Was ’21’ truly based on a ‘true’ story?


I have a problem with the statement “based on a true story” when paired with movie titles.

It occurred to me while watching a trailer for an upcoming movie “The Express,” which is tagged with “based on a true story.” After seeing that trailer, it reminded me how disappointing it was when I found how untrue the last movie I saw that was “based on a true story.”

“21” is a movie that was well produced, enjoyable and one that made me want to learn more about the M.I.T. blackjack teams. But the more I looked into the six M.I.T. students, the more I found that the movie should be tagged as “very loosely based on a true story.”

I don’t know about the general public but when I hear of movies being “based on a true story,” I expect that most of the facts, events and the characters in the movie are accurate, just like the real life story. But after watching The History Channel’s “Breaking Vegas” special, researching on-line and reading the book “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich, which the movie was adapated from, I learned how loosely the term “true” can be thrown around in Hollywood movies.

The book and and TV special tells the inside story of six M.I.T. students in the 1990’s that learn to count cards in blackjack as a team and would go to Las Vegas on the weekends and win hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was the general plot and idea in the movie “21,” but

the events that took place in the in real life differ greatly.

Here is an abbreviated list of how untrue “based on a true story” can be.

In the movie: Ben Campbell is the main character.

In the book: Kevin Lewis is the main character.

The truth: Jeff Ma is the real Ben Campbell/Kevin Lewis, no one knows why the name change took place. In both the movie and the book the professor who started the blackjack teams was Micky Rosa, but he is a fictional character made by author Ben Mezrich. The M.I.T. teams were started by Bill Kaplan, J.P. Massar and John Chang, none of which are M.I.T. professors. Many other characters’ names were changed to protect their identity as well.

In the movie: Ben Campbell wanted to be on the blackjack team until he makes enough money to put himself through graduate school at Harvard.

The truth: Jeff Ma, the real life Ben Campbell, was from a family that had the finances to pay for his tuition in M.I.T. and graduate school. He was lured into the team by how much money they were making. He wanted a piece of the money and the exciting life style they had.

In the movie: The team in the movie, which was based off of Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down The House,” was mostly Caucasian with two members being Asian.

The truth: Most of the real team was comprised of Asian students because they fit a profile that the team was looking for—Asian businessmen and woman were common players in Las Vegas casinos at the time.

In the movie: Ben Campbell loses his focus and recklessly loses $200,000 while playing Blackjack.

The truth: Jeff Ma and the other member’s of the team were to disciplined and focused to not be so reckless.

In the movie: Ben Campbell is caught counting cards and is then taken to a back room and beaten up by casino security for counting cards.

The truth: In the 1950’s and 60’s when organized crime played a big part in Las Vegas, it was common to hear of cheaters and card counters to get their legs and fingers broken to make a point. But in the 1990’s, when the movie and book took place, casinos were legitimate billion dollar businesses that could be sued by individuals if assaulted by security staff.

In the movie: At the end, we find that Ben pulls a switch on their professor Micky Rosa, who was trying to take all their winning because they cut him out of the team. Then, security expert Cole Williams of Griffin Investigations, who was trying to expose the team, threatens to kill Ben if he

doesn’t give the money over. Ben gives the money to Cole who enjoys a nice retirement while Ben gets the scholarship to Harvard.

The truth: There was never a sudden twisting end to the blackjack team. It took close to five years for the casino security firm Griffin Investigations to recognize the methods that the team was using. Eventually they were discovered and the team became black-booked and banned from most casinos.

These are just a few inaccuracies I spotted in this film that is supposedly “based on a true story.”

You can only wonder how true other Hollywood movies that are “based on a true story” really are.