When screenwriters run out of fiction ideas to make movies about, turning toward real events is often a good idea. Setting aside bio-pics of famous people (which we’ve already done a Roundtable about) or documentaries (did that too), what are some of your favorite movies based on true stories?
M. Enois Duarte
In a career spanning just under 50 years (if we’re not counting his short film ‘Amblin’), Steven Spielberg has made a couple duds (‘Always’, ‘1941’) along with a few bland mediocre entries (‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, ‘The Adventures of Tintin’). However, the Godfather of the Summer Blockbuster has exceedingly more good movies than bad, and a good chunk of them are actually based on true events. One of my personal favorites under this category is ‘Munich‘.
Based on Israel’s secret operation against the Palestinian government after the 1972 Olympics massacre, the espionage drama is a provocative, tension-filled study on justifying revenge, thoughtfully exploring the moral quandary of vengeance and the price paid by those obsessively seeking it. What I find most impressive and one of many reasons for loving this phenomenal piece of filmmaking is Spielberg’s camerawork, which proves once again why he’s a master. With long-time collaborator and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, tensions are kept high with a camera that’s continually moving, probing into the virtues of vengeance and the irony of that moral dilemma with an earnest, purposeful eye. When it comes to “based on true events” movies, there are very few as engaging and exhilarating as Spielberg’s ‘Munich’.
I actively avoid “true story” movies as I often find the Hollywoodizing to be too much. (Plus, I grew up during a time when TV movies were all about cashing in on some recent true story mess.) Even with its many, many inaccuracies, over-emphasizing, and unrealistic qualities, I’m a big fan of ‘Moneyball‘. It has that rare quality of portraying something that happened fairly recently with an earnest but entertaining mystique. As the years go by, the movie holds up and even offers an interesting story in how it made it to release and how the specific screwy details in the movie were realized.
I’m not much of a fan of historical sports movies, but war films completely own me. My favorite is probably Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down‘. Ensemble war films are tricky for developing characters, especially when all of them wear the same uniform and helmet, but his film has no problem making you connect with them. At the time, a lot of the cast members weren’t known names (Orlando Bloom, Tom Hardy, Hugh Dancy, etc.), so it wasn’t easy. Getting to know the characters makes the amazing story all the more impactful.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
I enjoyed watching ‘Sully‘. When the “Miracle on the Hudson” occurred, I actually had a view from my office, not of the plane itself, but of all the ferries chugging through the water rescuing the crew and passengers from the downed plane and the recovery vessels that brought the plane to shore. At the time, all I knew was that a very heroic (and very lucky) pilot and crew managed to land a passenger plane on the Hudson River with no casualties. The film offers a fascinating peek behind the curtain into the FAA investigation of the incident and the crew. Was ditching the plane in the Hudson the best option? Were there viable alternatives that would have been far less dramatic, less traumatic for the passengers, and less costly than the total loss of a passenger jet? The findings of this investigation would determine how history viewed Capt. Sullenberger and his crew, and have a large impact on their future careers.
Perhaps most powerful are the realistic depictions of what might have happened had Sully made another choice. As a witness to the Twin Towers falling on 9/11, the depiction of a jet flying into midtown Manhattan is hard to watch. These alternate possibilities, combined with playback of the air traffic control voice recording (re-enacted) really help to bring home the magnitude of the situation. Although Tom Hanks was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, he did win a People’s Choice award for his depiction of the stoic captain. As usual, Hanks disappears into the role, embodying the seasoned no-nonsense pilot, with just a hint of that humor that comes so naturally to Hanks. Stick around during the end credits for some real-life footage of Sully, the crew and many of the passengers who reunited to celebrate that fateful day.
I suppose it’s debatable whether ‘Goodfellas‘ should actually be called a bio-pic. Mob informant Henry Hill wouldn’t be famous if not for the book and movie about his life. Anyway, it’s a masterpiece, but you knew that already.
Along similar lines, I’m fond of Peter Medak’s 1990 film ‘The Krays’, about the real twin brothers who ruled the London crime scene in the 1960s. (The story was remade less effectively a few years ago as the Tom Hardy vehicle ‘Legend’. Seek out the original.)
Brian’s pick of ‘Moneyball’ reminds me of ‘The Damned United‘, the story of a British soccer team manager who was hired to take over a rival team after years of trash-talking them and personally insulting each of the players in the media. The film is an engrossing character study of a man undone by his own ego, and you don’t need to know anything about soccer to enjoy it.
Finally, I want to call out David Lynch’s ‘The Straight Story‘, based on the true tale of a stubborn elderly man who rode his lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother. Although Lynch may be known as one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers alive, don’t worry about any of that when watching it. Like the title says, he tells this one straight. It’s one of his least alienating and most accessible movies, which makes it a terrible shame how the film has fallen under the radar since its original release in 1999.
Now it’s your turn to give us some of your suggestions for good movies based on real events.