LOS ANGELES — Oscar season must be here, because accuracy is an issue again.
After nine months of forgiving Hollywood its biggest fish stories — zombies as fast as Olympic sprinters, a college for monsters — the awards season ushers its annual raft of biopics and dramas based on real events, starting with Friday's opening of the Somali pirate thriller Captain Phillips. Films on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Princess Diana, Wall Street stockbrokers and soldiers who recovered art stolen by Nazis soon will follow. And with them comes the inevitable accusation that studios shun the truth in exchange for profits, despite claims of veracity.
While accuracy claims are nothing new between studios vying for Oscar attention, observers say the backbiting has become especially pronounced. Last year's three leading contenders for best picture were based on real people and stories, and all were targets for getting history wrong.
Zero Dark Thirty, the story of Osama bin Laden's death, became mired in attacks by some senators over details of the raid. Lincoln sparked the ire of House representatives from Connecticut, which the film incorrectly claimed voted against the amendment to abolish slavery.
Even Argo, which would win best picture despite openly fabricating the final third of its story about the Iran hostage crisis, continues to face backlash. Our Man in Tehran, a documentary about the same story Argo told, hit Canadian theaters earlier this month "just to get the truth out there" about Canada's role in the rescue, says co-director Drew Taylor.
"There was a lot of offense taken here" over the Ben Affleck film, Taylor says. "The posters said the story was real, but then it cut out the Canadian side completely. I know accuracy is a gray area in movies, but when we have the opportunity to get it right, we should take it."
But what is right? Tom Hanks, who plays the real-life Capt. Richard Phillips, concedes the difficulty "in finding the inherent truth when you're also trying to tell a cohesive and dramatic story."
Hanks and director Paul Greengrass spent months at sea to re-create the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship seized by pirates who held Phillips hostage.
While Hanks and the film are drawing early awards talk, that story, too, has gone under the public microscope. ABC and CNN uncovered years-old interviews with Alabama crew members, some of whom allege Phillips ignored hijack warnings.
But Hanks says that it's not the role of a film to address every contentious issue of a true story.
"There's condensing that has to happen in a movie, so you can always look at a book and say 'they didn't show this,' and that's true. But that doesn't mean you're falsifying the salient aspects of what happened."
Peter Landesman, director of the new JFK assassination drama Parkland, counters that studios can forget "that it's important for audiences to be able to rely on what they're watching.
"If you say it's a real story and don't make an attempt to get it right, audiences are going to start negotiating with themselves over what's true, and that takes them out of the story," he says. "You have to take poetic license, but you can get so caught up in magic tricks and making the film flashy that it doesn't matter to the story they're telling anymore."
Sang Nam, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., says the movie business underestimates its role as reporter.
"In a sense, Hollywood serves as another mainstream news feeder," he says. "Hollywood finds real events that were once forgotten and revamps them as newsworthy stories."
But Geoffrey Wright, associate professor of English at Samford University in Homewood, Ala., says we ask too much of our cineplex.
"Let works of art be just that — works of art," he says. "Cinema is an art and a cultural institution. It's not the news. We, as an educated audience, are responsible for going into the theater recognizing that what we are consuming is not objective, documentarian history but rather a subjective work of art."
Art that may never find consensus. "That's always the balance, getting it right and being entertaining," says Peter Berg, director of Lone Survivor, the story of the failed 2005 SEAL Team 10 mission to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. The story, which details the death of three of the four team members, hits screens nationwide Jan. 10.
While Berg spent months with family members and did research overseas, "the best you can do is to get the spirit of the truth," he says.
"This is how you know if you got a true story right," Berg says. "if you can look the families of the real people involved in the eye and say you did your best to get it right. Their look will tell you if you did."