27 November 2009

The Blind Side — mostly a true story

I can't help it: Whenever I see a movie that is promoted as "based on a true story" — or, more nebulously, "inspired by a true story" — it doesn't take me long afterward to try to find out how much was really true and how much was Hollywood.

And such was with Hollywood's latest feel-good blockbuster, The Blind Side, featuring Sandra Bullock in a dramatic role (she's the best I've ever seen her here) telling the story of Michael Oher, a societal nobody who seemed destined to be a another grim statistic of the slums before he was taken in by the Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy family of Memphis, Tenn., and eventually became an all-star football player.

As it turns out, the film, as unbelievable as it may seem, isn't embellished all that much from what really happened. The story of Oher is told in "The Ballad of Big Mike," a New York Times Magazine book excerpt well worth the read. Most of the differences between the film and the book account are minor, or are details that are alluded to in the film but not spelled out in detail:

  • Sean Tuohy actually had some connection with Oher before they brought him to their home for the first time, and he had long taken an interest in poor children.
  • The Tuohys' daughter, Collins, was quite an athlete in her own right and certainly was a more interesting person than the portrayal in the film would suggest.
  • Although it is clear from the film that the Tuohys were active Christians, they're a bit more than that, being among the early backers of a major evangelical church in Memphis, and Sean Tuohy is currently on the evangelical Christian speaking circuit.
  • The conservative religiosity of the school is downplayed in the film as well. Here's what Oher's tutor had to say about the school's employment application form: "The application did not have one question about education. It was all about religion and what I thought about homosexuality and drinking and smoking."
  • The name of the school used in the film is the fictional Wingate Christian School; Oher actually attended Briarcrest Christian School.
  • In the film, Oher needs a 2.5 grade-point average and ekes out with 2.52. The part about a 2.52 is correct, but in fact he needed a 2.65 average. He was able to raise his grades to that average by getting high school credits through a remote-education program sponsored by Brigham Young University. "The Mormons may be going to hell. But they really are nice people," Sean Tuohy is quoted as saying in the book excerpt.
  • A last-minute snag in getting Oher's BYU grades accepted by the NCAA is omitted in the film, possibly because it wouldn't have seemed believable to have another obstacle to overcome. When Oher's BYU grades were misplaced, Sean Tuohy threatened to fly in his personal plane to the NCAA offices with the BYU papers and sit in the lobby himself until they were accepted.
  • In the film, Sean Tuohy seems like milquetoast compared to his overpowering wife. His life story makes that seem improbable.
  • The years that it took Oher to be transformed from an ignorant slum kid into someone capable of legitimately graduating from high school seem shortened in the film, probably because of the difficulty of portraying the changes in physical maturity for the young characters.
  • In the film, Oher is correctly portrayed as having tested with an IQ score of around 80, well below average. And he had been so neglected he knew nothing about basic facts (such as what an ocean is) or of social niceties (such as what shaking hands is). Left unmentioned in the film is that after receiving plenty of nurturing, his IQ score was raised 20 to 30 points — making him of higher than average intelligence.
Overall, the film is about as close to what really happened as you could reasonably hope for (and the quip about the Tuohys having a black son before knowing a Democrat wasn't made up for the film). Although The Blind Side has its share of underdog-film clichés (my main complaint about the film, and the reason I'd grade it a B instead of an A), most of them are based on events that really happened. It's an inspiring film — but no less inspiring than the events that inspired it.

19 November 2009

Another Word of the Year: admonish

Another word, this one coming to us from the folks at Merriam-Webster, has won Word of the Year honors. It's "admonish," a word that resulted in thousands of online lookups after the U.S. House admonished one of its members for calling President Barack Obama a liar during a presidential speech.

That doesn't seem like a word most people would need to look up — but I must confess, I was one of them. I did so for the same reason many others likely did, not to find out its basic meaning, but to see if it had some fine legal distinction to differentiate it from words such as "censure" or "condemn."

The runners-up in the Merriam-Webster "competition" were mostly ones that were also tied to current events: emaciated, empathy, furlough, inaugurate, nugatory, pandemic, philanderer and repose. I'm not sure where "nugatory" came from; it refers to something inconsequential or ineffective.

18 November 2009

Word of the Year: "unfriend"

Here's the news language junkies have been waiting for — the New Oxford American Dictionary has selected its Word of the Year for 2009. It shouldn't be surprising that it's associated with social networking, a new activity that has become so much a part of our culture that even my relatives in their 70s and 80s are doing it. When one of my sons signed up for Facebook a couple years ago, he did it because it was the cool thing to do. And now his grandmother is one of his "friends."

And that brings us to the word: It's "unfriend," which means to delist someone as one of your friends on Facebook or another social network.

It's not a bad word, although I think that "defriend" makes a lot more sense. But apparently more folks use the former. And since dictionaries these days reflect language as the way it is used rather than the way it should be, "unfriend" it is.

And it could have been worse. Among the other words considered were "intexticated" (driving while texting, a definite no-no in my book), "deleb" (a dead celebrity) and "death panel" (Sarah Palin's bogus description of what health reform would bring).

Actually, there was one other word Oxford considered that was worthwhile: "netbook," a small, inexpensive laptop computer intended primarily for Internet use. Like "unfriend," "netbook" isn't a novelty word and fits a real need, making it likely to last.

10 November 2009

Maybe they should try this in D.C.: It's known as listening

President Obama was elected partly because of his promises that he would seek to bring both sides together, to try to get Republicans and Democrats working together on common ground. So far, his efforts haven't been particularly successful, as evidenced by party-line vote after party-line vote on key issues in Congress.

But something that occurred in Salt Lake City over the past few weeks shows that it is possible for mistrusting opponents to get beyond their differences.

This article in the Salt Lake Tribune describes the series of meetings that led to tonight's stunning announcement by the Mormon church that it would back the city's proposed anti-discrimination ordinance — one that would ban discrimination in housing and employment for gays. Although the church has in the past said that it doesn't oppose that type of legislation, this is apparently the first time it has formally endorsed such a proposal.

While the church's announcement is certainly interesting, the backstory as explained in the Trib article is more so. The story details how midlevel church officials met with some of the city's gay-rights leaders on neutral territory — the home of a Latter-day Saint couple who were good friends with a leading gay activist — to talk about their mutual concerns. Both sides went into the meetings knowing that they would never agree on certain issues, as the church is unequivocally committed to the traditional Christian position on same-sex marriage. But participants, who according to the account started out not trusting each other, were able to move beyond their differences.

Said one of the organizers, Deeda Seed: "What everyone found is that we really liked each other. There was a good rapport. It reaffirmed for me the power of people talking to each other — even if you have incredible differences. You start to see the humanity."

Wise words indeed.

07 November 2009

Fight over abortion is far from over

And you thought the fight against abortion was no longer a viable issue.

Tonight's 240-194 vote in the House to impose a quite restrictive ban on subsidized health coverage in the comprehensive health reform package should delight anti-abortion activists — and infuriate those on the other side. It's probably the most meaningful congressional vote on an abortion matter in at least a dozen years.

So what happened? First is that this vote was on using tax money to pay for abortion; presumably, an outright ban would have had less support. Also, in recent years, it has become acceptable within the Democratic Party to be leery of abortion; in contrast with a few years ago, when anti-abortion Democrats were barred from speaking at their national convention, several visible leadership positions have gone in recent years to moderate anti-abortion politicians.

And I suspect, although I couldn't prove, that the strident position taken by many abortion-rights activists — refusing to even look at any compromise that many people in the middle would favor, such as reasonable parental-consent laws — have lost them sympathy with some middle-of-the road people from both sides of the political aisle. And I also suspect that there could be some sort of a backlash to recent gains from the left on social issues.

It's hard to say where it will lead. I don't foresee support for some of the more radical positions of some anti-abortion activists, such as granting all the rights of personhood to fetuses, or to prohibiting abortions in the most difficult cases, such as in the cases of rape and incest. But it's clear that, as bleak as things may have looked a few years ago for opponents of abortion, they are making some noticeable gains, even under a Democratic administration.