What are the best movies based on a true story? If there’s one thing studios like to do, it’s put a true story on the big screen. Often based on biographical books, these drama movies overcome the usual trappings of sequels, remakes, and reboots. Sometimes they’re the first screen telling of these amazing events, too.
What constitutes a film based on a true story? And where do you draw the line? If you open the subject up completely, then you can talk about almost anything. Because where else do the best storytellers get their ideas? They tell us what they know. Of course, many films are advertised as being based on true events, especially when it comes to the most gruesome of horror movies.
In actuality, they are conflagrations of the truth. Fictionalised stories that lean on the strength of the word ‘true’ to add credence to the tale they tell. A genuinely true story should be rooted firmly in someone’s real experiences. They anchor themselves in our minds with their portrayals of the best of us; the most inspiring, the groundbreakers, and the trendsetters. These are people who have done things that are almost unbelievable, or would be, if the events hadn’t really happened – poetic license aside. So here’s our list of the best movies based on a true story.
What are the best movies based on a true story?
- The Elephant Man
- Schindler’s List
- Apollo 13
- The Untouchables
- Hidden Figures
Based on the book and documentary by Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), Kon-Tiki tells the story of six Norwegian men who sail from Peru to Polynesia on a raft made of Balsa Wood.
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They had limited steering and met many obstacles on their journey, from sharks to the boat itself rotting beneath them. Though the aim of the voyage – proving Heyerdahl’s theories of how Polynesia was populated – is now widely disputed, his story and the crew’s determination remains incredible.
The Elephant Man (1980)
David Lynch’s masterpiece, The Elephant Man, gives us a glimpse into the life of Joseph Merrick (John Hurt), though he is called John in the film. Beautifully shot in black and white with incredible performances from Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, it asks its audiences to look beyond Merrick’s outward appearance.
He is a beautifully warm and intelligent character with more potential than anyone gave him credit for. The Elephant Man is like poetry on film, well deserving of its many accolades.
Does anyone put depravity on-screen better than David Fincher? Despite its open-ended theories, Zodiac remains one of the most satisfying tellings of this serial killer’s story.
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Brilliant performances from its peerless cast, including Jake Gyllenhall, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., force us to share the obsessions of the journalists and detectives they portray. Fincher knows just what to show and what to hide, making it one of the classiest pieces of screen exploitation ever made.
If you’re a fan of Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin, then follow it up with the brilliantly feel-good Pride. A snapshot of British life in the ‘80s, Pride uses this true story to address the AIDS crisis and the miners’ strike, as these two left-left-leaning socialist groups overcome their differences to rise together against Thatcher’s policies that are harming them both. It is warm, funny, sad, and profound in equal measure.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Before Liam Neeson punched things for a living, he made a little film with Stephen Spielberg called Schindler’s List. The movie tells the story of Oscar Schindler, a reluctant Nazi co-operator, who during WW2 used his munitions factory to save around 1100 Jews from Auschwitz.
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Shot almost entirely in black and white – apart from the iconic image of a little girl in a red coat – it is a timeless tragedy. A damning condemnation of war and discrimination, it should be required viewing for history students everywhere.
While Into The Wild (2007) would be the popular choice here, you have to credit the woman who survived. When Cheryl Strayed hit rock bottom, she decided to undertake an 1100-mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, with too much kit and no training.
Almost a coming-of-age story about a woman in her thirties, she uses the trip to come to terms with her past, her losses and her many, many mistakes, emerging a completely changed woman to when she started.
Apollo 13 (1995)
“Houston, we have a problem” – there aren’t many lines more iconic than that. Ron Howard brings to screen the Apollo 13 disaster, which saw a crew of astronauts return to earth against almost unimaginable odds.
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Using computers less powerful than a pocket calculator, the team at NASA used every shred of IQ and lateral thinking they had to puzzle out a way to get these three men home. They may not have landed on the moon, but their time in space was ground-breaking all the same.
You would be hard pushed to find a film with more tension than Kajaki. In 2006 a company of British soldiers in Afghanistan found themselves trapped in a dried-up riverbed, which has at some point become filled with washed-up soviet landmines.
Every step brings with it the risk of another explosion, more carnage, and another injured soldier to be budged back together by Tug Hartley (Mark Stanley). The teamwork, ingenuity and bravery shown by these men is utterly mind-blowing… so to speak.
The Untouchables (1987)
Director Brian DePalma is at his Hitchcock-loving best here. The Untouchables is a gripping film noir with scenes that are exquisitely constructed. The staircase sequence builds to a stunning crescendo, complete with obligatory Battleship Potemkin style falling pram, somewhat overshadowing some of the fantastic editing and direction underpinning it.
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It boasts career-defining performances, despite Sean Connery’s decidedly Scottish sounding Irish cop. With Robert DeNiro as a charmingly outlandish Al Capone, while Kevin Costner is the perfect Elliot Ness.
Hidden Figures (2016)
The second NASA-based film on our list, Hidden Figures, dramatises the impressive lives of three Black women who enabled America to compete with Russia in the space race.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are now household names thanks in part to this film. We are shown both their intelligence and resolve and the hardships they faced when trying to be taken seriously in an industry that is still overwhelmingly male and white, even today.