The 15 Best Movies Inspired By True Events

Check out our list of The 15 Best Movies Inspired By True Events.

'Goodfellas' promo shot

Image via Getty/Archive Photos

'Goodfellas' promo shot

Critics often lament the lack of “original” ideas in Hollywood, complaining that—week after week—each Friday’s slate of new releases is simply a mash-up of superhero sequels and franchise reboots. And while movies based on real-life events could technically be considered yet another category of “recycled” content, when placed in the hands of the right director and actors, the truth can be far more compelling than fiction. That is one explanation as to why some of the most powerful films released in recent years—including Fruitvale StationSelma, Hidden Figures, and Sully—are based on real events.

Whenever moviemakers get their hands on a story based on true events, the odds are they may stumble into controversy with the liberties that they take in the name of artistic expression. See, for instance, Jada Pinkett Smith's complaints about the way the filmmakers behind the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me portrayed her relationship and interactions with Shakur. Pinkett Smith says that, among other things, she and Shakur never had an argument backstage at one of his shows, Shakur never read her a poem, and he also didn't say goodbye to her when he left Los Angeles, as depicted in dramatic scenes throughout the film. All of this is one high-profile example of the challenges of depicting actual people on film, particularly when said people are still alive to set the record straight.

As such, each of the classic movies on our list below should be viewed mostly for entertainment value. These are less recent examples that have proven the test of time to stand up well as far as a viewing experience is concerned, but if you want to learn all of the facts about the historical events upon which they're based, it may serve you well to do a little digging on your own after you're done watching.

With that said, here are the 15 Best Movies Inspired By True Events.

All the President's Men (1976)

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Director: Alan J. Pakula

Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden

To call All the President’s Men a movie about the Watergate scandal would be to miss its point entirely. Because while the downfall of a president is certainly part of the film’s resolution, the 137 minutes preceding that are about the nitty-gritty of the newspaper business. And viewers have Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post (played by Jason Robards in the film) during the time of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into Richard Nixon’s clandestine dealings, to thank for that as much as they do star/producer Robert Redford.

Concerned about the light in which the film might paint his profession and the reporters and editors who inhabit it, Bradlee realized that the mere act of cooperation could help shape the film’s direction. “We’re all in the position that we didn’t have any choice about this movie—it would be made regardless—and I could see that,” Bradlee stated in a 1975 interview with his own paper. “Lacking that choice, it seemed to make more sense to try to influence it factually than to just stick our heads in the sand.” As a result, the filmmakers made sure every detail—from the mounds of research, articles and documents collected by Woodward and Bernstein to the desks their big-screen counterparts sat at—were perfectly replicated. The result is a painstakingly accurate recounting of two reporters’ bumpy path to uncovering an ugly truth.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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Director: Oliver Stone

Stars: Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava

There are two things any moviegoer should know about Oliver Stone: 1) He loves to tell stories based on true events, and 2) He has a tendency to rewrite history, sometimes egregiously (see JFK). The one subject where he leans more toward the realistic side is the Vietnam War. Stone’s own tour of duty is explored in the semi-autobiographical Platoon, with Charlie Sheen assuming the director’s identity (a privileged white kid who volunteers to go to war).

In Born on the Fourth of July, Stone tells the story of Ron Kovic, who joined the Marines as an enthusiastic young patriot and came home a paralyzed anti-war activist. Tom Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kovic, which required him to play against Movie Star type for much of the movie, in which the wheelchair-bound and newly politicized Kovic leads a series of anti-Vietnam War protests to bring attention to the young men who were ripped from the comforts of home—voluntarily or otherwise—and literally dropped into a jungle to defend their country. So moved was even Kovic by Cruise’s portrayal of him that he gifted the actor with his Bronze Star on the final day of filming.

My Left Foot (1989)

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Director: Jim Sheridan

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan

If they handed out Oscars for simply walking down the street, Daniel Day-Lewis would have a closetful of them. But his first brush with Academy Award glory came courtesy of My Left Foot, the story of Christy Brown, a man who was born with cerebral palsy yet found success as an artist and writer utilizing the one limb over which he had control.

While it’s a story that could be considered easy Oscar bait in the hands (or foot) of most other actors, Day-Lewis’ performance is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. (Though one would hardly expect less from the man who would be Lincoln.) The film also kick-started the actor’s longtime collaboration with director Jim Sheridan, with whom he successfully partnered again on the equally praise-worthy In the Name of the Father (also based on a true story) and The Boxer.

GoodFellas (1990)

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Director: Martin Scorsese

Stars: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci

In the pantheon of great mob movies, GoodFellas is as good as it gets. And realistic. Which is exactly what attracted Martin Scorsese to the project in the first place. Legend has it that after reading Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, the story of Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill’s life as a gangster-turned-rat, the director immediately picked up the phone, called Pileggi and told him, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.” Pileggi’s reply? “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.”

Having grown up in New York City’s Little Italy at the height of the city’s mafia influx, Scorsese’s fascination with the book was in the authenticity of the everyday life of a mobster. Whereas over-the-top interpretations of gangsterdom, like Scarface, portray a sort of “party all the time” atmosphere, Pileggi’s book got the minutiae right—the scams (big and small) and how they worked, the challenges facing middle-management mobsters and their lack of upward mobility and the delicate balance between family life and “family” life. And Scorsese utilizes every trick in his moviemaking toolkit to pull it off, which earned the film six Oscar nominations (with one win for Joe Pesci) and the most famous tracking shot in cinema history.

Schindler's List (1993)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

To call Schindler’s List “a movie” seems like an understatement, as few films have ever presented as effective—or harrowing—an accounting of the Holocaust as Steven Spielberg’s epic retelling of Oskar Schindler, the German business owner who saved the lives of thousands of concentration camp-bound refugees by offering them employment in his factories. While many consider Schindler’s List the film that Spielberg was born to make, the director himself worried that he did not have the maturity to pull off such a massive undertaking, and so it was originally pitched to Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese (who was officially attached).

But then Spielberg reconsidered. And from the moment he took the reins, he was clear about one thing: the film would be shot like a documentary, which meant that he did not want any stars in the key roles (both Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were still relative unknowns at the time) and that it would be shot in black and white using mostly handheld cameras. It would also be filmed in as many of the actual locations as possible (with the exception of Auschwitz, which they were forbidden from entering). And it’s from these elements precisely that Schindler’s List draws its cinematic power.

Apollo 13 (1995)

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Director: Ron Howard

Stars: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon

It takes a talented director to keep an audience on the edge of its seat while watching a film in which they already know the ending. Which is exactly what Ron Howard was able to do in Apollo 13, the story of NASA’s 1970 moon landing-turned-rescue mission when an on-board explosion threatened the safety of its astronauts, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). Howard’s secret? Create a film that is as educational as it is entertaining.

Howard worked hand in hand with NASA to create a spot-on retelling of the events, which meant that his stars got to experience every little boy’s fantasy: space camp! The trio spent time inside simulated command and lunar modules, all under the tutelage of Lovell, and filmed in a reduced gravity aircraft in order to create the weightlessness the astronauts would contend with in space. For his role as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, Ed Harris listened to the audio communications between flight control and the astronauts, was given access to hundreds of NASA documents, took a class in physics and enrolled in flight control school. But Howard, ever the filmmaker, did take one creative liberty: editing a back-and-forth dialogue between Apollo and flight control down to one simple—and memorable—line: “Houston, we have a problem.”

The Insider (1999)

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Director: Michael Mann

Stars: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer

Some films based on real-life events require a full-scale investigation in order for a filmmaker to separate fact from fiction. The Insider is one such case. Directed by Michael Mann from an article in Vanity Fair, the film tells the story of tobacco industry big shot Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) who decided to blow the whistle on his own company when he realized that they were increasing the amount of nicotine in each cigarette.

What sounds like a preachy tale of the dangers of smoking is anything but in the hands of Mann; the film, instead, is a statement on the far-reaching powers of corporate America and the somewhat incestuous relationship between corporate evil-doers and the media. In Wigand’s case, an act of bravery turned into a nightmare, one in which his family was bullied and threatened. And all of it for nothing, really; a segment Wigand taped for 60 Minutes about his company’s wrongdoing was edited down to little more than a sound byte because the station’s then-owner was also the head of a tobacco company. After much pressure, the segment eventually aired in its entirety three moths later—but at that point it was too late; Wigand and his family had already lost everything. The Insider, on the other hand, catapulted Crowe to the acting A-list.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

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Director: Steven Soderbergh

Stars: Julia Roberts, David Brisbin, Dawn Didawick

Erin Brockovich is not a lawyer. She just plays (close to one) in the movies. In 2000, the woman who calls herself a “consumer advocate” gained worldwide recognition when Julia Roberts decided to throw on a tank top and assume the role of the tough-talking legal clerk who helped bring justice ($333 million worth) to a tiny town in California whose residents were being poisoned by their own drinking water. For her work on the case, Brockovich received a $2 million bonus; for her role as Brockovich, Roberts received an Oscar.

While Steven Soderbergh had originally risen to prominence in 1989, when he came out of nowhere as a leading member of the new wave of American independent moviemakers with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the year of Brockovich represented an important turning point in his career—one that would allow him to more easily adapt the John Cassavetes “one for me, one for them” model of moviemaking. Soderbergh’s masterful direction, coupled with his indie sensibility, heralded a new breed of filmmaker. While he was honored with a Best Director Oscar nomination for his work on the film, he lost out to, well, Steven Soderbergh. Traffic, Soderbergh’s epic tale of America’s war on drugs, was released just in time for Oscar considering, on December 27th, and is the film that won the director his first—and so far only—Oscar.

The Pianist (2002)

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Director: Roman Polanski

Stars: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Frank Finlay

Nearly a decade after turning down the chance to direct Schindler’s List, director Roman Polanski released his own Holocaust story. And while it wasn’t exactly an autobiography—the movie is about pianist Władysław Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody), who is forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland—Polanski, who managed to escape from the Kraków Ghetto following the death of his mother as a child, inserted enough personal experience to make it feel that way.

Keeping with his reputation as a director who does not shy away from truth—regardless of how disturbing it may—The Pianist holds nothing back in its depiction of the Holocaust’s extreme atrocities. The camera doesn’t flinch when young children are beaten to death, innocent men and women are gunned down and executed in the streets, piles of dead bodies are set afire and a man in a wheelchair is hurled off a balcony, fatally crashing into the ground below. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s a powerful one.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

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Director: Terry George

Stars: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Xolani Mali

“Hero” is not a designation that comes to Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the general manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, easily. But when his fellow citizens came under attack in the midst of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, he took the one action that came naturally to him: he helped. For four months, as more than 800,000 people were murdered outside his gates, Rusesabagina saved the lives of more than 1,200 refugees, whom he provided with food and shelter.

In Terry George’s compelling film version of the event, he maintains Rusesabagina’s position as not so much a hero but a man at a crossroads—a man who has the opportunity to save others and takes that very chance, despite the opposition surrounding him. This everyman sensibility only added to the Oscar-nominated film’s appeal. And Rusesabagina himself admits that all of it is true. “That movie is actually more or less like a documentary, which was played by professionals,” he told BU Today, though he noted that, “sometimes what was happening could be more violent than what people see on the screen.”

United 93 (2006)

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Director: Paul Greengrass

Stars: J.J. Johnson, David Alan Basche, Liza Colón-Zayas

“How soon is too soon?” is a commonly asked question when it comes to applying the big-screen treatment to tragic moments in American history. Few events better exemplify this than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2006, we learned that Hollywood believed that five years was enough time for people to want to replay these events on the big screen, with both Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass’ United 93 hitting theaters less than four months apart.

Though both films favor sensitivity over shock value, neither picture proved particularly profitable at the box office. But Greengrass’ elegantly paced drama—which offers a real-time accounting of the hijacking and subsequent crash (prompted by the passengers) of United Flight 93—is worth a second look. Replacing melodrama with honesty, the film’s straightforward style plays (like other films on this list) a bit like a documentary, letting the everyday heroes who emerged that day speak for themselves and, as a result, creating one of the most moving films in recent memory.

Into the Wild (2007)

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Director: Sean Penn

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener

Like United 93, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is not a 100 percent accurate recounting of the final days of Christopher McCandless. It couldn’t be. Because (spoiler alert!) the twenty-something adventurer who donated his life savings to Oxfam and spent 100 days exploring the wilds of Alaska died before he could share his story with the world. What Penn did have was the research and writings of Jon Krakauer, who wrote extensively about the story, first as a feature for Outside magazine and later as a novel.

Whereas Penn’s work as an actor is noted for his often explosive emotionality, as a director he seems to favor quiet intensity. The rather underrated Emile Hirsch turns in the performance of his career as the introspective McCandless, whose journey and lifestyle leanings are inspired by the likes of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. The film’s long spans of beautiful silence (Penn and his crew traveled to Alaska on four separate occasions so that they could shoot in every season) are interspersed with McCandless’ interactions with those he meets on the road, including retiree Ron Franz (played by the venerable Hal Holbrook, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role) who ends up serving as McCandless’ one reason for coming home. Unfortunately, he never gets the chance.

Zodiac (2007)

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Director: David Fincher

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards

“Meticulous” is a word that is often used to describe David Fincher’s philosophy as a filmmaker. And it’s that obsessive dedication to getting things right that elevates Zodiac from what could be a boring police procedural or outright schlocky horror film to a brilliantly balanced and deeply enthralling thriller as the filmmaker, actors and audience work together to solve the case of one of America’s most notorious—and still unsolved—serial killers.

Fincher took a page from Alan J. Pakula’s book, using All the President’s Men as a template for Zodiac, which is based on cartoonist-turned-investigator Robert Graysmith’s best-selling book. For Fincher, the film wasn't about the murders as much as it was the investigation of the murders. There was no “happy ending” to be found in an unsolved crime so, in true Fincher fashion, the director shopped the film until he found a studio that didn’t balk at the lack of action, a 157-minute running time or an inconclusive ending. The rest, as they say, is history.

Milk (2008)

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Director: Gus Van Sant

Stars: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin

A year after directing Into the Wild, Sean Penn returned to true-life terrain, this time in front of the camera in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s bold biopic of Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and the first openly gay politician to be elected into public office in the state of California. While Milk’s story has all the elements of a great screenplay—a compelling protagonist, a struggle in overcoming adversity, a series of tenuous relationships (both romantic and professional) and an untimely ending (Milk was assassinated alongside San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by a fellow city supervisor)—it took more than a decade for the film to come together.

Its eventual big-screen mounting is from a script by Dustin Lance Black, an LGBT activist who was inspired by Milk’s story after seeing Rob Epstein’s acclaimed documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, while in college. Black dedicated three years of his life researching the script, which he wrote on spec. The result was a film that connected with people in a universal way, including Penn (who won an Oscar for the role), who related to Milk’s outspoken nature when it comes to fighting for one’s beliefs. Appropriately, the film’s release coincided with California’s 2008 vote on Proposition 8, which eliminated the state’s recognition of same-sex marriages.

127 Hours (2010)

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Director: Danny Boyle

Stars: James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn

The ability to hold an audience’s interest for 94 minutes, despite a film’s single character being immobile for much of the film, is a testament to the filmmaking skill of Danny Boyle and his star, James Franco, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Aron Ralston, the canyoneering daredevil at the center of 127 Hours. Based on Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the movie tells the story of his life-or-death ordeal after becoming trapped by a boulder in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park (the film was shot at the exact spot where it happened).

Ralston spent more than five days trapped with only a small amount of food and water plus a pocketknife and a camcorder, which he utilized first as a journal and later as a last will and testament. Realizing that he was going to die, Ralston knew he had just one option to break free: he must amputate his own arm. With a story like that, it’s hard to not go full throttle. Particularly when you’re as daring a director as Boyle (he of Trainspotting fame). But Boyle’s faithful interpretation of the story is completely character-driven… unless you count the amputation scene, which caused dozens of reported faintings in theaters. For his part, Ralston told The Guardian that, “The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama.”

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