Weekend Roundtable: Based on a True Story

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’.

Brian Hoss

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.

Luke Hickman

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.

Josh Zyber

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.


  1. Scott

    When I first saw Spielberg’s name listed I thought for certain that it would be in reference to Schindler’s List. I’d really have a hard time picking anything other than that. Not to say it’s my favorite or most entertaining film, but it sure is impactful and well made!

    • Bolo

      That film is a bloody masterpiece. The way it gets inside their heads is amazing. Any other filmmaker approaching that story probably would’ve told it from the perspective of a cop or a barrister after the fact, but showing it from their perspective took a very special touch.

        • Bolo

          Yeah, when I first saw the movie I tried to learn more about the case. The movie does show Juliet Hulme’s mother marrying a man whose last name was Perry, so I assume she took the last name from him; and a lot of the film is dedicated to the two girls obsession with writing gory fiction.

          Apparently, Anne Perry refused to watch the film. But she has discussed her participation in the murder of her best friend’s mum in some interviews.

        • Bolo

          My mum actually reads Anne Perry’s writing and I tried to tell her that she was the one Kate Winslet played in ‘Heavenly Creatures’ and she thought I was pulling her leg.

  2. Abe

    I have the original straight story on DVD. I’m afraid to watch it now that I read Josh’s review of the blu-ray import (I can’t believe it’s 20 years now).

    Since I was teenager when I bought it – it would be as a different person watching the movie now; just can’t bear to watch it on a projector. Beautiful storytelling.

  3. Csm101

    David Fincher’s Zodiac.
    The Big Short took subject matter that I have very little interest in and made it extremely engaging.
    This one’s a bit of a stretch, but I have to mention Wolf Creek 😄. The idea of a deranged Crocodile Dundee type somewhere in the outback brutalizing people makes for some great urban myth/campfire type tales.

  4. Dan Snoddy

    Damned United is a great flick. Along with The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Rush, and The Crown on Netflix, Peter Morgan is one of my favorite writers of films based on true stories. Last King of Scotland, too. I feel a binge coming on, thanks Josh!

  5. photogdave

    Salvador. A down and dirty, gritty film that almost plays like a documentary at times. James Woods really nails the role of Boyle, a deadbeat and a coward who you can’t help rooting for.
    Oliver Stone’s other big movie of the same year was based on a true story too.

    Another favourite of mine is Rush (2013). An incredible story of sports rivals who are actually friends behind the scenes. You don’t have to be a Formula 1 fan to appreciate the story and the spectacle, but I am so it makes the film all the more enjoyable.
    Ron Howard seems to be getting poo-poo’d a lot these days but he was solid on this one.

  6. Judas Cradle

    “When screenwriters run out of fiction ideas to make movies about…”
    Apparently, Hollywood screenwriters don’t know there are libraries full of hundreds of thousands of fiction stories that have not been made into films.

  7. Ian

    There are so many others – just flipping through my discs, I see Wolf of Wall Street, 13 Hours, The Social Network, Bronson, The Founder, Into the Wild, Catch Me if You Can, The Insider, A Beautiful Mind, Serpico, The Falcon and the Snowman, even The Serpent and the Rainbow. I could keep going…

    Some more faithful than others, some better movies than others, but all based on fascinating real people and their stories.

    • NW,UK

      A pity that the movie didn’t include Wade Davis’ experience of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in a cinema packed full of religious locals. The results of the ark being opened had them fleeing the building, screaming that the devil was at work. An amusing read, but probably wouldn’t have translated too well.

  8. Charles Contreras

    For sure I recommend United 93. It represents an interesting point of view that gets touched upon only so often when events of 911 are analyzed.

    I also would suggest Catch Me If You Can. I remember reading the book back in the early eighties and came away fascinated by Frank Abagnale’s criminal exploits, which for him I’m sure began innocently enough. If you can find the book give it a read, I guarantee you’ll have a hard time putting it down.

  9. William Henley

    I cannot think of too many off the top of my head, but 13 Hours was one I really liked.

    Saving Private Ryan is partially based on a true story, so I am going to add it on there.

    Stalingrad is… different. Once again, it is partially based on a true story. Hmmm, starting to think that could almost be a different round table discussion – movies based around real events, but the story itself is fictional.

    Sticking with war movies, The Longest Day, Schindler’s List, and LIfe is Beautiful, which is loosely based on a true story.

    Dreamgirls is loosely based on a true story, so I will add that

    Looking over previous posts, I will echo Social Network and Catch Me if You Can

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