Over the years, we’ve come to know the words “based on a true story” as somewhat fluid; we’re not saying that filmmakers are lying when they say their movie is based on actual events, but we’ve come to understand that very often creative liberties are taken and what ends up on screen is very rarely factual. In most cases, the facts have been changed to add drama, consolidate characters or to mould a story to the cinematic framework we’ve come to know all too well; while this is often to the benefit of the audience, it can often detract from the trust we place in the words, “based on a true story.” With this distrust in mind, we here at Goliath have decided to round up 10 great “based on a true story” films so we can break down the difference between life and art.
10. Blow (2001)
Directed by Ted Demme and adapted from Bruce Porter’s nonfiction text Blow: How A Small Town Boy Made $100 Million With the Medellin Cartel and Lost It All (whew, what a title), Blow sees Johnny Depp starring as Carl Jung, that small town boy who does indeed get mixed up with the infamous Columbian drug cartel when he starts smuggling cocaine. The movie, which steers fairly close to the content in the text and follows Jung from his time as a boy in a small town in Massachusetts through his sorted history with drugs and the cartel, also stars Penelope Cruz , Ray Liotta and Franka Potente. Blow was received with decidedly mixed reviews upon its release, with critics applauding Depp’s performance but also drawing attention to some shortcomings with story and character development, with the latter being particularly interesting due to the biopic nature of the film. Blow, based on true events, is the perfect film to kick off this list due to its increased popularity in the years since its release.
9. Capote (2005)
Starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in a terrific performance (he would go on to win an Academy Award for his work in this film), Capote sees Hoffman take on the role of Truman Capote, the troubled author who rose to prominence after the publication of his devastating nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. The story of the Clutter family murders which took place in Kansas, In Cold Blood was a landmark publication for Capote, and the film documents his obsession with the case from its outset. Following Capote as he documents the tragedy, navigating the line between fact and fiction obsessively while confiding in his best friend, To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener). Capote, which follows the most interesting points in the late author’s life, received universal acclaim upon its release, with critics especially commending Hoffman for his terrific work.
8. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Labelled as a “biographical drama” rather than a biopic (a designation which gives filmmakers far more creative leeway than if they were to call it the latter), A Beautiful Mind is a strong film but a poor adaptation of a life story, harkening back to the idea that “based on a true story” might not always mean what we think. Chronicling the life of John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, the brilliant but troubled mathematics genius whose work ultimately won him a Nobel Prize, A Beautiful Mind was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress). Despite its overwhelming commercial and critical success, many were leery of how different the film was from Nash’s life experience; details such as where Nash worked (He worked at the RAND company, not the CIA as in the film) and his relationships (he fathered a son out of wedlock) are changed in the name of a better story. Also starring Jennifer Connolly, Ed Harris and Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind is one of the least faithful adaptations on this list.
7. 127 Hours (2010)
Directed by Danny Boyle (of Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire fame) and starring James Franco in a starring role, 127 Hours tells the story of Aron Ralston, a mountain biking aficionado who, after falling into a canyon, has his arm trapped beneath a boulder and must resort to desperate measures in order to find his way home. The film, which received critical acclaim and was nominated for six Academy Awards, although it won none, is based off of Ralston’s 2004 memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and the film is a terrifically faithful adaptation. Despite some minor changes to the introductory elements of the story, Ralston himself has praised the film as being “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get while still being a drama,” and has gone on record saying it is correct that he never uttered “ow” while being forced to amputate his own arm to survive. What a trooper.
6. All the President’s Men (1976)
All the President’s Men is a 1976 film adapted from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s novel of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Bernstein and Woodward (respectively), two young journalists attempting to uncover the details behind the Watergate scandal which ultimately led to the resignation of American President Richard Nixon. The story introduced the world to Deep Throat, the FBI information leak later revealed to be former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, All the President’s Men was a critically acclaimed film that garnered eight Academy Award nominations. The screenplay, written by respected novelist and Princess Bride scribe William Goldman, has been lauded as a faithful adaptation that features few differences between the text and the movie, the only notable being that the film covers a smaller period of time than that reported on in the novel. A classic political thriller, All the President’s Men is a sterling adaptation based on true events.
5. Munich (2005)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush and Ciaran Hinds, Munich tells the story of Operation Wrath of God, the Israeli retaliation which took place after the unseemly massacre at Munich in the 1972 Olympics, overseen by the Palestinian Liberation Organization. A highly controversial film, Munich is based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter Terrorist Team by Yuval Aviv, and was both critically lauded and academically questioned upon its release. While notably deemed a work of fiction, Munich draws inspiration from the real events that transpired in the early ’70s and has drawn severe criticism for historical inaccuracies and its portrayal of the Israeli agents as “counter-terrorists,” with some groups going so far as to call for a boycott of the film upon its release in 2005. While Munich retains plausible deniability due to its categorization as fiction, many have (rightfully) drawn attention to the issues in glossing up sorted historical issues for the silver screen.
4. Into The Wild (2007)
Written and directed by Sean Penn and based off John Krakauer’s nonfiction text of the same name, Into the Wild stars Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, a privileged young man who abandons his roots in order to travel America as a vagrant, eventually making his way into the Alaskan wilderness where he died from mistakenly eating a poisonous berry. The film, which was nominated for two Academy awards, features a soundtrack scored by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Into the Wild was a critical success, with special attention paid to Hirsch’s performance, while attention was also given to how faithful an adaptation it was. While some criticism was levelled at the film for glorifying the process of McCandless, who was for all intents and purposes and ill-informed young man not to be idolized, overall Into the Wild was a success. The film also starred Kristen Stewart, Catherine Keener, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook.
3. Zodiac (2007)
Directed by Seven and Fight Club director David Fincher, Zodiac tells the true crime story of the infamous Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco with a series of killings in the 1970s. Fincher, known for his meticulous attention to detail, recaptures the essence of the era perfectly, and his specificity and obsessive compulsive behaviour are evident in the main character of his film, Robert Graysmith, who wrote the text on which the movie is based (in the film, Graysmith is portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal). Also starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Brian Cox, Zodiac is a methodical examination of the events which transpired in the period, and historians have lauded Fincher and his creative team for the detailed work they did to prepare for the film (some critics even went so far as to suggest the film was too true to historical facts, leading to a long running time and some lulls in action). A stellar film which garnered critical acclaim upon its release, Zodiac is a must-watch for anyone looking for a slow burning thriller based on a true story.
2. The Imitation Game (2014)
Another entry into the “historical drama” genre, The Imitation Game was directed by Morten Tyldum and loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Alan Hodges. The film, which sees Benedict Cumberbatch star as Turing alongside Keira Knightley, Mathew Goode and Mark Strong, tells the story of Turing’s involvement with the British government during the second World War, where he was responsible for cracking German codes and ciphers with the help of a machine named Christopher, an early precursor to contemporary computer technology. The film, which was heavily criticized due to historical inaccuracies, also addresses Turing’s obscenity trial and his chemical castration at the hands of the British government for being homosexual. While The Imitation Game undoubtedly works as entertainment, there is a litany of criticism which suggests it is a poor source of historical facts.
1. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can is the wildly entertaining tale of Frank Abagnale, the young con man who successfully forged checks worth millions of dollars while spending time impersonating a pilot, a doctor and a state prosecutor. The film, which takes significant liberties with details of Abagnale’s personal life while straying little in regards to his crimes, was a critical and commercial darling which was nominated for two Academy Awards and made over $350 million worldwide. Abagnale, now working with the FBI in a consulting role (he helps them catch other white collar criminals), has praised the film for the way it both stayed truthful to his story while making the necessary changes to craft an entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt film. Because of the balance it achieves in doing this, it’s the #1 “based on a true story” film on our list, and the one you should start with if you’re looking for a little fact-based entertainment in the near future.