If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers then you’re probably acutely familiar with Fargo‘s opening words. “This is a true story,” white text against a black background reads. “The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
But how much of those true story claims are actually true? It turns out the answer is just as twisted, weird, and darkly funny as Fargo itself. Here’s your guide to how much of Fargo the movie is based on a true story.
Is the Movie Fargo Based on a True Story?
Yes and no. But the answer is mostly no. Let us explain.
There were two different real life crimes that inspired Joel and Ethan Coen to write, direct, and produce Fargo the movie. Unlike in the movie, these real life cases weren’t connected in the slightest. The first was a man who defrauded the General Motors Finance Corporation. The second was a murder in Connecticut where a man killed his wife and disposed of her body in a wood chipper.
If you’ve seen Fargo you can see traces of these real crimes in the film. Jerry’s (William H. Macy) troubles start when he tries to cover his tacks with the General Motors Acceptance Corporation. It’s implied that Jerry sold some floor-plan cars but didn’t pay back the GMAC, and it’s that financial problem that leads to Jerry coming up with a hare-brained scheme to kidnap his own wife for ransom. Like in the murder case, the triggering drama of the film revolves around a man’s relationship with his wife. Also, just like in real life, someone does end up in a wood chipper. But that’s about where the similarities end. In real life there was no kidnapping, no string of murders, and no pregnant cop on their heels. So while Fargo was technically inspired by real events, it’s not based on any real story.
What’s the True Story of Fargo the Movie?
Let’s start with that automobile fraud. In Fargo Jerry gets in trouble for selling cars as a sales manager for an Oldsmobile dealership without paying back the GMAC. While he’s desperately trying to forge his paperwork to make it look like he didn’t sell a bunch of cars and pocket the cash, he comes up with a not-so-brilliant idea. Instead of dealing with the legal implications of his crime, he decides to fake kidnap his wife and use the ransom money from his father-in-law to pay back the GMAC.
As ambitious as this plan is, it’s nothing compared to the man who likely served as Jerry’s inspiration. John McNamara is a felon who was convicted of a Ponzi scheme fraud. He managed to do this through a series of loans he was able to take out from General Motors’ financing arm, GMAC. Altogether the loans he fraudulently took out totaled about $6 billion. McNamara got the loan by claiming he was going to buy a series of non-GM vans, valued at $25,000 each, that would be customized, pre-sold, and shipped to the country of Cyprus. Only McNamara owned the dealership the vans were being purchased from, the customization company, the shipping company that claimed it was sending the vans to Cyprus, and 67 different corporations and partnerships that were involved in his scheme. None of these vans were ever actually purchased or sold. Rather they floated around in McNamara’s web of companies while he raked in the money from his loans.
Though he faced a maximum sentence of $800 million for his crimes, McNamara opted for a plea deal. His sentence was reduced to five years on the basis that he would provide evidence against the officials he had bribed.
That’s the real story about the movie’s Oldsmobile drama. But what about the wood chipper? In a special edition of the Fargo DVD it was confirmed that element of the film was based on the tragic murder of Helle Crafts. A Danish flight attendant, in November of 1986 Crafts’ friends dropped her off at her home in Newtown, Connecticut after a flight from Germany. She was never seen again. The investigation and trial revealed that her husband Richard Crafts murdered Helle and disposed of her body in a rented wood chipper. Crafts’ death led to Connecticut’s first murder conviction without a body.
Richard Crafts was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the crime. As of January of 2020, Crafts has been released from prison. He currently lives in a halfway house in New Haven.
Why Does Fargo Claim It’s Based on a True Story?
Despite those somber sentences about this movie being based on fact, there’s not a lot of truth in those stories. So why say that there is? It all comes down to who the Coen brothers are are creators. Their work is often filled with dark jokes and fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience that prefer to pull viewers’ legs rather than reflect on anything too somber. It’s not so much that the Coen brothers are lying to us when they claim Fargo is based on a true story. It’s that they’re commenting on the trend of movies using fact to write their fiction while creating their own crime-filled alternate universe. Basically, that true story bit is another joke.
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