TODAY   |  February 23, 2013

The truth behind some Oscar-nominated films

There’s been a new fuss raised over an old question about the movie business with three best picture contenders based on true stories. Just how true does a movie have to be? NBC’s Mike Taibbi reports.

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>>> are just one day away with three best picture contenders based on real-life events. but how much is fact, and how much is fiction? here's nbc's mike taibbi .

>> reporter: in "argo" the story of a rescue during the iran iran hostage crisis , there's an intense chase scene at the end that never happened.

>> in order to make an exciting and entertaining film, you have to stretch the truth.

>> reporter: artistic license , says one critic.

>> you have to dramatize things a little bit. that's just the way moviemaking is.

>> reporter: "zero dark thirty," about the killing of osama bin laden , began with a torture scene even the filmmakers say they never confirmed produced useful clues.

>> now, now --

>> reporter: in steven spielberg 's "lincoln," they got a key fact wrong. connecticut 's two congressmen did not vote against the 13th amendment ending slavery. current connecticut congressman joe courtney wrote spielberg that "placing the state of connecticut on the wrong side of the historic and divisive fight over slavery is a distortion of easily verifiable facts." agreed, said turner classic movies host ben mankowitz.

>> i think if the movie is a movie about the passage of the 13th amendment or it's a movie about whether we're going to torture people in the united states of america , you bet they -- their feet should get held to the fire.

>> reporter: oscar has celebrated dozens of films over the years that were based on true stories but then imagined characters and dialogue and whole scenes. from patton to "a beautiful mind " to "the king's speech," filmmakers have relied on artistic license to create historical dramas, not documentaries. if some confuse the two, that does worry historians.

>> as a teacher, i find that what students know or think they know about history often comes from movies. you have to disabuse them of some misconceptions and give a broader context of history than hollywood movies are capable of giving them.

>> reporter: in the oscar spotlight this year, three movies about significant historical events , along with the storyteller's age-old question why let the facts get in the way of a good story. nbc news, los angeles .