say something is true, then don't make it up. … You can't take real people's lives, say you're telling a true story, and then holler 'free speech,'" argues the attorney representing Jodi Tyne, who sued Warner Bros. over the depiction of her ex-husband in The Perfect Storm as an "unseaworthy, emotionally aloof, reckless" fishing boat captain whose excessive risk-taking cost him and his crew their lives. Played in the film by George Clooney, Billy Tyne couldn't survive monster waves in the ill-fated Andrea Gail, which capsized in 1991.

Another transgression occurs in James Cameron's Titanic. The small Scottish town of Dalbeattie is still stinging from that movie's portrayal of favorite son William Murdoch as the officer responsible for shooting panicked passengers, then taking his own life. According to eyewitnesses, the truth of the matter is that Murdoch died a hero. He gave away his life jacket and was swept overboard while deploying a lifeboat. Proverbs 22:1 says, "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold." This man's sterling legacy was tarnished for the sake of expedient storytelling.

Is a filmmaker so different from a journalist? Why shouldn't both be held equally accountable for rendering a fair and accurate portrayal of purportedly "true" events?

"The ground is shifting," lawyer and author John Aquino told USA Today. "The law is still mainly on the [entertainment] industry's side. But the general public is increasingly asking, 'Can they really just make up terrible things about a person just to make their story better?'"

Enjoying tremendous Oscar buzz, Russell Crowe's gripping drama A Beautiful Mind is another flick that has caught flak. This story of schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. has been accused by people close to the Nobel Prize-winner of taking so many liberties that it's more fiction than fact. Mental health professionals object to the suggestion that Nash's most rational, lauded work coincided with severe hallucinations—an impossibility. In fact, when he did become delusional in 1959, his work suffered dramatically.

While viewing A Beautiful Mind, I was especially moved by the strength and support of Nash's wife. You can imagine my disappointment when I later learned that the couple was actually divorced in 1963 and only remarried each other in 2001.

Hollywood is an image plant. A fantasy factory. Movies keep rolling off the assembly line. And more often than not, "truth" is that hunk of debris that got punched out midway through the manufacturing process to create an appropriately sized hole. It hits the floor, is swept up and forgotten. That's something we should all keep in mind when enjoying a "true story" machined and packaged for mass consumption.

Published February 2002