16 of the Best Movies Based on True Stories

Valentina Valentini, Will Hersey
·9-min read
Photo credit: DreamWorks Pictures
Photo credit: DreamWorks Pictures

You wonder, sometimes, why screenwriters even bother making stuff up. Real life, as the old saw goes, is sometimes stranger than fiction. And even when it's not stranger, it's often much more compelling.

As such, there's no shortage of incredible cinematic journeys that were born from real-life stories. Here are just a handful of movies you can watch now that will transport you from your living room and help you experience others’ hopes, dreams and failures.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 shine like fresh ice in their roles.

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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019)

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the charismatic serial killer Ted Bundy, the man who kidnapped, raped and murdered dozens of women in the 1970s. But a story from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend is a bit rarer. Extremely Wicked stars Zac Efron as Bundy and Lily Collins as Elizabeth Kloepfer aka Liz Kendall in a chilling recounting of the women Bundy terrorised.

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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 a triumph, to say the least. Starring Colin Firth as King George VI during his unwilling but dutiful ascension to the British throne in 1936 after his brother abdicated to be with Wallis Simpson, the story focuses on George’s stutter which he had to overcome by working with a speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush, who was also nominated for an Academy Award for the role.

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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 con man 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.

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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.
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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.

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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 heart-warming tale about Chinese American and Chinese families.

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