Since the turn of the millennium, Hollywood studios have been flooding the market with films supposedly “inspired by true events”, movies that are allegedly based on real people and real stories. However, as most of you are probably aware, these films have an extremely tenuous relationship with the truth. While they may claim to be “true stories,” the majority of these films merely use authentic events as a selling point to reel the audience in before twisting and distorting the actual “true” story at the core of their film. Some will insert a forced love triangle where it never existed, while others ignore aspects of the actual story in order to remain as politically correct as possible. While these creative choices are understandable and often times necessary, there’s a very different level of respect and admiration for films that avoid these pitfalls.
While almost every film that’s “based on fact” is going to exaggerate the truth in one way or another, there are a select few films that truly do their stories justice by remaining objective and unbiased towards the events they are trying to depict. There’s no agenda the filmmakers are trying to push or message to sell, instead they allow the story and real events to take precedent over their own voice or opinions. These are films that take important social, economic, or militant events and try to recreate them as truthfully as possible. You could even go as far as to call these films “docudramas” because of their ability to throw you right into the middle events depicted so convincingly and truthfully that you forget you’re watching a narrative feature.
The newest addition to the ever-growing list of great “docudramas” is this weeks upcoming Captain Philips, a tense and emotional story about the commandeering of the Alabama Maersk by Somalian pirates. While the film could’ve easily been nothing more than a pro-American, anti-pirate propaganda film, director Paul Greengrass brilliantly navigates these tricky waters by objectively depicting this infamous conflict from every angle, highlighting the many social and historical influences forcing the pirates into such dire situations. It’s a film that doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth behind many aspects of its real events and it’s all the better for it. It’s a powerful film, one that should have a significant impact upon release. With Captain Philips only a few days away, there’s no better time than now to breakdown the many great “docudramas” that have moved us the way Captain Philips did. However, a quick caveat: because these films are so widely different and the criteria is so broad, we are not ranking the films from worst to best or number ten to one, instead we are chronologically exploring the best “docudramas” from oldest to newest. So with no further ado, I present Reel Reactions’ Best Docudramas:
In Cold Blood (1967) – While “docudramas” and other films inspired by true events didn’t really explode until the early 2000s, many forget the numerous “docudramas” of the late 20th century. Easily one of the most influential is Richard Brook’s In Cold Blood, based on the famous book of the same name by Truman Capote. While the film may have been an adaptation, the book was a frightfully real retelling of the senseless murders of an innocent rural family at the end of the 1950s. The film recreates the true events, following the two hapless criminals as a series of botched robberies lead to the inane murder of a family of four. While other films would’ve focused on the actual home invasion aspect of the story, Capote, and in turn Brooks, brilliantly focuses on the impending trial after they are caught in order to deconstruct the reasoning behind the crime. What could’ve been a simple story about murder and capital punishment is instead a fascinating psychological study of social influences on young men and the way our perceptions of “manliness” and “toughness” forced these wannabe criminals into actions they never would’ve taken on their own. While the film isn’t as immediate and immersive as some of the films farther up this list, In Cold Blood deserves a spot on this list for being one of the first films to objectively deconstruct real world events.
All the Presidents Men (1976) – The Watergate Scandal was easily one of the most important events of the 20th century. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, after decades of unwavering devotion, Americans exponentially trusted the federal government less and less. Thanks to the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movements, and a myriad of senseless assassinations, Americans faith in their government was faltering more and more with every passing day. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that things truly took a turn for the worse. The Watergate Scandal and the implications of President Nixon’s involvement in election rigging caused uproar throughout the country, invariably forcing a wedge between the American government and its citizens, one that still exists to this very day. However, what many people forget is just how close the Nixon administration was to covering their tracks, only failing thanks to the intrepid and determined fortitude of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. While they initially published articles blowing open the scandal’s doors, Woodward and Bernstein are most famous for their book, All the President’s Men, which depicts the struggles and hardships they faced in order to expose the truth.
Adapted from the book, 1976’s All the President’s Men casts Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the famous duo as they wade through the elaborate cover-up in search of the truth. Instead of ostentatious, pro-left propaganda, director Alan Pulka smartly lets the events speak for themselves, remaining as objective and neutral as possible. He strictly sticks to the events of the book, and in turn real life, so there’s an authenticity imbedded in the film, allowing it to be enjoyable and educational without it ever coming off as preachy. It’s a fine line to walk but Pulka manages to find a perfect balance, letting the truth motivate the story rather than manufacturing and forcing conflict where there isn’t.
Apollo 13 (1995) – For the third time in the past month, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 graces a Reel Reactions list! Not only did the film place high in our Top Ron Howard Movies, but also in our Top Space Movies and now, finally, our Best Docudramas, all for very good reasons. Howard’s Apollo 13 is truly something special, giving us the most realistic and grounded depiction of space until Gravity dethroned it after nearly two decades on top. Like the rest of the films on this list, Apollo 13 stands out from the myriad of “based on a true story” films by throwing us right into the time period and story it is trying to recreate. Howard and his crew meticulously recreate every little detail of the 1960s, even down to the slide rulers used for calculations, so convincingly that you almost believe they went back in time to shoot the film. Best of all though is the films extremely realistic depiction of space and zero gravity.
While some may look at Gravity today and think Apollo 13 is antiquated in comparison, they’d be ignoring the foundation that Apollo 13 set for future space films to follow. Even by today’s standards the effects still hold up and convincingly make you believe that these characters are actually in space, which alone is a pretty remarkable achievement for a film released in 1995. Outside of the effects though, the film can be classified as a “docudrama” thanks to its grounded approach to the real story at the core of the film. Like the other films on this list, there is little to no embellishment to the true story, instead Howard chooses to stick to the facts as closely as possible and present you with a story so fantastic and heart pounding that you wouldn’t be criticized for questioning its validity.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – Many of you may have noticed that we just skipped a full decade in between Apollo 13 and Good Night, and Good Luck. Well that wasn’t by accident. While there were a few good biopics and “based on true story” films released between 1995 and 2005, little to none match the criteria we’re using. Films like Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda, while great in their own rights, play around with the truth a bit too much and are a bit too one-dimensional with the social and militant issues they are trying to recreate to warrant a spot on this list. So Good Night, and Good Luck is the first, truly deserving film after a long decade break thanks to its immersive exploration of 1950’s post-war American fears through the lens of McCarthyism and Edward R. Murrow’s on-air attacks against the infamous Senator.
No other film on this list quite captures a single moment in time quite like Good Night, and Good Luck. First time director George Clooney does an incredible job of recreating the climate and fears of the early 1950s that, at times, you forget you’re not watching real, behind-the-scenes footage from CBS News. The script and Clooney’s inspired direction immerse you in the back room politics prevalent throughout 1950’s news shows, making you feel like an active participant in the battle against McCarthy and his fear-mongering. Not to mention the fact that he uses actual footage of McCarthy throughout the film, lending a sense of authenticity to the entire proceeding. Outside of the craft though, Good Night, and Good Luck qualifies as a “docudrama” thanks to its grounded depiction of the social issues and fears so widespread in Cold War America. It’s a film that doesn’t try and reassert the white-picket fence stereotype of the 50s but instead paints an extremely real and vivid portrait of the fears Americans felt every single day of their lives for years on end. It’s an astonishing film that ranks with some of the best of the previous decade.
United 93 (2006) – Quite possibly the most powerful film on this list, United 93 is Paul Greengrass’ first and best foray into topical filmmaking. What could’ve easily been nothing more than pro-American exploration or propaganda is instead a respectful and multi-dimensional depiction of the infamous events of 9/11, specifically United flight 93. For very understandable reasons many Americans thought five years wasn’t enough time since 9/11 before releasing a film, thinking it would be nothing more than exploiting the tragedy for a quick buck. Thankfully, the detractors were wrong in every regard as United 93 is the perfect example of what a docudrama can achieve; it realistically engrosses you in a completely foreign yet real situation, fleshes out the participants in a respectful and eye-opening method, and tells a greater and more relatable story than any news article ever could. Most impressively, Greengrass is able to stay objective and fair throughout the entire proceeding, never once giving into the universal desire to paint these terrorists as nothing more than pure evil. Instead he brilliantly depicts them as real people who have doubts and fears, as men thinking they’re doing the right thing. Ultimately they are the villains of the film, but they are fully fleshed out people.
Greengrass toes a very fine line as he has to create a connection between the characters and the audiences without it every coming off as manipulative. While every director faces this problem, it’s only magnified when attempting to make a film about 9/11. While all films on this list depict true, well-known stories, none were as fresh in the minds of American audiences quite like 9/11, so the tension and emotion is wrought from the very first frame. We know exactly what’s going to happen and you’d think you’d be prepared for the inevitable, but once that moment finally rolls around it takes you by complete surprise by just how emotionally unprepared you are for such a haunting and excruciating inevitability. It’s a unique emotion that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced since, nor do I necessarily want to; nonetheless it’s a remarkable achievement.
Zodiac (2007) – Easily the most far-reaching film on this list, Zodiac depicts the hunt for the infamous Zodiac killer from the San Francisco Bay Area, spanning the late 1960s all the way through to the early 1990s. Unlike other films on the list, Zodiac doesn’t attempt to recreate one moment in time but rather an entire investigation into a serial killer and its effects on San Francisco and some of its inhabitants. While a case could be made for David Fincher’s Social Network, his work on Zodiac is more worthy of recognition due to the fact that it remains solely focused on the consequences of the Zodiac killings, where Social Network is as much of a biopic as docudrama. However, I digress, what immediately sets Zodiac apart from the other films is its remarkable style.
Fincher is famous for his dark and gritty aesthetics, evident in his masterpieces Se7en and Fight Club, and it couldn’t mesh any better with the true story he’s recreating. From the opening scene it’s evident that Fincher is placing you firmly in the shoes of the everyday San Franciscan, with the Zodiac Killer as much of an enigma to us as he is to the detectives and reporters hunting him down. With every depiction of the Zodiac’s brutal murders Fincher casts a new actor, some big and stock while others are small and scrawny, all with their faces covered, brilliantly conveying the confusion and bewilderment of the times to the audience. However, as you continue to watch the film, it becomes evident that it’s not really about the Zodiac Killer but really his effect on San Francisco and the legacy he leaves behind with our main characters. It’s more about the mood and atmosphere prevalent throughout the city due to such serial killings. It’s a hauntingly real depiction of a city in fear and vividly captures one of the strangest and darkest times in San Francisco’s history.
Moneyball (2011) – This might be cheating a little bit. On the surface Moneyball is very much about Billy Beane and his efforts to revolutionize baseball, but underneath it all, far below the surface, Moneyball is truly about that one fateful season and the impact that Beane’s gamble left in its wake. Hot off of a hard loss in the playoffs, the 2001 Oakland A’s are in a rut. During the offseason they lose most of their best players while simultaneously they’re budget is slashed. Faced with little other options, General Manager Billy Beane uses statistics and computer programs to scrap together a cheap but effective team.
Based on the book of the same name and the real season that inspired it, director Bennet Miller smartly avoids making a baseball movie and focuses instead on a depiction of a coach frustrated with an antiquated system. It’s much more about Beane’s struggle against the old guard and old ways of thinking while simultaneously proving himself more than just a washed up ballplayer turned manager. While the movie is very much Beane’s story it serves more as a portrait of early century baseball and the resistance that’s always prevalent when someone attempts to make a change. It’s a great story that could be applied to any number of scenarios but just happens to be about baseball in this regard. It’s a universal story that works as a statement on new-millennial changes and obstacles, one that perfectly captures that conflict so rampant at the turn of the millennium. It’s a fantastic film that not only tells Beane’s story but also illuminates an important revolution in sports and our changing perceptions of them.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Now for the final and most recent film, I present to you Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Depicting one analyst’s ten-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty focuses on CIA Analyst Maya and her unending campaign to find the world’s most wanted man. Like Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t try and recreate a single moment in time, but instead depicts one woman’s never-ending quest to bring Bin Laden to justice. It’s never about her personal life or her struggles at the CIA, it’s two plus hours of Jessica Chastain doing everything in her power to find the son-of-bitch who caused 9/11. It’s a haunting tale about one woman’s dedication that never shies away from the ugly truth. While some have debated the validity of the film’s torture scenes, it’s safe to say that these were real techniques used in real world situations at one point or another in the search. Even if they didn’t lead to Bin Laden’s death, these terrible acts were unquestionably performed throughout our involvement in the Middle East and it’s extremely impressive how brutally and realistically Bigelow stages them.
Thanks to her documentary-like style, very similar to Greengrass’, Bigelow makes you feel like Maya’s partner, following her through every painstakingly slow step she has to take. It’s never sensationalized; the majority of the movie depicts the many failed attempts to find Bin Laden and the ridiculous amounts of petty minutia Maya has to wade through on a daily basis. For a film about one of America’s biggest triumphs in recent years the film is surprisingly sparse on pro-American imagery, instead choosing to realistically and faithfully depict the events. Just like the rest of the films on the list, Zero Dark Thirty is more about the idea at the center of the story than anything else. It’s about the political and social issues surrounding the hunt, and like all great docudramas, it wraps its themes around a well-told, emotionally grounded story.
Agree with our picks? What are your favorite docudramas of all time? Will you be seeing the great Captain Phillips this weekend? Sound off below
Article by James Hausman