The movies have looked to the news for inspiration almost since the first time film was projected on screens.
As far back as 1899, a film called Major Wilson’s Last Stand dramatized scenes from the First and Second Matabele Wars, including the death of Major Allan Wilson and his men in Rhodesia in 1893.
The trend of reel life emulating real life continues this weekend with The 33, an Antonio Banderas film based on a famous mining accident. In 2010, 33 men spent 69 days trapped underground in a copper-gold mine located near Copiapó, Chile when a rock the size of the Empire State Building blocked their exit.
“I can’t think of a better story than this one to bring to the screen,” says producer Mike Medavoy.
The trick is getting the story right. Director Patricia Riggins worked with the miners, Medavoy and screenwriters to create a story that, according to everyone involved, features more fact than fiction.
That isn’t always the case.
According to IMDb the Jim Sturgess movie 21 calls itself a “fact based” story about a group of MIT students who used a complicated card-counting system to fleece Las Vegas casinos for millions of dollars.
The bare bones of the story are true — blackjack was played and MIT students counted cards — but Hollywood diverged from reality when casting the leads. In truth the main players were mainly Asian-Americans, including ringleader Jeff Ma who consulted on the movie.
Ma called the controversy surrounding the casting of Sturgess and Kevin Spacey “over-blown,” adding “I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me.”
The Michael Bay film Pain & Gain is listed as an action-comedy and stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie certainly play up the jokes. Everyone laughed, except for Marc Schiller, the real-life inspiration for the film’s kidnap victim.
“It wasn’t that funny when they tried to kill me,” he said. “They did run me over with a car twice after trying to blow me up in the car. The way they tell it made it look like a comedy. You also gotta remember that not only I went through this, but certain people were killed, so making these guys look like nice guys is atrocious.”
Last year’s Oscar winner Whiplash saw Miles Teller as a young drummer driven to extremes by a fanatical music teacher played by J.K. Simmons.
The movie draws parallels to the famous story of Jo Jones and Charlie Parker. The legend goes that Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head after a lackluster solo, prompting the sax player to go away, practice for a year and return as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Trouble is, the story isn’t true. A cymbal was let loose, but according to eyewitnesses it was dropped on the floor at Parker’s feet and not at his head.
“Not attempted murder,” wrote Richard Brody in the New York Times, “but rather musical snark.”
How does Hollywood get away playing fast and loose with the facts? Black Mass director Scott Cooper says, “I don’t think people come to narrative features for the facts, or for truth. I think you go to documentaries for that. What you do come to narrative features for is psychological truth, emotion and deep humanity.”
For most of us Las Vegas can be summed up in two words: lost wages. Everybody knows that the odds favor the casinos, but a new movie from the director of Legally Blonde would have you believe that if you are smart enough and cunning enough you can beat the house. 21 is the based on the true story of five MIT students who use their mathematical skills to bilk the casinos out of millions of dollars. It’s part Good Will Hunting part Cincinnati Kid with a little taste of The Sting thrown in for good measure.
The caper begins innocently enough with Ben Campbell (Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess) applying for a scholarship to Harvard Med. He’s a cerebral stud who has spent his entire life with his face buried in a text book in preparation for his dream of attending Harvard. When it comes right down to it though, he knows his chances of admission and scholarship would be better if he had some actual life experience.
Enter Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), math teacher by day, gambling guru by night. He runs a club of super smart students who specialize in an elaborate method of card counting that is virtually guaranteed to pay off at the blackjack tables. Every weekend they make a quick trip to Vegas, don disguises and pump up their bank accounts.
Micky, sensing Ben’s card shark potential tries to recruit him for the club. Ben is reluctant to join, but soon sees the blackjack scam as a fast easy way to make the $300,000 he needs for tuition. Once the money starts rolling in his standard issue school outfit of jeans and t-shirts is replaced with Armani threads and his old nerdy friends get swapped for new high rolling acquaintances.
Of course it isn’t all aces and face cards. Professor Micky turns out to be closer in personality to tough guy Mickey Cohen than Professor Higgins and when an ill tempered specialist in “loss prevention” (Laurence Fishburne) gets on the case Ben soon realizes that success in Vegas comes with a dangerous price.
21 is actually a few movies in one. It’s a caper story, a true-life drama (although the details have been changed considerably from what actually happened), a suspense and even a romance as Ben falls for blackjack wizard Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth in her third film with Spacey). Director Robert Lucketic, best known for fluffy comedies like Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, deftly balances the film’s various tones, and nicely delineates the drab classroom drama of the MIT scenes from the considerably more glamorous “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” feel of the gambling story.
Of the older cast members, Spacey seems set to chew through the scenery but Fishburne brings just the right amount of old school Vegas menace to the role of a casino detective with a score to settle. Of course, nobody is going to see this movie for the senior members of the cast; this one is strictly aimed at a younger audience.
Heading the ensemble of card cheaters is Jim Sturgess, an unknown British actor who made a bit of a splash last year in Across the Universe, a little seen film based on the music of The Beatles. His odd, variable American accent notwithstanding, Sturgess does a nice job anchoring the cast with a performance that sees him change from nice guy to egomaniac blackjack stud. His appealingly Paul McCartney-esque good looks allow him to be believable as the nerdy student and the high roller, but it is his trip down the rabbit hole as he tries to cram a lifetime of living and frivolity into his weekend jaunts to Vegas that make his character interesting.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast of players aren’t quite as attention-grabbing. Kate Bosworth is pretty, but pretty dull as the, well pretty blonde member of the blackjack team, while Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts aren’t given enough screen time to make much of an impression as the secondary members of the card counting crew. Only Josh Gad, a Jack Black look-a-like, stands out among Ben’s friends as a memorable character.
21 doesn’t roll as high as Ocean’s 11 but is a good bet for your weekend entertainment dollar.