Some True Stories Make for the Best Movies. Here Are the Greatest Ever Told

Truth is stranger than fiction (and a really good watch on a streaming service).
IMAGE Universal Pictures

A conman who learnt to pilot planes; an Olympian figure skater who paid thugs to mangle the leg of a competitor; a scrappy band of journalists who took on the systemic child abuse of the Catholic church. You couldn't make it up. Really, you couldn't, because these are but three examples of true stories that are now immortalised on film.

And very good films they are! What's more, they're not outliers. In Hollywood and beyond, great movies directly inspired by true stories are plentiful. They're weird, and shocking, and romantic, and downright too wild to be true – and here are the best.

Nomadland (2020)

Chloe Zhao's Oscar-hoovering drama mixed fact and fiction so thoroughly it's quite hard to know where to begin disentangling it. But perhaps trying to disentangle it is to miss the point completely. Frances McDormand is Fern, a recently widowed and recently unemployed woman who decides to get rid of most of her belongings and live in a van as she travels the country looking for work. Jobs come and go and friends drift into and out of her life, and as she becomes more self-sufficient she starts to realise that saying goodbye to people and things isn't the same as leaving them behind. Based on Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book of the same name, Nomadland wanders like its characters do, but its magic is in its ability to gently, patiently pull you in.

The Woman King (2022)

Weirdly overlooked at the Oscars this year, Gina Prince-Bythewood's epic set in West Africa in the early 1800s is exactly the kind of thing Viola Davis could have been forgiven for pencilling in a Best Actress nomination for. She's brilliant as General Nanisca, the leader of a crack group of women warriors, the Agojie, in the kingdom of Dahomey. After breaking their countrywomen free from slavers, they bring down the wrath of their neighbours, the Oyo Empire. Nanisca starts training a new generation of warriors for the coming fight, while the memory of a trauma in her past returns. Historians were somewhat split on how closely the film cleaves the actualities of the Agojie, but this is bold, stirring stuff.


The Social Network (2010)

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most powerful people on the planet. But before he became a household name, before the 2016 election and Senate hearings and the widespread cultivation of disinformation, he was just a freshly dumped Harvard student that made a troubling website to rate fellow Ivy Leaguers' attractiveness – and thus Facebook was born.

The Social Network charts the early explosion of the sapling social media site, and the subsequent collapse of the site's founding team as Jesse Eisenberg impresses in the role of the nerdy student turned tech behemoth. Thankfully, there's no mention of the Metaverse.

Everest (2015)

Mountains and movies are not always the happiest of companions. Which is strange, because on paper, you’d think the inherent drama of risky expeditions, fearless characters and amazing scenery would have spawned more cinematic success.

Well, expeditions don’t come much more dramatic than the Everest summit season of 1996, when treacherous conditions, brutal storms, over-crowding and human error conspired to cause one of the most tragic and notorious days in climbing history.

It’s told brilliantly in John Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, and Anatoli Boukreev’s response, The Climb. So hats off to this film’s valiant attempts to buck the mountaineering trend and bring the story’s complicated threads to life.

With a sprawling all-star cast, it’s admittedly a tricky film to follow if you don’t already know the story. If they were doing it now, it would make for a great 10-parter on Netflix instead.

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What it does deserve real credit for, through its technical action sequences and dramatic visuals, is finally providing a sense of how the world’s highest mountain must look and feel to those pulled in by it every year. And, for that alone, us armchair climbers doff their North Face caps.

First Man (2018)

Given its status as man’s greatest ever feat of exploration, it’s hard to believe that this is the first fictionalised account of the Apollo 11 moon landings, appearing some 49 years after Armstrong and Aldrin laid their boots on the lunar surface.

Based on James R Hansen’s 2005 book, First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, it focuses on the quiet, inscrutable and cool-headed commander of that mission, a test pilot and engineer who fate picked out for an achievement and level of notoriety few would know how to handle.

Ryan Gosling plays a straight man very straight and, as history suggests, faithfully, so putting the onus on Damien Chazelle’s script and direction to get under his skin. His third film, following the stratospheric success of Whiplash and La La Land, it represents another marked shift in tone for Chazelle, combining elements of family tragedy, subtle character study and period action movie.

It’s in the latter arena that it really excels. The early Apollo test sequences are superb, while the lunar landing itself is a stunning set-piece that brilliantly captures the real-life, mission-critical emergency that Armstrong’s mental fortitude and piloting skills ensured had the right kind of ending.


Moneyball (2011)

If the subject of applying statistics to baseball performance doesn’t exactly get your blood up, be assured that this thoughtful, intelligent and surprisingly moving film is much more than that.

Baseball has always had a mythical status in the States, where emotion, intuition and feel have traditionally trumped such unromantic notions as number-crunching. So the story of how Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) – faced with the task of rebuilding the team for next to nothing in 2002 – took the unprecedented decision to use head over heart and apply a statistical model for success, is in itself an interesting origin story for how modern sport and business intersect.

It works as a human drama too though, with Pitt at his understated best as a middle-aged man resetting his ambitions and applying what wisdom he may or may not have accrued from his own successes and failures. Validation comes, of course, but in a decidedly un-Hollywood fashion. It’s all nicely pitched (sorry) by director Bennett Miller who, with Foxcatcher and Capote, has subsequently become something of a specialist in cinematic character studies of real people.

Just Mercy (2019)

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth feature is based on the 2014 book written by world-renowned civil rights defence attorney Bryan Stevenson. The autobiography recounts Stevenson’s tireless efforts to fight back against the systemically prejudiced United States justice system, and the movie follows Stevenson’s (played by Michael B. Jordan) work to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner, Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx. It is heart-wrenching and beautiful both in its sadness and its redemption.

To Sir, With Love (1967)

To Sir, With Love is based on the 1959 autobiographical novel of the same name by E. R. Brathwaite, which recounted his time as a teacher in post-WWII London, offering a never-before-seen look into the politics of race and class during that time. Sidney Poitier plays the idealistic engineer from British Guiana who gets stuck teaching a group of white college students in East London.

Loving (2016)

One of the most famous Supreme Court battles of the 20th century, Jeff Nichols’ Loving follows the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (with superb performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a Virginia couple who were arrested because of their interracial marriage. The film chronicles the legal case that would end in the historic 1967 decision that bans on interracial marriage violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The film was based in part on the 2011 documentary The Loving Story by writer/producer/director Nancy Buirski.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards garnered best acting awards for its lead, Frances McDormand, and supporting, Sam Rockwell, along with a slew of nominations for its creators and craftspeople. This we know. What most people don’t know is that the plot about a mother who challenges law enforcement over the rape and death of her daughter is based on a true story. The father of a young woman murdered in 1991 put up billboards around his hometown of Vidor, Texas, which McDonagh saw on a road trip and gave him the idea for the film.


Dolomite Is My Name (2019)

In a career-high performance, Eddie Murphy portrays comedy-singer-actor legend Rudy Ray Moore. Moore, who struggled for decades trying to be taken seriously as a performer, finally got his due in 1975 when his hilariously obscene Dolomite took off and ended up a Blaxploitation phenomenon. That, and its sequels, The Human Tornado and The Return of Dolomite, have made Moore, who died in 2008 at the age of 81, a cultural pioneer in the eyes of many.

Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

Starring Sigourney Weaver in a role that garnered her second — and most recent — Oscar nomination, Gorillas in the Mist is based on the life and efforts of anthropologist Dian Fossey. Fossey worked tirelessly and against strong economic and poaching forces to help protect rare gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda. Get your tissues ready.

I, Tonya (2018)

In America, there is hardly a soul born after 1990 who is not familiar with the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan ice skating feud. I, Tonya is the long anticipated look into what really happened behind the scenes of the 1994 Winter Olympic Trials. Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her overbearing and abusive mother give the infamous story its humanity in all its jarring, complicated messiness.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019)

The crimes of Ted Bendy are well-documented. A first hand account from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend, less so. And that's exactly what we get in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, as a new light is cast on one of the most dangerous serial rapists and killers in American history. With Zac Efron playing the part of Bundy, we finally gain access to another voice from this deeply chilling chapter in the Seventies.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Taking home four Oscars (best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best lead actor), The King’s Speech was widely seen as a triumph. Starring Colin Firth as King George VI during his reluctant but dutiful ascension to the British throne in 1936, the story focuses on George’s stutter, and the speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) that helped the nervous king overcome it.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

The story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. was so unbelievable that there was no way it wasn’t going to be made into a Steven Spielberg film eventually. Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, was a successful conman and imposter from the age of 15 to 21, before he was caught by FBI agents (a composite of real-life agents portrayed by Tom Hanks). Now, Abagnale is a security consultant. Go figure.

Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight tells the incredible story of The Boston Globe’s 'Spotlight' investigative journalism team and how, in 2002, they helped to take down Boston’s Archdiocese in a child sexual abuse scandal. The film — which stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber, and won the Oscar for best picture of the year and best original screenplay — brought the victims’ story of decades of pedophilia and subsequent massive cover-up to a wider audience.


Hustlers (2019)

Just as the article it was based on went viral, Hustlers—starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu—got audiences really riled up. The New York Magazine article written by Jessica Pressler is the basis for Hustlers, which recounts the true story of a group of super savvy former exotic dancers who exploit their upper-class New York City clients.

The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell is a true story based on a real lie. Writer-director Lulu Wang and her family decide to throw a wedding in order to bring the family together as their beloved grandmother, the matriarch of the family, Nai-Nai is given only weeks to live but no one tells her. Starring Awkwafina, it is a poignant, funny and heartwarming tale about Chinese American and Chinese families.

FromEsquire UK

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