WATCH AND LEARN

14 of the best films of the 21st century, ranked by historical accuracy

Obsession
Glass
Obsession
Glass

No, Eduardo Saverin didn’t really storm into the Facebook offices and smash Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop in retaliation for having his company shares diluted—but that does make for great cinema (video).

That iconic scene from The Social Network, along with every other scene from over a dozen recent Oscar contenders, was assessed for its historical accuracy in a project by David McCandless, a British data journalist who runs the infographic site Information is Beautiful.

McCandless and his team broke down each film scene by scene, evaluating whether the story depicted was accurate (you can see the detailed analysis and historical sources used in this spreadsheet). Scenes were either deemed true, true-ish (“some tweaks, but true in spirit”), false, false-ish (“pretty false but with reasonable or understandable dramatic license”), or unknown. The project did not include omissions in its study—it only assessed what was presented in the films.

They then gave each film a score, based on the percentage of scenes in that film that were either true or true-ish. Here’s what they found:

(You can filter the data by “pedantry level,” allowing for more questionable scenes to be considered accurate. Selma, for instance, jumps to 100% if you choose the “flexible” filter. The above chart is based on the “absolute truth” filter, the least lenient tier.)

McCandless’s analysis of Selma suggests that the film about the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is quite accurate. Some historians disagree, particularly on the film’s portrayal of former US president Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Imitation Game, however, was found to be wildly inaccurate, a conclusion that most who have studied the film’s subject, British computer scientist, mathematician, and codebreaker Alan Turing, would agree with.

The interactive allows you to look at each scene individually, along with an assessment of whether it’s accurate. Here’s an infamous scene from The Wolf of Wall Street deemed false:

the wolf of wall street historical accuracy
(Information is Beautiful)

And here’s one deemed true:

the wolf of wall street historical accuracy
(Information is Beautiful)

Historically accuracy is, of course, only one element of a history-based film, and not the sole criterion one should use to determine its merits. There’s a long history of classic films being incredibly inaccurate, including Amadeus, Braveheart, and JFK. Some films are meant to closely hew to the history, while others want only to present it loosely.

Still, the topic is becoming increasingly relevant as Hollywood produces more and more films ripped from very recent headlines. These films are released before we’ve had a chance to fully process the events that they depict. The result is the films themselves help shape how later generations understand the history.

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