Discerning the Real from the Caricature in War Dogs and Others

By  · Published on August 16th, 2016

How various professions are depicted on the big screen.

“Based on a true story.” It’s the magical phrase for enchanting the casual movie goer. The realness of the story content matters to a lot of people. Not me. The Blair Witch Project was no less unnerving when the gimmick of its found footage narrative was discovered to be just clever marketing. Fargo’s “veracity” was established in the opening scene of the movie as a little inside joke, and it took nothing away from the greatness of that film when it was found out to be just a stylistic fib from the Coens (I’d argue it also added nothing to the film). Saving Private Ryan wasn’t based on a true event, just a loose collection of various war stories, and that’s one of the most emotionally devastating movies for me. I think it has to do more with the realness of the characters.

War Dogs is very concerned with real. Director Todd Phillips of Hangover fame was attracted to this real story of two young men winning a government contract to become international arms dealers whereto hijinks ensue mainly because of its realness:

…the thing really that attracted me to it the most was the idea that it was a real story. I read it and couldn’t believe that it was real… But again, the thing that appealed to me most is the idea that it was based on a real story, because if you handed me that screenplay, the same thing, and said, “Here’s a movie” I think I would’ve said, “This is cool, these are kind of interesting characters doing fun stuff. But it’s so unbelievable, how do you make it more real?”

Stars Miles Teller and Jonah Hill are very concerned with real. Actors usually are. They try to embody the the characters wholly in a relatable way for the audience. You know, in a real way. So much so that Hill is approached by these “bro-y” men claiming to be arms dealers, or for his The Wolf of Wall Street role, stock market people:

I mostly like documentaries, so I always think things that happened in real life are so astounding that why would you make a movie about something fake. I don’t watch like Sci-fi or things like that, I’m always more like real life is so endlessly fascinating to me… I was at a restaurant this week and two young men that were dressed similar to these guys in their heyday of financial wealth came up to me and said, “We’re South African arms dealers and we can’t wait to see your movie” and they gave me a fist bump and I like didn’t want to fist bump them. And I had this a lot with Wolf of Wall Street with a lot of bro-y stock market people come up to me all the time, and they don’t see that I’m maybe displaying –It’s not full support by playing the character, you know what I mean?… But I’ll say it changes your world in that way, where maybe if you play somebody in a certain world people sometimes misinterpret that it’s a support of that world or that occupation or something.

Hill plays an arms dealer so well, he’s getting fist bumped by the actual people in that profession! Or at least, he acts in a way that they think is going to be admirable. I certainly enjoyed Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I’m not a professional trader, so I’ll have to take their word on what was real and what was verisimilitude.

I’ve been a server and a programmer in my adult professional life. I certainly appreciate when a movie takes the time to get those areas right. A movie like Waiting was fun for this very reason, the “yeah, I’ve done that” or the “yeah, I’ve been there” feeling connected me with the characters on a level I don’t feel would be possible for people who haven’t experienced that job. David Fincher’s Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s realistic portrayal of “hacking” and overall software development was inconsequential to the main narrative. Even though the prodigious skill displayed was far and away greater than my own personal ability, it brought ancillary enjoyment to me to know that the computer wizardry shown was on the realer end of the realness spectrum.

When a fictional entity doesn’t care at all about the realness of something, you get this buffoonery courtesy of NCIS:

There’s so much nonsense here, but it takes a special kind of computer illiteracy to think two people on one keyboard equates to faster ability. I can’t wait for their football episode where they have two quarterbacks together throw a single ball so it’ll go twice as far.

No concern for realness is a great way to lose the audience, but how specific is it? The police force is by and large one of the great staples of character professions portrayed in films. How do they feel when artistic liberties are taken with how their job is actually done? I’d imagine they don’t mind when they’re lionized. Does a structural engineer take one look at the narrow bridges and the dangerous lack of guardrails over a vast, for sure death drop in Star Wars and get immediately flustered? Do real life horse whisperers watch The Horse Whisperer and think, “No Robert Redford, that’s not how you whisper to horses”?

All I know about international arms trafficking is through like Lord of War, another not real thing. The movie is a teensy-bit scatterbrained, much like its main star, but its first four minutes are incredibly poignant, as it follows a bullet from factory to arms dealer to soldier to a young man’s head. That’s the key to “based on a true story”. Say what you want in the realm of relatability. Only a handful of people know what yarn War Dogs is spinning, the artistic licenses the filmmakers will take with this true story. That’s why I don’t care about it. It’s all fiction. Give me a reason for empathy and I’ll buy in, regardless of its real life inspirations.

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