Peter Bart: After Election Season Where Truth Was Casualty, Hollywood Chases Truth With Fact-Based Films

To some critics, Green Book is inflicted with Driving-Miss-Daisy sentimentality – it is the polar opposite of 12 Years a Slave. In fact, Green Book was co-written by Tony Vallelonga, the son of the driver-bodyguard based on his father’s letters which could not be referenced before his death. But Farrelly’s showmanship, and the skills of his cast, help him overcome that challenge. As the road movie unfolds, each character puts himself at risk in saving the other.
The healthiest antidote to months of political noise, of course, is to avoid the genre completely and bask in vintage MGM musicals, or perhaps Abbott and Costello clips. This is mind-healing fare; but then there’s the less cowardly option: Getting real.
The movie’s title stems from the actual survival guide called The Green Book, created by black travelers of that period who were forced to navigate "whites only" hotels and restaurants. The trek in this case involves a rough-hewn Mafia-style driver and bodyguard, played by a surprising Viggo Mortensen, and a brilliant concert pianist (Mahershala Ali, who won plaudits in Moonlight).
Fact-based movies offer an authenticity and verisimilitude (that ugly word from school) that are missing from Hollywood dramas like A Star Is Born. Still, having been trained as a newsman, I habitually welcome films like Green Book, The Front Runner, Roma and First Man — stories forcefully based on real lives and real events. But the genre also offers its own afflictions: Films can be pedantic, or by contrast, aggressively ambiguous, and hence particularly vulnerable to critics. Pure fiction can be attacked as dopey; a fact-based movie can be dismissed as "fake news."
In Roma, Cuarón summons up his extraordinary filmmaking gifts to depict a family caught up in fires, earthquakes, student riots and personal betrayal, but his focus is on the nuances of humble Mexican family life – clearly Cuarón's. Hence there is no hint of resolution. As some critics point out, its characters never come to grips with their destinies, their aim is simply to quietly endure.
In his own quirky way, Farrelly has a more defined story to spin in Green Book, but he, too, has been hassled by some critics for doing so. He and his brother, Bobby, gave us There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, and glints of comedy spark the harrowing road movie he’s now fostered. “If I see an opportunity for a joke, I can’t resist,” Peter concedes, and to my taste, the comedic asides reinforce the story. Farrelly is himself odd casting for this movie.
All have this in common: They are based on first hand accounts, whether letters (Green Book) or books by insiders (Front Runner). After the film was shot, we learned that Hart’s fall was, in fact, carefully crafted by Republican hit men, not the result of sharp investigative reporting. Shot in the cinema verite style of The Candidate (the Robert Redford film directed by Michael Ritchie), Reitman’s movie dotes on ambiguities. But if their voices are vivid, even painfully so, they’re often frustrating. Reporters are the good guys, as in Spotlight, but also the hiding-in-the-bushes bad guys, bent on invading Hart’s privacy. In The Front Runner, Jason Reitman retreats from taking a point of view on Gary Hart.
After months of political noise, facts have become something like black holes in our public conversation – rhetoric in search of truth. There’s a certain perversity in the decision to open "fact-based" movies at the close of an election season.
First Man focuses on the psyche of Neil Armstrong, the moon-walker. The Front Runner focuses on the obliteration of Gary Hart’s political career in 1988. Roma is a cinematic meditation on Alfonso Cuarón’s youth. The four films I cited are studies in contrast: Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly, is a male-bonding road movie set in the racially divided ‘60s South.
So do facts survive their ambiguities? Surveying these movies, I would argue that they embellish them. But I think I’ll still need those old MGM musicals.” />
Ryan Gosling is convincingly chilly — the death of a child is suggested as the trigger. Ambiguities also impact First Man. Scrupulously researched and superbly shot, its key scenes focus on a man who is an emotional void. But as Anthony Lane points up in the New Yorker, the movie becomes as chilly as its protagonist.