This really happened
The Men Who Stare at Goats was released last week, and it claims to be based on actual events (actually, the movie opens with something along the lines of "more of this story is true than you would believe"). Indeed, while the movie is pretty damn entertaining, the events of the film strain credibility to the breaking point. It reminds me of something a college film professor told me: "Nothing gives a writer more freedom to be creative than the words 'based on a true story.'" I can easily list a number of movies that make the claim to be true stories but are made up from whole cloth (Amadeus, The Black Dahlia, Rudy, Goodfellas, Pearl Harbor, Titanic, Victory, any horror movie that claims to be real, anything by Oliver Stone, etc.), but audiences know that it takes more than a few cheeky historical references and names to make a true story.
However, every once in a while, a film comes along that dares to faithfully tell a true story without too much excessive creativity or unnecessary explosions. The following ten films are, without a doubt, great pieces of cinema, and they are all, in one way or another, authentic. I'm not trying to argue that the real events occurred in exactly the same way as the movie based on them (that would usually make for a very long and boring movie), but I am trying to argue that, when you walk away from seeing the movie, you understand the visceral nature of the real story and the basic outline of events that actually happened. For example, you might think Claus von Stauffenberg looked exactly like Tom Cruise, but that doesn't mean you misunderstand the nature of the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler.
First, the honorable mentions. Alas, this is only the top ten, not the top twenty, so these had to be left behind: Alive, A Beautiful Mind, Breach, The Ghost and the Darkness, Monster, The Perfect Storm, RKO 281, Tombstone, The Untouchables, and Valkyrie.
THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
The Right Stuff is, as Roger Ebert puts it, a "historical epic." Detailing the career of the Mercury Seven (Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard, and Slayton), the story is all about the early days of the space program and how the individual heroism of a handful of arguably insane test pilots helped launch the United States into the space age. With a running time of nearly 200 minutes, The Right Stuff isn't a casual moviegoing experience and isn't likely to draw in an audience of people who aren't already interested in the history of spaceflight. However, with an amazing cast and a pretty hardcore faithfulness to reality, the movie is definitely a great film that educates as easily as it entertains.
Oliver Sacks is probably the most influential neurologist living today. While that doesn't sound like much of a distinction, keep in mind that Sacks, a pretty unassuming British fellow, could easily turn you into a quivering pile of mush in the fetal position with only a few words (and perhaps a song). Based on his earliest major discovery, the movie Awakenings is a surprising masterwork from the saccharine Penny Marshall. The movie stars Robin Williams--in possibly his tamest role ever--as Sacks and Robert De Niro as Leonard Lowe, a patient in a catatonic psych ward. Lowe has been in a state of complete catatonia since he was a boy, but Sacks uses an experimental treatment based on the radical (but true) theory that the catatonia is related to a childhood infection with encephalitis. The short of it is that Lowe wakes up to discover he's now a middle-aged man and makes the ironic observation that Sacks is the one who doesn't appreciate his life. The story, the most personal on this list, is at times intense and heartbreaking while simultaneously uplifting and poignant. But the whole thing stings of reality, thanks in no small part to the incredible acting of Robert De Niro.
BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)
The first of many war movies in this list, Black Hawk Down was, in its day, the first movie to really get modern warfare right. The movie depicts the Battle of Mogadishu, a tipping point in the Somali Civil War in which a U.S. chopper was shot down in the middle of a hostile city. The event is a landmark one in United States history, because it forced the U.S. to make huge foreign policy changes--which lead to non-interventionist strategies in Rwanda and Bosnia--and arguably helped nurture the seeds of 9/11. What makes the movie so important is that, when it debuted, it showed the event to an audience that knew very little about the Battle of Mogadishu and had, until three months earlier, been pretty ambivalent towards the consequences of foreign policy. The movie also makes very real the complications of modern, urban warfare. It talks about the moral ambiguity of getting involved in another country's civil war for humanitarian purposes and it openly discusses the problem of winning the hearts and minds of a people whose neighborhoods you are destroying. It shows the inefficiency of the United Nations and the impossibility of surgical strategies in that type of environment. It is a timely, relevant, and brutally honest film that should be required viewing for anybody who promotes military intervention.
HOTEL RWANDA (2004)
While not the only great movie about Rwanda (see also Sometimes in April and Shake Hands with the Devil), Hotel Rwanda belongs on this list for a number of reasons. First is Don Cheadle. The man is an amazing actor, and this is his best work. Second is the realism of the movie. As the violence escalates and characters start to venture off into the danger zone, you can feel your heartbeat rising and your adrenaline pumping, and that helps you understand what it must have been like to be in Rwanda when the massacres began. The story is simple and unfortunately timeless, as a handful of people find themselves in the middle of a meaningless civil war (the causes of which are racism, hatred, and indocrination). It's also an important movie for the same reasons as Black Hawk Down, as it educates the public about the consequences of intervention in a foreign civil war (or, in this case, non-intervention). The most difficult scenes to watch in any movie about Rwanda, including this one, are the scenes in which U.N. and American forces separate foreigners from non-foreigners (displaying similar state-sponsored racism as the villains of the film) and then proceed to completely abandon the Rwandan people to an inevitable slaughter, all because a few beaurocrats couldn't decide on the definition of the word "genocide." This movie should be required viewing for anybody who promotes non-intervention.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
Easily the most iconic film in this list, The Great Escape is about mass escape from Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp during World War II. The movie is largely accurate to a ridiculous degree, with only a few exceptions (Steve McQueen demanded the motorcycle scenes be added to the story, and there weren't many Americans involved in the real event). Knowing that there really were POWs who came up with this completely insane and implausible escape plan makes the narrative more amazing and interesting than it would be otherwise, as even some of the more difficult-to-believe details really are true. This movie demands a spot on this list because it got everything right; it is historically accurate, but it is also a great action/adventure/war movie in its own right. With an awesome cast and some of the best music you'll find in 1960's cinema, this movie would be fondly remembered to this day, even if the whole thing had been made up.
APOLLO 13 (1995)
After the first test screening of Apollo 13, Ron Howard read a comment card that was filled with "total disdain" because the movie had a "typical Hollywood" ending; in real life, there's no way the crew of Apollo 13 would have survived. This is ironic, because Howard's efforts to be true to the story of the doomed spaceflight were, at the time, unprecedented. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon attended Space Camp and got advanced training from Jim Lovell and David Scott. Ed Harris and all the other actors who are in mission control in the movie went to Flight Controller School. The sets were all lovingly faithful recreations of the real thing, including the Apollo 13 spacecraft itself. Scenes that take place in zero gravity were filmed in zero gravity. The details were so accurate that the fake spacesuits the actors wore were airtight and could, theoretically, be used in space. Most of the dialogue was ripped from actual audio recordings and transcripts (you have all that, NASA, but you lose the first friggin moon landing?), and the real life counterparts to many of the characters on the screen were standing behind the scenes to give direction to the cast and crew. Add to all that realism and attention to detail--unheard of since the days of Erich von Stroheim (who demanded that actors in one his historical epics wear period-specific underwear, just in case)--the fact that the movie is nail-bitingly awesome, and you have one of the best films ever based on actual events.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
In terms of the actual sequence of events and real-life characters involved in them, Saving Private Ryan is definitely the least accurate film on this list. None of the main characters in the movie are based on real people, though the story of Private Ryan is loosely based on that of Frederick Niland (who is exactly the opposite of Matt Damon). On the other hand, if you want to watch a movie that makes you feel like you are actually in the middle of a war and about to be mercilessly killed by a faceless enemy on Normandy Beach (I don't know why you'd want this, but who am I to judge?). then Saving Private Ryan is the movie for you. Never in the prolific history of war movies has a film so perfectly recreated the feeling of actually being in a war. It feels so real that it has actually sent veterans to mental hospitals for shell shock. Lest you think this makes it a terrible movie nobody should ever watch, keep in mind that Saving Private Ryan is not meant for veterans; it's meant for--and should be seen at least once by--everybody else.
Partially a condemnation of these types of movies, David Fincher's Zodiac takes realism to an extreme. The story is about San Francisco's infamous Zodiac killer in the late 1960's, and it refuses to pull any punches. The film uses the real details and events to rip apart the modern fantasy of flawless forensic science, and shows how embracing the mystery of a single murderer can lead you down a twisted path towards obsession and madness. The film also details how a city can be frozen with fear and anxiety, and how the person responsible is not a master manipulater or genius. Zodiac also shows us the cracks in the legal system and explains how the killer got away with it, despite the fact that the police pretty much knew who and where he was. This is a fantastic and hyper-realistic movie, and it owes a lot of that to Fincher, who actually grew up in the bay area while the Zodiac was active. It also owes a lot to the cast, including Robert Downey, Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian Cox, as well as the real-life characters who, like with Apollo 13, spent a lot of time behind the scenes coaching the actors and stage directors. Zodiac is one of the most realistic movies ever made, so realistic that it shows you how untrue these kinds of movies usually are.
UNITED 93 (2006)
However, no movie is as visceral as United 93. This movie attempts to recreate the events of September 11, 2001, with as much veracity as possible. Though some imagination had to be used (after all, there were no survivors of the real United 93), most of the film is painstakingly accurate. For example, one look at the credits will show you that about half of the characters (those at Air Traffic Control and others not on the flight) are credited as "himself" or "herself." Even the flight attendants on United 93 are portrayed by actual flight attendants. Every line of dialogue between the flight and the ground--including incidental background dialogue--is recreated in the film, and every confusing detail of the event is shown without disclaimer or clarification. The movie even takes place in real time. Oddly, the full effect of the film is not felt until the end, when every painful emotion associated with that terrible day comes rushing out. This is not a movie everybody should see, but it is an incredibly powerful one that deserves respect and admiration.
SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)
Listed eighth on the AFI's list of the 100 best American films of all time, Schindler's List is Steven Spielberg's magnum opus about the Holocaust. Required viewing in most high schools today, this movie, while not as visceral as United 93, as detailed as Zodiac, or as entertaining as Apollo 13, is definitely the most impressive and important movie based on actual events. Holocaust movies are a dime a dozen, and it seems at least one documentary about it gets nominated every year at the Oscars. However, Spielberg managed to rise far above these films by making a movie so stunningly well-made that it literally left audiences speechless. The Holocaust is one of the worst events in human history, and one of the most important to remember so that we never let something like it happen again. Schindler's List tells the story of the Holocaust in a unique way, from the point of view of a greedy Nazi who ultimately wound up saving nearly 1,200 Jews by the end of the war. The film is violent and gruesome, refusing to hide the real atrocity of the Holocaust, and if you don't feel moved by the end of it, you have no soul.