OP-ED Series: Controversies For Popular Films: Part One: Wolf of Wall Street

December 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

True stories are always a tricky balancing act of forming a three-act structure with standard plot points with satisfying denouement and conclusion even if life goes on past the end credits. It’s also difficult to determine what details to maintain complete accuracy about and which to fudge for the sake of cinematic thrills. This year is seeing a bounty of controversy after the fact for some films that are experiencing, at least statistically, near universal praise. “Captain Phillips”, “12 Years A Slave”, “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are all based on true stories. In the cases of “Phillips”, “Slave” and “Wolf” they’re based on the protagonist’s memoirs. Theoretically all four films have been thoroughly researched and their accuracies vetted as best as possible with standard, if hopefully negligible dramatic licenses allowed for the sake of commercialization. The bottom line in Hollywood is, after all, whether a film makes a profit or not. Films turn multiple people into one composite character, truncate timelines, dress up the real life dialogue to better jump off the script’s pages and out of actors’ mouths in more entertaining or succinct fashions. All of this is to be expected.

However, in the age of the Internet, cynicism and particularly information, it’s a risky venture to fib too big on certain facts if a film is based on real people and events covered in minute detail by the media. All four of these films have experienced some degree of controversy by people questioning how honestly they portray the real life events. Before going into detail and without producing a laundry list of accusations levied against each respective film adaptation, I think it’s important to express my own personal opinion that I accept Hollywood’s story manipulation. I’ve written screenplays myself, including attempts at adapting other people’s books and using some of my own real life experiences to greatly inform plots for original works. To tell a completely accurate tale would render the proceedings not only dry and slow, but potentially convoluted or so simple as to be kind of boring from an audience’s perspective. Hollywood has formulas for a reason.

Now that I have vaguely played devil’s advocate, I have to say that the individual controversies are of varying degrees. “The Wolf of Wall Street” might be the most egregious of the true-life tales, as it is by all accounts basically accurate except for the tone of the film, which is clearly celebrating Jordan Belfort, or so it might seem. An op-ed in the LA Times pretty much sums up the historical accuracy issues with Terence Winter’s script and Martin Scorsese’s direction:


Christina McDowell (neé Prousalis) has a valid point. She, along with the people Belfort fleeced and the rest of the family members affected by the convictions of their fathers and mothers who worked for Stratton Oakmont, left many people destitute, embarrassed and without options, financially speaking. The film barely addresses the people on the other side of the myriad of phone calls we see being made in the film. All those people lost money. The film’s assumption that their losses were all equally devastating would be a logical fallacy, but the fact is people were fleeced out of roughly one billion dollars in five short years. The film barely addresses these individuals through dialogue, let alone via conduits or composites in any scenes. The victims go nameless, faceless and are essentially written off as a dramatic loss to keep the proceedings lithe and fun. If we saw very serious scenes of families discussing their depleted finances, of children crying while their parents get into a shouting match over one or both of them being duped by a cold call (something most people, at least nowadays, have the wherewithal to ignore and can avoid thanks to the 2004 implementation of the Do Not Call Registry) then the events taking place around the main characters wouldn’t be so funny in context. Seeing as the film is billed as a comedy, it’s easy to see why the victims were left out. The question of entertainment value vs. accuracy [or, more accurately (natch) accountability) is one of a subjective nature. There is no clear answer on how, or even if, this story should’ve been told.

The film is based on the memoir written by Jordan himself, so it makes sense that most of the scenes would revolve around what Jordan experienced himself or was intimately familiar with through his associates. By that measure, it makes perfect sense we never see the victims and Jordan himself never appears to feel bad. After all, he knowingly committed these crimes of price inflating, pumping and dumping stocks for his own monetary gain to the tune of around $200 million, give or take. We get to see his Lamborghinis, his associates’ Rolls Royces, his expensive penthouse apartment, his even more expensive Long Island mansion. It’s clear that though Jordan might be sorry he was eventually caught and convicted, he has no apologies about living the high life for five years. Therefore, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter were simply being accurate in so far as the source material (Belfort’s auto-biography “The Wolf of Wall Street”) portrayed things.

Belfort does not appear to be a contrite man, nor do his co-conspirators. Even through carefully worded statements expressing remorse for their misdeeds, the perpetrators of Stratton Oakmont’s crimes seem like their words are carefully crafted media friendly quotes designed by expensive and loyal lawyers, rather than coming from their own repentant hearts. The question then becomes, what is more important- accuracy towards the film’s subjects or repudiation of their immorality on the part of the film’s makers? As I said before, it’s a subjective issue and therefore without a definitive answer. I hold my own grudges towards people I feel have wronged me in the past, but what good is it to see them suffer? I’m a bigger man than that. Seems like critics and pundits should take a similarly high road and accept the film for what it is, along with Jordan’s books and not for what they aren’t: apologetic.


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