True stories can often make for great films, as one might here make this remark when they encounter someone’s stunning real-life account. It’s hard to deny the power of such tales given how real life is filled with much drama and beauty. In the film Adaptation, Nicolas Cage’s character of Charlie Kaufman asks Robert McKee if a film can be like real life in that nothing interesting happens.
To which McKee responds, “People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption…somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else…someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it…a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry, somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman.” And while we certainly don’t consider all of these films to be undoubtedly factual, they should at least be inspiring enough to go out and learn more about life’s true events. Here are 15 films based on true life accounts that are worth the time in your own life.
Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 maintains a focus on the space mission that went awry for the astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). Sure, there is drama on the surface and great special effects in the spacecraft that malfunctions, but there’s great detail in how the film finds itself being more about the situation and less about stirring up melodrama for the characters.
The true story of Oskar Schindler is an emotional one for the businessman of Krakow who saved many Jews from death during the Nazi occupation. Liam Neeson plays Schindler with a moving performance, among the likes of Ben Kingsley as Jewish official Itzhak Stern and Ralph Fiennes as Lieutenant Amon Göth a harsh and cruel Nazi officer that exterminates Jews in the camps for sport. It’s also one of the finest films of the renowned genre director Steven Spielberg, crafting a black-and-white drama that is among his most revered of movies.
Lawrence of Arabia
British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence started off as a liaison in Arabia for Arabs and British but would soon end up as the man who led a rebellion across the deserts. Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence with great dignity and character while director David Lean showcases some of the best cinematography of shooting in the desert, utilizing the vast landscapes to great effect. Also worth noting are the fantastic supporting performances by Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif.
World War II’s General George S. Patton is given a fascinating and intense film portrayal by George C. Scott. Aside from the great scenes of war, it’s ultimately Scott’s performance that captures the picture. How could anyone forget that amazing and powerful scene of Patton standing before a giant American flag and giving a rousing speech about war and death?
Thracian Spartacus was the leader of the slave revolt in ancient Rome and he is expertly played here by Kirk Douglas at his finest. As one of the earlier films of director Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus is an epic historical picture of grand scale sets and war, with a fantastic cast that includes Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, and Tony Curtis. The film won multiple Academy Awards and would be preserved by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Directed by Danny Boyle with a script by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs reveals a telling drama about the character by only showcasing him behind the scenes before his big public events. The titular character played by Michael Fassbender, we’re given glimpses of Jobs’ life backstage at his unveiling events in 1984, 1988, and 1998. It’s a fantastic framing device for saying a lot about the man behind Apple and keeps a deadline for his press conferences that adds more tension.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has never been as alive when portrayed by Tom Hulce in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. Based on the story of the legendary composer, the film finds Mozart as a hedonistic genius that is despised by his hard-working rival Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). A tale of music and jealousy, it’s a decadently brilliant film with music that his hard not to forget.
Directed by Damien Chazelle of La La Land fame, First Man finds Ryan Gosling in the role of famed moon-walking astronaut Neil Armstrong. The film, beautifully shot as only Chazelle could showcase, follows Neil after the tragic death of his daughter and his quietly confounding journey to becoming the first astronaut to make a successful landing on the moon. A powerful film that attempts to delve into Neil’s mind and motivation while being engrossed in the epic nature of the space race.
Director Tim Burton took a wildly heartfelt route to portray the quirky director Ed Wood, who helmed the notably so-bad-they’re-funny movies of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Johnny Depp plays Wood as an eccentric swindler who believes himself to be such a powerful filmmaker he doesn’t need a second take or better sets. It’s a comedic but thoughtful portrayal that showcases more of Wood’s dreams of filmmaking than just mocking his filmmaking style.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort as the man who went from a simple stockbroker underling to the maniacally corrupt leader of Stratton Oakmont who so high and fell so low. Directed by Martin Scorsese with a similar tone to his bad-guy movie Goodfellas, the film portrays Belfort as an eccentric oddity who goes nuts with his money to the point that it destroys him and his company. There’s plenty of uneasy laughter and sickening truths in this fast-paced biopic where Belfort’s life is a smear of greed, fraud, drugs, booze, and sex.
The Great Escape
WWII Allied soldiers inside a German POW camp take on the impossible. They decide to break out of the camp and lure the Nazi forces away to search for them instead of battling on the frontlines. Based on the mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan, The Great Escape is a rousing war story featuring escaping via a crafty underground tunnel and Steve McQueen on a motorcycle jumping fences.
The Social Network
The Social Network documents the chaotic and troubled formation of the social networking site Facebook and it’s odd founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Directed by David Fincher with a fine script by Aaron Sorkin, the film starts from Zuckerberg being the weird kid at college who made a girl-rating website out of revenge to his questionable business moves of shoving others away. Also worth noting are the supporting performances Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer.
12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s film based on the 1853 slave narrative memoir is a tough and truthful film of America’s darker times of slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a man who starts off as a free man in New York and ends up kidnapped to be sold to Southern slavers. Not shy to either the brutality or kindnesses of Solomon’s journey, this is by far one of the most important and compelling films about the history of slavery in America.
Born on the Fourth of July
Tom Cruise is at his finest in Oliver Stone’s tough-to-watch film based on the eponymous autobiography by Ron Kovic. Cruise plays Ron as a man who fights in the Vietnam war and returns home a man severely injured and deeply disturbed by his nightmarish memories of war. Taking place entirely from Ron’s perspective, we see and hear every agonizing bit of his recovery and every uneasy echo of the war behind him.
Spike Lee’s take on Malcolm X had a lot of controversy riding on it, to the point where Lee was prepared to leave the country if he did wrong by the historical figure who fought for race rights. Thankfully, the film is an exceptional biopic, thanks mostly to the performance by Denzel Washington in the lead. It’s also an all-encompassing picture that follows Malcolm’s life through a range of era and philosophies.