By Doyne Phillips, Managing Editor for Southern Writers Magazine
Over the Holidays I watched a movie with Tom Cruise, American Made. It was described by a critic as more of a comedy than a documentary of the War on Drugs in Central and South America. I am not a fan of Tom Cruise but after a few friends and relatives told me of the concept and the familiarity of the events by those of us living in close proximity to it I was intrigued enough to watch.
As I watched I was taken aback by how such a little of the true story it was based on. Not much was included in the movie. I know it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback but I’m afraid having the knowledge I do of the accounts of the story left me flat. I will usually watch a movie twice before moving on but this one I could not get through the second time. This is not a Critic’s Corner but simply an observation and I hope one that is helpful to writers.
This movie was from events that took place based on the infamous Mena, Arkansas drug operation in the 1980s. Having worked in government in Arkansas at that time and familiar with several of the players, I found it more sensationalized and inaccurate than anything. But again it was based on a true story, not a true story or a documentary. But the more I thought about my disappointment the more I realized what a great opportunity for writers. Writing something “based on a true story” could mean all you need is a snippet of the truth from the true story along with the disclaimer “based on a true story” and you can run with it. So how much of the “truth” will you need?
I believe that is entirely up to you. Most stories, plays, songs and movies today are remakes of the original event or the telling of it. After all it was once said that our memories and the truth are close relatives but not identical twins. Who is to say your memory of the event isn’t more entertaining than someone else’s. If so why not tell your version, based on a true story of course. So how do we do this?
I believe we should look to what really grabs our interest, what we are familiar with and what we may know a little more about than the average person. An example of this: One of the players thought to be involved with in the Mena, Arkansas story was seated in the back booth of a Burger King. He was wrapped up in a heavy coat and scarf, hat pulled down over his eyes and eating his burger. I had known this gentleman for years. I spoke to him on a daily basis and was well aware of his current situation. I knew he was to begin his prison sentence the following Monday. He and many others were not mentioned in this movie. Doing so would not mean much or add to the sensationalized version. Those of us familiar with the situation might ask why this person was left out of the story. I used this knowledge to be critical but the average individual would not know this.
So take a bit of the true story and run with it. In the movie the recognition of Governor Bill Clinton in a phone call to the Attorney General to pardon the kingpin of the operation was the kind of connection for half the world to grasp. Not to imply this happened because if you remember this is only “based on a true story”. After all historical fiction is a genre.