Steven Spielberg’s new movie The Post has been making waves recently, since its true events-based story has relevant themes to current events. The director and his stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep saw the injustice in the sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, calling the free press “the enemy of the American people.” So, they decided to tell a story about the power of groundbreaking journalism with their new film, the story of how reporters brought down the White House with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed all the lies within Nixon’s administration regarding the Vietnam War. This, in essence, is why movies based on true stories are the most important ones. Film is the most palatable medium for taking in a story, and if you can use that to tell an incredible true story of heroism or bravery, especially if you can make it an entertaining movie at the same time, it’s a really great thing. True stories are a shoo-in for the Academy Awards, because those awards exist to merit the most important and essential works of cinema that impact social change, and nothing is better for that than a true story. So, these are the 15 greatest movies adapted from true events.
15. Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station could be retitled Black Lives Matter: The Movie. It tells the story of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a black kid who was killed by a white police officer who was then acquitted of all criminal charges. It was an important film in the fight for racial equality, which is how it acquired funding from a number of powerful black Hollywood figures like Forest Whitaker. The film was the directorial debut of Ryan Coogler, who has since brought African-American representation to blockbusters with movies like Creed and Black Panther. On his goals with the film, the director said, “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.” It’s a truly powerful piece of cinema.
14. United 93
Directed by the great Paul Greengrass, whose gritty style of thriller films revolutionized the genre when he took over the Bourne franchise from Doug Liman, United 93 tells the story of United Flight 93, the plane which was hijacked by al-Qaeda as part of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequently crashed by the passengers to avoid further loss of life. It’s an inspiring story of humanity pulling together against a common enemy in the face of adversity. Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie about a conscientious objector, Schindler’s List is a Holocaust movie about the Jews who weren’t killed, and United 93 is a 9/11 movie about the planes that didn’t get crashed into any buildings. The incredible sacrifice that those passengers made for the greater good is very moving, as is the film based on it.
13. Midnight Express
This movie is so dark and harrowing in its portrayal of Turkish prisons that the film’s writer, Oliver Stone, eventually had to travel to the country and apologize to the Turkish government for his portrayal of Turks. Midnight Express tells the story of Billy Hayes, an American college student, who is caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey and thrown in prison. While some negative reviews revolved around the film’s portrayal of Turkey and its people, as well as the graphic violence depicted in it, the overall consensus is that this is a brilliant movie. The critics called Midnight Express “harrowing,” “involving,” “nightmarish,” “riveting,” “searing,” and a “grim, nightmarish, unforgettable prison tale.” Another critic addressed the controversy in his review: “Despite the negative hullabaloo Midnight Express provoked for its brutal characterization of Turkish prison officials, director Alan Parker’s rendering of Oliver Stone’s exploitation screenplay is a stick of pure cinematic dynamite.”
In 1992, Danny DeVito directed this crime drama movie starring Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa, the labor union leader who disappeared in 1975, was declared legally dead in 1982, and has been missing ever since. His body, alive or dead, has never been found. DeVito co-stars alongside Nicholson, with the supporting cast filled out by John C. Reilly, Frank Whaley, and Kevin Anderson, who plays Robert F. Kennedy. The script for the movie was written by legendary playwright David Mamet, whose signature style of quick-fire dialogue permeates throughout the whole film. Critics called it “a hugely underrated, passionate, powerful biopic” and wrote that “DeVito is blasting away with the audacity of a film student, making Hoffa an effort of extraordinary detail, craftsmanship, and directorial ingenuity.”
11. Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge was a wonderful surprise when it was first released in 2016. It was quite the comeback for Mel Gibson, who had been ostracized and shunned after various sexist and anti-Semitic remarks he had made were revealed. Hacksaw Ridge tells a beautiful story by finding an interesting angle on well-trodden territory. It’s like how Schindler’s List tells the story of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed, by depicting the life of the man who saved the lives of six hundred of them. Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of the horrors of war and the bravery of soldiers by depicting the life of a conscientious objector who still managed to serve his country and become a war hero, despite an aversion to violence. It’s a story about what it really means to be a hero.
10. Sid and Nancy
Is there anyone Gary Oldman can’t play? He’s one of the greatest and most diversely talented and most underrated actors of all time. He’s played Winston Churchill, Commissioner Gordon, Ludwig van Beethoven, Drexl Spivey, Count Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirius Black, George Smiley, Jacob Marley, Mason Verger – and Sid Vicious. Sid and Nancy tells the story of how the Sex Pistols star met and fell in love with his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Theirs is a tragic tale. After the two had enjoyed a short, fast relationship together that was punctuated by drug abuse and domestic violence, Nancy was found dead under a sink in the bathroom of a hotel room at the age of just 20, and before the trial could take place when Sid was suspected of doing it (despite pleading guilty), he intentionally gave himself an overdose on heroin at the age of 21 and the two were buried together. The critics called Sid and Nancy “a surprisingly touching love story.”
9. Raging Bull
When Martin Scorsese makes a biopic, he does not sensationalize his subjects like a lot of directors do. One of the biggest problems with the biopic genre is that they deify the people they’re about and gleam over their flaws. But Scorsese finds out what their biggest flaw is and pivots the entire movie on that one characteristic, as a kind of character study. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s penchant for drug use and extramarital affairs become his downfall. In The Aviator, Howard Hughes drives himself crazy as he strives for perfection. And in Raging Bull, legendary boxer Jake LaMotta is so jealous of any other man that his wife so much as looks at that he alienates her, drives her away, and makes himself a wreck in the ring. He coulda been a contender.
Braveheart is considered to be the least historically accurate historical epic ever made. But the story of William Wallace’s life, on which the movie is based, isn’t very well documented at all, so Mel Gibson and his screenwriter Randall Wallace didn’t have very much to work with in adapted it for the screen. Instead, they worked with what they had and used that to capture the spirit of William Wallace – the Scottish warrior who revolted against King Edward I of England when his wife was executed for assaulting an English soldier who tried to rape her – and make an entertaining and action-packed movie. As Gibson himself explained, “Some people said that, in telling the story, we messed up history. It doesn’t bother me, because what I’m giving you is a cinematic experience, and I think films are there first to entertain, then teach, then inspire.” Braveheart was nominated for ten Oscars and won five, including Best Picture and Best Director.
7. Catch Me If You Can
You know a movie’s going to be great when there’s a bunch of reliable names attached to it that jump out at you right off the bat. Here, it’s Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Hanks. And there’s also Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, and James Brolin, with a screenplay by The Terminal’s Jeff Nathanson, music by the legendary John Williams, and cinematography by Schindler’s List’s Janusz Kamiński. And the story is implausible, unbelievable, and absolutely crazy. It’s about Frank Abagnale, who conned his way into millions of dollars by posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor before he was nineteen years old. Ridiculous, right? Well, it happened, and Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks did this amazing story justice.
6. Dog Day Afternoon
This darkly comic heist caper tells the story of a man named Sonny Wortzik, played by Al Pacino, who robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation that goes horribly wrong. The real Sonny, a man named John Wojtowicz, said that the movie is “only 30% true,” but it’s 100% brilliant. The great Sidney Lumet of 12 Angry Men, Network, and Serpico directed the movie masterfully, slowly notching up the tension throughout the movie as the pressures begin to weigh down on Sonny. The movie remains entertaining throughout the whole film as Pacino’s performance grips the audience and all the dark humor makes them laugh. Christopher Null wrote that Dog Day Afternoon “captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom and John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.”
Who knew that the guy who starred in Gigli and Pearl Harbor would one day direct a Best Picture winner? It’s possible that Ben Affleck was the only person that had any faith in Ben Affleck. Nobody went into Argo with high hopes, since it had his name all over it. But then his film was so brilliant that it proved everybody totally wrong, not least the Academy, who rewarded him duly for his comeback work. Argo tells the story of how a CIA agent infiltrated Iran and got a bunch of hostages out of there by pretending to be scouting locations for a movie. The film is, in equal parts, funny, thrilling, insightful, beautiful, gritty, harrowing, gripping, and powerful. Roger Ebert wrote, “The craft in this film is rare. It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that’s so clear to us we wonder why it isn’t obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis?”
4. Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg gave the world one of the most important films of all time with this black and white epic that offers a harrowing and detailed account of the horrors of the Holocaust. However, it does so with a slightly hopeful angle, by telling the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who used his clout to save the lives of thousands of Jews on their way to the concentration camps. It’s over three hours long and it’s worth every minute of it. The film is visually powerful, thanks to emotive symbols like candles and the girl in the red coat. Director Billy Wilder put it best when he wrote to Spielberg following the movie’s release: “They couldn’t have gotten a better man. This movie is absolutely perfection.”
3. All the President’s Men
All the President’s Men is one of the most important political films ever made. It’s about the two journalists – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – who reported on the Watergate scandal around the time that President Nixon was leaving office. There was so much mystery surrounding the event that we as an audience are trying to figure it out with the reporters. We know about as much as they do. Spielberg’s new movie The Post has been getting rave reviews recently, but critics have drawn negative comparisons with All the President’s Men. Entertainment Weekly’s review said, “If you look at The Post next to something like All the President’s Men, you see the difference between having a story passively explained to you and actively helping to untangle it.”
It’s no small compliment to say that Dunkirk is not only the greatest film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, but also the greatest film ever made about the Second World War. The way it is shot is breathtakingly beautiful, but you never lose sight of the horrors of war being portrayed in these sharp, brilliantly composed frames. Nolan’s method for working out the story and how to tell it was to structure it in a mathematically precise way to ensure that the tension is ratcheted up ever so subtly from the beginning to the very end. Hans Zimmer’s musical score incorporated the Shepard tone, an auditory illusion that gives off the impression of an indefinite rising pitch, to make sure that you were kept on the edge of your seat for the entire film. All in all, Dunkirk is a masterpiece and a truly astonishing cinematic achievement.
Martin Scorsese’s crowning achievement is this biopic of mobster Henry Hill. The film acts as more of a biopic – it’s a study of the gangster lifestyle and why people get attracted to it, despite its inherent dangers. The style that Scorsese made the movie in, with the snappy voiceover narration and the rapid-fire scenes and the unconventional narrative structure that cuts back and forth across decades of time. Goodfellas tells more story in two and a half hours than most TV dramas do with seven seasons. And the acting is incredible. Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro all give stunning performances that are at times intimidating, darkly comic, and violently aggressive. It’s all great acting in roles of flawed characters. Oh, and don’t even get started on that soundtrack. What an amazing collection of music – Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, Muddy Waters, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, the Ronettes, the Who, George Harrison, Harry Nilsson, Sid Vicious! Goodfellas is easily one of the most entertaining and enriching movies of all time.