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Nelson Mandela, Movies, and History

The real story is more interesting than dramatizations.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 10, 2013

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Nelson Mandela, Movies, and History

Much has been written about the recently-departed Nelson Mandela. Most good, some ill,some, like my own thoughts, generally positive when recognizing we don't really know all the details of his life or South African politics.

But his passing does raise an interesting problem. Many know the story of Mandela's support for the nearly all-white national team in the Clint Eastwood-directed film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.

What the film didn't tell you is that the team, known as the Springboks, was habitually guilty of dirty play. Bad enough to almost get disqualified from the tournament.

This I learned later, when I watched The 16th Man, part of ESPN's great documentary series 30 For 30.

That made the story far more interesting. It should have been part of Invictus. Apparently, it didn't fit the narrative. For me, it just would have been a more interesting narrative without neglecting that Mandela helped unite the country through his support for the team.

In dramatizations of historical sports events, such details, and the fleshing out of characters responsible for those details, get lost in the plot. This is a problem in Invictus, just as it was in Miracle (although Kurt Russell gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Herb Brooks). 

What also gets lost is nuance. Michael Lewis's book Moneyball, for instance, was so much about details and nuance that to have dramatized it at all was to do it a disservice, and it likely wouldn't have been made without the success and acclaim of the film version of Lewis's The Blind Side, which I've never read but whose movie was sufficiently character-driven to be good. Moneyball demanded a documentary,and probably one of the magnitude of a Ken Burns-style mini-series.

The great sports movies (that is, where a sports contest is the climax; Raging Bull doesn't count) are in my mind The Bad News Bears, Rocky, and North Dallas Forty which all were character-based, The first two had casts of characters so popular, they spawned sequels to varying degrees of varying degrees of unfortunateness. What they had in common was they were fiction, not accountable in any way to history.

When the "real life" sporting events are dramatized, something is always lost. Hard to know exactly what, but when you do, it's bothersome.

What's more bothersome is when the something is inspired by true events, but the moviegoer doesn't know what are or what aren't the "true events." I saw Master and Commander with someone who read the novels about Captain Jack. The characters and plots were fictional, but the maneuvers and trickery in naval confrontations, no matter how seemingly implausible to us moviegoers, had actually happened in real life.

Unstoppable was also "based on a true event" and it accurately showed how a runaway train could and did happen, even though the rest of the movie was rote.

Hoosiers, considered a classic for some reason, has the same element: one of the smallest high schools in Indiana faces off against one of the largest for the state basketball championship. It's based on a true event from the 1950's. But the plot behind the school getting to the championship is based on stock characters you see from other movies, and has nothing to do with the real story.

Even more interesting, in the real story, Oscar Robertson played for the big-city team. He's on the short list of the greatest players of all time.

That is by far more interesting to me than the by-the-numbers Hoosiers plot. I'd rather learn about the story of the real events.

I understand why some details and nuance are omitted for story purposes in a dramatization. I understand the importance of making a good movie for its own sake. Argo is an example.

Maybe dramatizations of actual events lead to curiosity among some of us, inspiring us to know the real story.

But the real story is often far more interesting, and I'd prefer it be told -- if not in dramatization, than in documentary.

Because my experience is that the documentary beats the dramatization in real-life sports stories. Every time. 

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