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The manipulative gimmick of adding real people to fictional movies

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Or: Why Snowden, Sully, Loving, Deepwater Horizon, and Queen of Katwe all have similar endings

The real Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi, with Queen Of Katwe Director Mira Nair, and actors Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo and Martin Kabanza.
The real Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi, with Queen Of Katwe Director Mira Nair, and actors Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo and Martin Kabanza.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe is a charming film based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a teenage prodigy whose chess skills got her out of the Ugandan slum where she grew up. But the movie ends with a strange sort of show-and-tell. The real Mutesi, her friends, and her family come out for an on-screen bow. One by one, they walk out to stand next to the actors who play them, interacting in telling ways: Mutesi and actress Madina Nalwanga hug each other, while Mutesi's chess coach (Robert Katende) and the film's version of his character (David Olweyo) both give the camera the same solemn stare-down.

Katwe's ending is stagy and artificial, but at least it's creative. Usually, films based in reality end with a text crawl adding some closure to a story, and with some kind of footage or archive photos of the real people portrayed in the movie. Deepwater Horizon is a classic example: it ends with a photo montage of the real people who died in the oil rig explosion depicted in the movie. Other current films besides Katwe take that standard ending even further. The biopic Snowden ends with commentary from the real Edward Snowden. Sully wraps up with a party the film's producers threw to reunite airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles with the passengers of the disabled commercial plane they safely landed in the Hudson River. Seeing so many of these films in close proximity to each other made us aware of how rote and predictable these curtain-call wrap-ups have become. So Verge film writers Tasha Robinson and Bryan Bishop sat down to mull over what these movies are doing, and why filmmakers keep going back to this same familiar old well.

Snowden

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden (Open Road Films)

Tasha: I get why directors feel the urge to end this kind of movie by connecting the fictional version of what we've just seen to the real version. It's a gimmick for gravitas. Most movies based on true stories have a glancing relationship to the truth: even the best ones have to invent dialogue, condense characters, and simplify the story, and the worst ones don't bother with reality at all, past the "based on a true story" tag. Bringing real people back into it at the end is a way of saying "Look! We didn't entirely make this up!" But personally, I'm not a fan of anything more elaborate than a text crawl summing up what came next in the story, and maybe a few comparison images, just to fix the faces of real people in our minds. Big reality performances like the one in Sully never work for me. The entire idea feels incredibly artificial — even more contrived than the fictionalized reality of the rest of these films. What do you think, Bryan? Does the "here's the reality" ending add anything to a true-life story?

Bryan: You know something has become a trend (or more accurately, a slavish trope) when you're watching a movie based on real events and you're just waiting to see if it'll take the obvious swing. Truth be told, it's gotten so out of hand I have a harder time remembering movies that haven't taken advantage rather than the ones that did. But I get it. If you're going to see a movie about a terrible tragedy like the oil rig explosion in Deepwater Horizon, you're going to see Mark Wahlberg look awesome while things blow up. But you're also paying $15 so you can get emotionally pummeled and feel sad that bad things happen to good people. Nobody really wants to end on that bummer of a sentiment, right? The point of these cappers is catharsis. When Deepwater director Peter Berg ends his film with stills of the 11 oil rig workers who actually died in the real-world Deepwater disaster — each of their names slowly fade onto the screen, then turn a dim gray, and I can't overstate the drama — it gives the audience a sense of remembrance and closure. Once viewers pay respectful tribute to the dead, they can move on.

All of which is to say that yes, it is absolutely one of the most cynical, manipulative devices I can think of. But when you're talking about a disaster movie, I think it's also just part of what the audience expects. It's a genre convention at this point. If last year's Everest had ended without trotting out grisly photos of the actual survivors, it would be like a Transformers movie without explosions. But the trend of bringing out people that are actually living and breathing today seems different. When the real Edward Snowden pops up at the end of Snowden, it clearly wants to be a call to action: This Is A Real Guy, And We Shall Therefore Carry On His Noble Fight. But in the theater, I actually felt it played like a stunt, as if Snowden director Oliver Stone was just showing off his access. And given that the film seems so intent on mythologizing Snowden as a would-be superspy, I'd argue the moment actually undermines the film that precedes it.

That ultimately brings up the question of intent. If there's an emotional logic to the way disaster movies bring out the dead, is there a similar consistency in the way movies show us the living? Sully's credit sequence party seemed particularly arbitrary. What was your read, Tasha?

Sully

Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Warner Bros.)

Tasha: If you want to be magnanimous, the party is meant as a celebration of life, a space for the crash survivors to reflect on their good fortune and praise the man who made it possible. In a more practical way, though, it creates an artificial upbeat ending for a film that would otherwise just peter out. Sully director Clint Eastwood creates a narrative about a man who doesn't know how to cope with fame and the "hero" tag: Captain Sullenberger doesn't come apart, but he does have to spend some time musing over who he is in the wake of the crash. Ending with the real-life Sully partying with the real-life passengers he saved suggests that he's come to some kind of conclusion, that he's comfortable with himself again. Or does it? One of my biggest problems with the end of Sully is that after 90 minutes of watching an actor privately skulk around New York, angsting over what it means to be Sully, we see the real man being generous, calm, and easy in public. It makes the entire movie ring hollow, because of the disconnect between the fictionalized story and what's being presented separately as reality.

Tacking on imagery of real people at the end is a token gesture — an attempt to square the circle between what these movies actually are and the gap that Hollywood has created

But a bigger problem is that the ending feels fake in a cheaply manipulative way. The get-together was obviously staged for the purpose of providing a feel-good moment, and it makes the survivors feel like props in a Hollywood drama. Worse, it makes their gratitude and respect for Sully feel performative and fake. I felt the same way about the end of Schindler's List, when Steven Spielberg paraded some of Oskar Schindler's surviving rescuees past his grave, to place stones on it as part of Jewish custom. It's a moving moment that reminds us that the people we've just seen survive the Nazis represented actual people, who are alive because of Schindler's courage. But at the same time, it so clearly a created moment presented as a real one, the kind of thing documentarians loathe. The filmmakers in both cases clearly assembled a group of people and asked them to mourn, or rejoice, or both, for the express benefit of the cameras. Is it just me? Do you feel that same sort of split, where something intended to highlight a film's reality makes it feel false at the same time?

Bryan: You are definitely not alone. I usually find that the better and more engrossing the film is, the more jarring the transition. Ultimately, these endings are a strange admission that we've just been watching a movie all along. When you're truly immersed in a film, having the filmmakers pull back the curtain can feel like Ferris Bueller turning to the camera and breaking the fourth wall. I can't help but think of something like Stone's JFK, which — for better or worse — willfully and fearlessly built its own alternative universe, and stuck with its fictional depictions of those real-world figures until the very end. How cheap would it feel if the movie ended with Old Jim Garrison yukking it up with Kevin Costner?

Granted, that was a more nuanced stylistic approach than the tacked-on endings we're talking about here, particularly because he was putting together a film that mixed footage of the real JFK with the mythologized versions of these characters. Making it feel cohesive mandated he never drop the artifice. Then again, that movie had an ending. Snowden doesn't. It simply peters out with the NSA wiretap revelations going global, and the real whistleblower popping up to deliver a feel-good monologue about why what he did was so important, instead of the movie actually making that point itself. But why the recent uptick? Is it just sheer laziness and shortcut storytelling? Or is there something more? I'm just spitballing here, but we're coming out of a summer where nearly every film in the top 10 was about superhumans or cartoon animals. As clunky as the execution may be, is this just serving some thirst to see normal, regular humans on the screen?

Loving

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving (Focus Features)

Tasha: I don't think we're necessarily seeing a percentage change in true-story movies that end with real-people footage, I think we're just seeing an uptick in true-story movies themselves. And I wouldn't be surprised if that is a reaction to all the exciting escapist kid stuff in theaters right now. All the movies we're talking about here are attempts to find heroes in everyday life. Culturally, we all feel so overwhelmed with dire tidings of doom that we keep looking for larger-than-life heroic figures to save the day, and that urge isn't limited to action movies, or animated movies, or escapist movies. But if you're going to hold someone up as a real-life hero — to say "Hey, this isn't just another story we made up to make you feel good" — you want a way to stake a claim on reality. That impulse can backlash when there seems to be a conflict between what the filmmakers have been selling as reality all along, and what they're selling as really-truly-real reality at the end.

Take 2013's Best Picture winner Argo, one of my favorite examples of a true-story movie that tries to bring in the real players at the end of the film. Argo fictionalizes the amazing real story of how CIA operative Tony Mendez created the cover story of a fake science fiction film to get American embassy workers out of Tehran in 1980, during the Iranian hostage crisis. Argo ends with a striking photo montage of people and scenes from the film, showing how hard director Ben Affleck worked for verisimilitude in makeup, costuming, design, composition, and casting — above all, the film's characters look remarkably like the real people. Except that the montage ends with a picture of Tony Mendez, a dark-skinned, heavy-set man with thick black hair and a bushy mustache. He looks nothing like Ben Affleck, who plays him in the film. He's the only person shown who wasn't re-created lovingly on-screen, and he's also the only person of color in the montage. And suddenly, the photos stop conveying how hard Affleck worked to make the film true to life, and they instead suggest that Tony Mendez is somehow the only visually unacceptable part of the Argo story, and that he had to be replaced with a skinny, clean-shaven white dude for the film to be made. In the last seconds of the film, Argo suddenly stops being about the interaction between creativity and heroism. In the end, it's about the whitewashing of history, and of Hollywood narratives.

Like you implied, the here's-the-reality ending can highlight the jarring disconnect between the Hollywood version of a narrative, and the much messier original version. But even when I think these moments feel phony, I sometimes welcome the admission of phoniness. When Queen of Katwe puts real people next to the actors playing them, it's a comforting reminder that the almost universally young, thin, pretty people we see on-screen don't represent most of the population. And heroes in particular come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Whenever we see an actor next to the real thing — like at the end of Jeff Nichols' Loving, which compares a Time magazine shot of the historical interracial couple with the version of the photo re-created in the movie — we get a reminder that in the real world, people have wrinkles and pudge and warts. And that helps us recall that most Hollywood stories are, at best, inspired by reality, not really representative of it. So to circle back to your question, I find it hard to believe that directors are responding to audiences wanting to see real people on-screen, but I do feel a little of that pull myself. Do you?

David Lee / Lionsgate

Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell in Deepwater Horizon (Lionsgate)

Bryan: Certainly — but I also find it wrapped in the overall desire for a greater variety of story types. There's no need to do a deep dive into the way Hollywood studio films have evolved over the past 15 years, by cutting out most mid-budget movies, and placing the emphasis squarely on tentpole and event films. But in this shifted landscape, there are fewer films about the quiet stakes of everyday life, or human interactions. Independent films are more nuanced, but major studios just aren't as interested in making films about ordinary people in 2016. So anything that seems to approximate ordinariness feels wonderfully refreshing.

But the problem for me is that very few of the movies that we're talking about here actually are ordinary people. Mark Wahlberg's Deepwater Horizon character is basically a superhero. Tom Hanks is preternaturally gifted in Sully — the film practically sneers at the investigators that dare question his brilliance. Snowden is even worse, with half the movie portraying Edward Snowden as a Beautiful Mind-esque savant who almost single-handedly built the infrastructure that made NSA wiretapping a possibility. These are characters based on real people, but the way they're treated in the films is no more true-to-life than Affleck's Mendez.

Tacking on imagery of real people at the end is a token gesture — an attempt to square the circle between what these movies actually are and the gap that Hollywood has created. Argo's ending is a fantastic example of the dissonance that arises from that gap. We'll likely continue seeing that dissonance as long as this tactic is used in this way. I am a firm believer in the idea that tropes become tropes because they're generally successful (at least at first), but this desire to see more real people on-screen feels tied to viewers' real desire for diversity in Hollywood: diversity in representation, diversity in story types, and diversity in artistic and creative voices. Audiences have already moved to television to get their fill of non-superhero stories, and it will take more than a few credit sequence montages for Hollywood to get them back.