Directed By Robert Luketic (‘Legally Blonde’), ‘21’ is a 2008 heist-drama film that revolves around a group of math students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who come together to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, and use tricks like card counting and covert signaling to win a large sum of money. The protagonist of the film is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a bright and brilliant student at MIT aspiring to study at Harvard Medical School. He even gets accepted there but doesn’t have the $300,000 needed for tuition.
His sole option seems to be the lucrative Robinson Scholarship, but only a select few receive that. At MIT, professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) invites Ben to join his team of Blackjack players, and the younger man’s life forever changes. ‘21’ is a fascinating tale of crime, gambling, revenge, and love. If the film’s realistic narrative has made you wonder whether it is based on a true story, this is what you need to know.
Is 21 Movie a True Story?
’21’ is partially based on a true story. The makers of ‘21’ categorize it as a film “inspired by true events” and not “based on a true story.” ‘21’ is the cinematic adaptation of author Ben Mezrich’s 2003 book ‘Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.’ The book tells the story of the MIT Blackjack Team, a real-life group of students who employed card counting and other advanced strategies to beat casinos in Las Vegas and other prominent gambling venues in the world.
Although the group was referred to as the MIT Blackjack Team, students from Harvard University and other prolific colleges were also part of it. They started operating in 1979, and they and their successors were active until the beginning of the 21st century. The film is set in modern times. Characters carry cell phones and are seen visiting Red Rock and Planet Hollywood casinos, both of which became operational in the 2000s.
Most of the characters in the film and Mezrich’s book are composites. The book itself reportedly admits this, along with the fact that names, locations, and other details were altered. During the adaptation process, more changes were introduced to the material. For instance, the book’s protagonist is Kevin Lewis, who is based on a former mechanical engineering student named Jeff Ma.
However, the film’s Ben Campbell is not exclusively inspired by Ma but an amalgam of Ma and several other team members. Ben’s interview scene was reportedly inspired by the interview of a member named Big Dave. Another glaring inaccuracy is that Ma is an Asian-American, whereas a white British actor portrays Ben in the movie. This particular aspect of the film was the subject of controversy around the time of its release.
Furthermore, unlike in the film, the group was not led by a professor in real life. Mezrich reportedly stated that Micky Rosa was a composite of three people: Bill Kaplan, JP Massar, and John Chang. Kaplan disputed this, asserting that there is not much resemblance between Rosa and the three of them except that what they were doing was like “any other business.”
Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) was reportedly based on Jane Willis, who received her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1994. Bill and Jill eventually become lovers in the film. However, Ma and Willis weren’t romantically involved in real life. Ma brought Willis and her boyfriend into the team in the early 1990s. At some point, she and her boyfriend got married. But things didn’t eventually work out, and they divorced. Since then, she has remarried. Her second husband is Richard A. Davey, a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation.
Mezrich has encountered questions about the authenticity of his book for a long time. In his April 6, 2008, article in The Boston Globe, reporter Drake Bennett claimed that parts of Mezrich’s book were completely fictional. Earlier that year, Mezrich spoke about his writing philosophies during an interview. “I’m not looking to use big words,” he stated.
“I write for people who if they weren’t reading my book, they wouldn’t be reading another book. They would be watching TV. I’m not competing with other books. I’m competing with the Red Sox.” So, we can safely assume that the main purpose of the book as well as the film is to entertain and not impart knowledge about history. Ultimately, ‘21’ can be regarded as a heavily fictionalized version of true events.
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