Ron Ma takes a look at ten exceptional examples of a true story in film, discussing the ways in which cinema can influence our views of reality in ways no other media can.
The phrase “based on a true story” is used so much as a marketing tool these days that we often forget its value. Such films can present us with a new perspective on reality, ask us to rethink the meaning behind actual events. It can shine light on the stories we are unaware of, or make a statement about prominent incidents. Either way, films based on a true story have the power to influence our views of reality in ways no other medium can. The following ten films are perfect examples of this quality at work.
All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Made just a few years after the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men recounts how two journalists uncovered the infamous incident that still resonates today. To tell the story from the journalists’ point of view is an interesting and ultimately rewarding choice. True it may be that it lessens the political complexities inherent to such stories, but the internet can tell us a lot more about the scandal’s ramifications than a film can fit into its runtime. Instead, the film shines as a replica of the initial state of shock and confusion. Aided by the quietly intense performances of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, All the President’s Men brilliantly captures the fearful atmosphere amidst one of the largest political scandals to date.
Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1990)
I have never been a huge fan of inspirational films since they often get too melodramatic. However, that is not the case with Awakenings. Based on the memoir of doctor Oliver Sacks, the film details how a new drug awakens patients who have spent decades in catatonia. What makes the story effective is how grounded in reality it is. None of the scenes feel flashy, nor do characters burst into spontaneous speeches. Robert De Niro’s performance, arguably the most underrated one of his career, as one of the awakened patients emanates the joy of living, making the ending all the more heartbreaking yet surprisingly encouraging as well. After all, what better way to express the value of living than with a story of real life itself?
Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)
Although the film has no blood or gore, Compliance still managed to disturb me and many others. The film is set in a fast food restaurant, where the manager receives a call from the “police” to help investigate an employee. The film is a fine example of dramatic irony done right. Although the audience gradually finds out the truth, the characters are left in the dark, forcing us to question the nature of obedience and authority. If this seems like a clichéd topic to you, just know that the film prompted walkouts during the Sundance Film Festival, a testament to the great deal of psychological tension the film stimulates. The fact that it is mostly real only darkens the tone, imprinting its themes permanently onto the audience’s mind.
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
Sidney Lumet has a keen eye for material that never grows old: 12 Angry Men with its examination of justice, Network with its satire of media, and the one that concerns us here Dog Day Afternoon with its depiction of human defiance. Based (loosely) on actual events, the film centers on two bank robbers whose plan spirals out of control. I will not spoil how this happens since watching the film blind makes certain moments far more emotionally gripping. These moments reveal the defiant spirit we all share, an unwillingness to give up pursuing the things we believe in. The rawness of both Lumet’s direction and Al Pacino’s performance adds strength to this spirit that resonates with each one of us.
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Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)
This is not a thrilling film nor an unpredictable one. In fact most people, myself included, walk into this film knowing the ending. I will not spoil it in case you are unaware, but Fruitvale Station succeeds in being an impactful and pertinent social commentary. It describes the experiences of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Eve in 2008. The reason I find this film effective is because it refuses to adopt the tropes of similar films. It does not shout its beliefs from the top of its lungs, nor does it shove them into the audience’s face. Instead, it lets the situation sink in through Coogler’s realistic and simple direction, allowing the audience to realize the horror of Grant’s tale themselves.
Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)
The film’s title pretty much sums up the plot. Gandhi is a biopic of one of history’s most well known and indefatigable individuals. Naturally, it is a daunting task to condense all his efforts into a single film. Richard Attenborough does it with great expertise by painting an intimate portrait of Gandhi as a political leader, a mentor and a husband. While it is impossible to depict his life’s work entirely, the film captures his spirit very well. His adamant belief in peace over violence and how it affected those around him is perhaps the most essential part of Gandhi’s life. Not only does the film reflect this impeccably, Gandhi also benefits from Ben Kingsley’s iconic performance, effectively bringing Gandhi to life once more.
Judgment At Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
Filming Nazi history has always been controversial. Although Judgment at Nuremberg does not technically fall into this category, given the Nazi Party was abolished at the time of the events, it takes a risky step in being sympathetic to former Nazi officials. The film is based on the Judges’ Trial, a part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, in which Nazi lawyers and judges were tried for their actions during WWII. Even till this day, the questions the trials raised about justice are profound and relevant. Unfortunately, they are often too complex to comprehend, which is why this film is of great benefit. With Kramer’s restrained direction and Abby Mann’s compelling screenplay, the film encapsulates the debates these trials sparked and urges the audience to become involved.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
The tale of a war survivor is at the core of numerous films. As much as these are all stories worth remembering, filmmakers must find a unique aspect in each one to draw the audience’s attention. The Pianist distinguishes itself by being poetic about its sadness. The story of pianist Władysław Szpilman is not filled with shocking battle sequences epitomized by films such as Saving Private Ryan, which are excellent in their own ways. Instead, it revolves around desolation and despair. This creates a different form of shock, one that discomforts, dismays, disheartens and any other dis- word you can think of. The emotional crux of The Pianist lies not in the terror of the falling bombs, but in the unspoken tragedy behind every piano note.
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The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
When compiling a list like this, it is hard to ignore a film based on one of the landmark events of this century. The Social Network presents the legal conflicts behind the creation of Facebook, a story that is nastier that most would like to admit. The film never gets consumed in glorifying anyone. It does quite the opposite by confronting the troubles behind every great invention. It really is hard to miss the mark when masters David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin are at the helm, but furthering the film’s appeal is the quirky performance of (then rather unknown) Jesse Eisenberg, resulting in an intriguing examination of the predominant social platform today.
United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
I think it is only fair that I start by saying this film is not for everyone. United 93 is a brutally realistic film with its depiction of the flight that rebelled during 9/11. Paul Greengrass understands that there is limited information about what actually happened on the plane. He also understands that the political implications of 9/11 are too extensive to handle through this story. Yet none of that hinders the film from being an incredible exploration of the human spirit and the common will to survive. Greengrass’ signature handheld shooting style constructs an unsettling atmosphere, while the relatively unknown cast prevents the film from becoming sensationalized. The film always focuses on the humanness of the characters, boldly including the terrorists in that, crafting an indescribably tragic experience.
Written & Compiled by Ron Ma
Over to you: what are your fave films based on true stories…