“Based on a True Story” is a phrase which, when applied to film, doesn’t mean much. Taken literally, the phrase is a legitimate claim. If a real life event gives a filmmaker an idea, even in the most arbitrary way, it is entirely within the realm of honesty to say that the result is “based on a true story”. Horror films have abused this to the point of it becoming a trope, while other genre fare tends to use it to add credence to their story (while a biopic per se doesn’t always explicitly use the phrase in question, truth is implied by nature). In the case of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the crimes of Ed Gein inspired Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel to create a character with a similar MO, albeit in entirely fictional circumstances. In the case of Rudy there are plenty of real life characters, but Rudy’s story simply didn’t happen. My point is that both can still claim to be “based on a true story”. There are some films, however, that take very few liberties. Films that tell a true story well. I present five notable “true story” films that are actually the legitimate truth (and two are currently playing locally!)
Rush (2013 – dir. Ron Howard)
Ron Howard is no stranger to directing real-life dramas, but his history runs a broad range of veracity. Rush is closer to Apollo 13 than it is to A Beautiful Mind. Rather than ramp up the drama by adding fictional events, Howard’s only bending of the truth is in excising events that don’t add to the story. The story being told is of a rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, rival Formula One racers. The rivalry is the story. While every event in the movie did indeed happen, the rivalry wouldn’t pop as much if we included the period where the racers were actually friends and even at one point, roommates. Lauda himself worked as a story consultant and remarked that although he and Hunt were more friendly than the movie let on, the intensity of the rivalry was accurate. He also noted that he wished Hunt would have lived long enough to have watched the movie with him.
127 Hours (2010 – dir. Danny Boyle)
Aron Ralston’s story of survival is almost too out there to be believed. After spending multiple days trapped in under a boulder with no connection to the outside world, Ralston opted to use crude tools to cut his own arm off and regain freedom. It’s about as harrowing as a movie can get, but according to Ralston himself, it’s “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama.” And why shouldn’t it be? While trapped, Ralston filmed and narrated a large portion of his predicament, and the filmmakers had access to the tapes. The only difference: early on in the film, he crosses paths with two fellow hikers and shows them a dreamy underground lake.mIn real life, they merely exchanged climbing tips.
Zodiac (2007 – dir. David Fincher)
This is perhaps the most exhaustively accurate film on the list, for a variety of reasons. The first reason being that David Fincher is a mad genius. The second is that it’s an adaptation of a true crime novel, written by the main character. The facts and research that Robert Graysmith gathered were not only available to the filmmakers, but were the source of the story itself. Both Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery (his investigation partner of sorts, portrayed in the film by Robert Downey Jr.) worked as consultants on the film. Locations, costumes, even wristwatch designs were painstakingly recreated for the sake of accuracy. The only falsehood: Avery and Graysmith, while friends in the film, didn’t really know each other that well in real life.
Added bonus: When Graysmith saw the final cut of the film he remarked “God, now I see why my wife divorced me.”
The Theory of Everything (2014 – dir. James Marsh)
Focusing solely on the romance between Stephen and Jane Hawking, The Theory of Everything doesn’t have much material that can be held up for scrutiny. When the focus of your biopic is confined to a wheelchair, the events of the movie are internal. Jane Hawking wrote the book upon which it is based, and was also involved in the making of the film. Every ounce of it is direct from the source. Short of inaccurate dialogue (which is unavoidable), The Theory of Everything is nothing if not honest. With a story as remarkable as that of the Hawking family, do we really need embellishment?
Foxcatcher (2014 – dir. Bennett Miller)
This is the movie that inspired this list. I went to see it almost as a chore, only to find myself stunned. Not only was it a fantastic film (an acting showcase, really, but that’s a different article), but it was a truly compelling story. A tragedy set in the world of Olympic wrestling, Foxcatcher unspools as a slow burn — a burn which seems so calculated that it can’t possibly be true … yet it is. Upon researching, it seems that the only alteration of the story was in the timeline: The filmmakers compressed it so as to have both of the Schultz brothers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who both CRUSHED it in this movie) training at Foxcatcher farms simultaneously, when in reality their tenures were separated. This decision was presumably made to give these actors more scenes together, as well as to make the drama more accessible to an outsider. The result is brutally effective, and the story remains the same.
Fun fact: After Mark Shultz first saw Steve Carell in the character of the now-deceased John du Pont, he was impressed. When asked about the experience, he said, “I thought he had been resurrected from the dead or something.”
I want to take a second to give an honorable mention to Compliance. This is a movie that reached a point of such insanity that I could not suspend my disbelief, and I essentially checked out. When I researched the source material I found that not only did everything depicted in the movie actually happen, but a lot of it happened again in separate cases. I ultimately decided to leave this entry off of my list because it is a movie that I cannot discuss without spoiling and I believe it benefits from a preconception-free viewing.
Have you seen a “true story” that was particularly accurate or inaccurate? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.