17 October 2018

Based on an Untrue Movie

When the movie American Animals  came to town this summer it was pretty much foreordained that I would see it.  The subject is attempted theft of rare books from a college library, a subject with which I am not unfamiliar.  In fact, the flick was based on an event I had already blogged briefly about.

To summarize,  four college students decided to get rich by stealing some valuable books from the Special Collections room at the library of Transylvania University in Kentucky.  Their planning technique consisted mostly of getting drunk/stoned and watching heist movies.  The resulting event  was a disaster and about the only positive things you can say about it are: 1) The victims did not suffer lasting physical damage, 2) No books were destroyed, and 3) All four of the fools went to prison.

The movie is worth seeing but I want to bring up one specific complaint about it.  It begins by pompously announcing that: this isn't based on a true story; it is a true story.

And, of course, it ain't.

The gimmick that makes American Animals unique is that while the main part of the story is carried out by actors, it also contains interviews with the actual culprits, and sometimes even shows the same scene more than once, to reflect the version of whoever is talking.  It's clever and interesting, but like I said, you are not seeing a true story.

I have complained before about a better movie that played fast and loose with the facts.  So call me a serial grumbler.

The important things that American Animals got wrong, as far as I am concerned, involved (surprise!) librarians.  The burglars in the movie showed much more concern about harming the rare books librarian than their real life counterparts did.  And the "true story" completely erased the library director who put herself in harm's way to try to stop the theft.  Maybe she didn't give the producers permission to include her?  I don't know but leaving her out was not the truth.

A few more questions and I am not the first person to ask them: If instead of white suburban guys the crooks had been African-American urbanites would this movie have been made?  If so would the script have tried so hard to show them as Good Boys Gone Wrong?  Hell, would they have even survived their arrests?

Unanswerable, of course.

By coincidence I just rewatched another movie based on a true story, one I liked better than American Animals or Argo.  The Informant! concerns Mark Whitacre who is apparently the highest executive to ever voluntarily turn whistleblower about his company's wrong deeds.  In the 1990s Whitacre was a biochemist and high-paid executive for ADM, one of the world's largest food processors.

And he told an FBI agent that his company was involved in an ongoing world-wide conspiracy to fix the prices for corn syrup, which finds its way into everything. As one agent says in amazement "Every American is a victim of corporate crime before he finishes breakfast."  So Whitacre agrees to wear a wire.

This sounds like we are building up to a dark brooding movie with heart-pounding suspense.  That's not what we get.  The flick is full of bright colors and Illinois sunshine and most of the time Whitacre seems to be having a marvelous time doing his spy gig.  At one point he shows his secret recorder to a virtual stranger and explains that he is Secret Agent Double-oh-fourteen "because I'm twice as smart as James Bond!'

Whitacre often provides a running narration on events, which is not surprising.  But his narrative almost never relates to what's going on.  As he is about to plot price-fixing with fellow executives he tells us: "I think I have nice hands.  They're probably my favorite part of my body..."

By now you may have the idea that Whitacre was not playing with a full corn silo.  In fact, as near as I can tell the place where the movie may depart most from the facts is in choosing to show us whether he was crazy from the start, or cracked under pressure.  (As his lawyer points out, FBI agents going undercover get training on coping with a double life.  All Whitacre got was a recorder and a firm handshake.)

I have simplified the story considerably.  The complications are what makes it so fascinating.  I loved watching Scott Bakula and Joel McHale playing FBI agents looking on in stunned horror as shoe after shoe after shoe drops on their case.

One person who seems to have had a wonderful time with this movie is composer Marvin Hamlisch.  In keeping with the spirit of the film, his music usually has nothing to do with the plot of the film.  When a character is taking a lie detector test the accompanying music is -- a square dance?

In closing, let me just wish that if they make a film of your life it has a happy ending.


  1. Rob, my wife and I have been debating week after week if we should watch American Animals, as I've heard such mixed things about. And after reading your post I'm still not sure if we should watch it ;-) . But The Informant sounds like fun. Love the idea of the square dance music. As for movies departing from reality, well, that's just a given. Some of the meetings I've been in you wouldn't believe what was batted around and sometimes even made it into a draft and even onscreen.

  2. American Animals will never play in Sioux Falls - too cerebral. (But I might catch it on Netflix.) And yeah, if the 4 guys had been African-American, they wouldn't be around to tell their tale. I'd bet on that.

    As for ways Hollywood screws up the truth - we watched the PBS series "My Mother and Other Strangers", and I was having pure conniption fits over certain details. Such as the fact that - in real life, in 1943, there is no way on God's sweet green earth that any schoolteacher with a conformist husband living in rural Ireland would have a copy of "Brave New World" much less let her 16 year old daughter read it. Plus, it was banned in Ireland in 1932. I know, minor, minor - but important to me, and to the whole "reality" of the show. And there were many other things...

  3. Great post here, Rob—and sounds like an interesting movie, one I hadn't heard of myself.
    This reminds me of another film that skipped the "Based on" and went straight to "A True Story"—Clint Eastwood's Changeling, which was fascinating in so many ways. I remember an article at the time that looked into that Based on/True Story divide and was impressed by how closely it hewed to the actual storyline, which was heartbreaking. But other details.... well, I'm curious now to look back at it again. Thanks for the fun, thoughtful post!

  4. Thanks for the story. For me, the very existence of Transylvania University (as distinct from Transylvania Polygnostic University, where I would send any children of mad geniuses) came as a delightful shock. Either it really exists or it's a really, really impeccable web hoax. Given the existence of the place and their presence there, no doubt the rest of the students would be annoyed if they had done something coherent like building a monster or convincing the peasants that the local chiropractor was a vampire so they could sell torches and pitchforks. They must get a lot of that.

  5. Zeke, since you brought that up I decided to check on the University's team mascot. It is the Pioneers, which really seems like they missed a bet. On the other hand, here is an official Transylvania University athletic fan shirt you can purchase. https://cache.bsnsports.com/composite.php?type=combo&filename=NK453182100.FF.png&design=GN38_H3&var=%27TjE9VFJBTlNZTFZBTklBIFVOSVYgS1kgQ0FSRElOQUwgQkFUIEgzLEMxPTkxMTg1MTQsQzI9MCxDMz0w%27&x=328&y=192&w=320&h=320&a=undefined&ow=342&oh=456

    They also use the nickname "Transy," which I think might belikely to cause misunderstandings these days.

  6. Transy… well, this is sounding more and more like a Tim Curry movie. Do the Time Warp.

    Worse than these, I've seen a movie and I think a television series or two that claim to be true and clearly aren't. What am I thinking of… True Detective? Fargo?

  7. Whitacre, if I recall correctly (and I did--I checked, before finishing this sentence), was one of the few people who did time for this price-fixing conspiracy (he got 9 years "for embezzling $9.5 million from ADM at the same time he was assisting the federal price-fixing investigation." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Whitacre

    You might be interested in knowing that "Whitacre is currently the chief operating officer and President of Operations at Cypress Systems, a California biotechnology firm." The folks who run that firm are perhaps a bit more trusting than I would be.

  8. Don, all of that appears in The Informant.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>