The Screening Room

By Allan I. Ross

The best parts are made up

Extraordinary real-life events can make for some great movies. Change a few names, insert a love interest, cut, print and call it a day. Take “Argo,” for example — with its combination of political intrigue, Hollywood insider-ism and armchair-gripping suspense, it’s a textbook case of a true story that goes great with a little butter and salt. 

But there’s a big difference between something that benefits from a cinematic adaptation and something that just sounds cinematic. 

Yes, the events in “The Impossible” and “Zero Dark Thirty” happened (at least mostly), and both earned Academy Award nominations last week for their leading actresses. But even though they’re both “true stories,” neither one feels like a true “story.”  

Let’s start with “The Impossible,” which is based on the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that slammed coastlines throughout the Indian Ocean, killing almost a quarter of a million people. The film, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, focuses on the actual account of a single family that was separated when the monster wave struck their luxury resort in Thailand. This narrow scope ups the peril factor by sticking by some of the characters in real time as they literally ride it out, but, strangely, this focus dilutes the film’s impact. 

Watts plays Maria Bennett, the clan’s mother, who is swept inland with her eldest son in a harrowing, 10-minute sequence of rushing muddy water, submerged tree branches that slice like razors and mama bear valor. If your heart’s not hammering during this scene, you don’t have one.

After the water subsides, however, the movie starts its long, slow slide into syrupy melodrama. Wait, wasn’t that Hollywood actor Ewan McGregor there at the beginning — they didn’t really kill him off, did they? Of course not — they just made you think he was dead until the second half to heighten the tension. Unless you saw the preview. Or knew this was an uplifting true story. Or, you know, have a sense of how movies like this go. 

By focusing on a group of lily-white upper class Europeans instead of the millions of dead, injured or displaced Asians who were actually affected by the tsunami, “The Impossible” does the impossible — it reduces the real victims into extras in their own tragedy and turns a once in a lifetime natural disaster into a thrill ride with a happy ending. 

And speaking of happy endings, did you hear that they killed Osama bin Laden? At least “Zero Dark Thirty” has the temerity to construct something resembling a storyline, truth be damned. And it does so around Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fiery redhead who tells her CIA superior that she’s a “motherfucker.” Yeah, she’s that tough. She also spends lots of time looking at computer screens, reading files and having meetings. 

It’s an arduous process following Maya as she navigates procedural red tape to track bin Laden (referred to here as UBL). It’s about as much fun as watching someone try to register their new car at the Secretary of State. The movie heinously tries to get the audience to root for the use of torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation tactics”), as Maya complains at one point that things aren’t going fast enough, with the answer essentially being, “Well, we’re not allowed to lock people in tiny boxes anymore or pour water down their throats, so good luck with that.” You’re actually supposed to be enraged at this dead end; in reality, however, the rage comes from misplaced ideals. 

Inevitably, SEAL Team Six is assembled and deployed on their midnight mission to storm the compound, and what a finale it is. Never again will you root for the death of a real-life human being the way you will when the SEALs crash their billion-dollar copter in UBL’s backyard and quietly explode their way to him, room by room, occasionally mowing down the occasional unarmed woman — which is, sadly, probably one of the only things they got 100 percent right in the movie. 

But that’s the problem with true stories: the best parts are always made up.