Movies based on true stories are so rewarding because viewers get a fresh perspective from the creators of the film. You can read a book, watch a documentary, or do your own research but no matter how much digging you do, nothing is going to grip you like a narrative retelling of the historical events. They offer context which is so excellent to help you understand how a thing unfolded. But, the thing that attracts most people, is the human and emotional aspect of the story that often gets lost in other mediums.
We wanted to discover the best movies based on true stories and share them with you. These films, while fictional, often do a better job of painting a fuller picture of events leading up to and the aftermath of a particular topic. We’ll look at some of the highest-grossing and most popular films in this genre and discover some hidden gems you might have missed along the way! Get in that “Based on a True Story” mood because we’re about to take a deep dive!
Here Are 50 Movies Based on True Stories That You Have to See!
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Gritty, sleek, and well-acted, Zero Dark Thirty tells the behind-the-scenes story about the CIA operative and her hunt for Osama bin Laden. It follows the operative, Maya, for over a decade until bin Laden’s ultimate death.
Dark Waters (2019)
One of the most recent movies based on true stories to come tells the story of Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, who takes on a chemical company after it exposed an entire community to cancer-causing pollution. What he uncovers is a history of environmental crime on a global scale.
Eat Pray Love (2010)
The ultimate breakup movie, Eat Pray Love stars Julia Roberts as Liz, a recent divorcee who decides to travel the world to discover herself. At each desitnation on her journey, she learns a universal truth.
A quirky movie that was a huge hit, Moneyball is a film about the Oakland A’s general manager who attempts to assemble a team of players using computer analysis. It’s a funny and rewarding movie that you should give a shot if you somehow missed it!
Julie & Julia (2009)
Love to cook? This is one of the movies based on true stories you really need to see. Amy Adams and Meryl Streep star in this love letter to Julia Child. Need we say more?
Legendary musician Ray Charles got a dream biopic made of his life starring Jamie Foxx, Regina King, and Kerry Washington. If the cast does not convince you, there’s plenty of stellar musical performances and plenty of drama along the way.
The King’s Speech (2010)
One of the movies based on true stories that’s very funny is The King’s Speech. We like to think of the British aristocracy and monarchy as a bit of a stiff and rigid environment. But, they’re actually more like us than you would think. Colin Firth slays as King George VI who unexpectedly took the throne in 1936. One thing he had to overcome was his stammer. This film tells the story of how he ultimately did.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures tells the story of three genius African-American women at NASA: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The trio of women are the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a winner!
Spotlight is a stellar movie about a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who uncover a child sex abuse scandal and the Roman Catholic church. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture! Oh, and you’re treated to some fabulous Boston accents from its stars so you really have no excuse to not give it a try!
Schindler’s List (1993)
War dramas can be especially difficult to stomach but it’s doubly true for films about genocide. We find Stephen Spielberg directing straight from the heart for Schindler’s List which is essential viewing. The film manages to show the brutalities of the Holocaust but also the humanity that still existed in such a monstrous world.
Three years after the Watergate Scandal, Nixon decides to enlist a British journalist, David Frost, to conduct a one-on-one interview. While Nixon thinks he’ll be able to outfox Frost, he soon realizes that he’s not as cunning as he believes. This is one of the movies based on true stories that many people likely forgot happened but it was a huge deal because the interview aired on live TV.
In one of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s most memorable roles, he portrays writer Truman Capote. It essentially tells the true story of the writing of Capote’s novel In True Blood but dramatizes the interviews the journalist did with a young man who murdered his entire family.
One of the most lively movies based on true stories can be found in 2019’s Hustlers. The film follows a crew of strippers who team together to steal money from their rich clientele. With a stellar cast and slick directing, this one is an absolute blast to watch!
All the President’s Men (1976)
If you’d like a double feature, we can think of no better pairing than Frost/Nixon and All the President’s Men. The latter tells the story of the journalists who uncovered the Watergate Scandal that ultimately ended Nixon’s presidency.
A thriller that plays like a horror movie at times, Zodiac follows a team of investigators and journalists as they all try to identify and capture the Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s and 70s. We think this is the third movie with Mark Ruffalo in it on this list. Does he have a thing for movies based on true stories?
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Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Hotel Rwanda tells the devastating story of a hotel manager who decides to harbor refugees who are fleeing what would later be called the Rwandan Genocide. At the start, the UN aided his effort to shelter the refugees at his hotel but after they are forced to pull out, the manager, played by Don Cheadle, must make some truly harrowing decisions.
Keep Reading for More Movies Based on True Stories!
The Farewell (2019)
An autobiographical film by Lulu Wang, The Farewell tells the story of an American-Chinese woman who returns to China to visit her grandmother that has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The one caveat here is that the grandmother doesn’t know her diagnosis. They plan a wedding as a sendoff for their beloved grandma but it becomes clear that keeping such an important secret is harder than anyone thought! It’s one of the most heartfelt movies based on true stories that we’ve ever seen!
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
In Uganda on a medical mission, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan becomes a close confidant of dictator Idi Amin. At first, he feels impressed by his newly found power but quickly realizes that Amin’s rule is soaked in innocent blood. Although a fictional story, the film does an excellent job of showing Amin’s rise to power and how Uganda fell into totalitarianism.
The Pianist (2002)
As beautiful and poetic as it is horrifying, The Pianist tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman a concert pianist who tries to survive life in a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. It’s one of the best movies based on true stories about WWII! Actor Adrien Brody has never been better.
Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Gorillas in the Mist tells the story of Dian Fossey, a research scientist who travels to Africa to study the vanishing gorillas in the mountains of Uganda and Rwanda. As she develops a bond with the animals, she realizes that the poachers who hunt them need to be stopped. She decides to fight to protect them but it quickly becomes perilous.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Erin Brokovich tells the real-life story of a woman who is down on her luck and pleads with her attorney to employ her at his law firm. He does. While looking through real estate files, she discovers a medical file in the mix and realizes that something is not right. She uncovers a cover-up of contaminated water that is causing illness in the community. Julia Roberts really fires on all cylinders in this classic movie!
The Imitation Game (2014)
The Imitation Game tells the story of an MI6 recruit, Alan Turing, who is a professor and mathematician at Oxford. He builds a team of codebreakers to help him crack the Nazi enigma code, which the team eventually is able to do. Despite becoming a hero, authorities discover that Turing is gay in 1952 and send him to prison. It’s one of the movies based on a true story that tells the whole the story!
Lost Girls (2020)
Starring Amy Ryan, Lost Girls tells the story of one mother’s fight for justice after the disappearance of her daughter. In her quest to find her daughter, she uncovers that a dozen sex workers have been murdered in her Long Island community.
The Big Sick (2017)
The Big Sick stars Kumail Nanjiani and tells the true story of how he and his partner Emily Gordon weathered a particularly difficult time at the start of their relationship. Emily gets sick and is put into a coma. He tries to navigate the rights and wrongs of what’s appropriate but finds himself growing very attached to Emily’s worried parents. It’s funny and heartfelt and a movie worth watching on a rainy day!
Gay rights icon Harvey Milk got the biopic treatment in 2008’s Milk starring Sean Penn. The film details his early life and how he helped make San Francisco a haven for queer people. He ultimately becomes so beloved by the community that he runs for the San Francisco Board of supervisors to become California’s first openly gay elected official. While this one does not have a happy ending, it’s an important story that everyone should know.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Fred Hampton was a beloved chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party but the FBI failed to see his virtues and instead wanted to infiltrate and spy on him. They enlist the help of Bill O’Neil who infiltrates Hampton’s inner circle and ultimately betrays his trust. If you don’t know the horrific history of racism in the FBI in the 1960s, this film will open your eyes to it.
Frances McDormand continued her streak of unflinching and beautiful performances with Nomadland which was released in 2020. She plays a woman who loses everything in the Great Recession and decides to travel around the American west, like a nomad, in her van. It’s a gorgeous movie about the transitory nature of life.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Saving Mr.Banks tells the real-life story of how Walt Disney wanted to turn P.L. Travers‘ Mary Poppins novels into a movie. The two disagree on plenty but, in the end, Disney really had some magic to share with her. If you love Disney movies and haven’t seen this gem, you should! It’s one of the best movies based on true stories about Walt Disney.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Tensions are high as Ma Rainey, a highly regarded Blues singer, travels to Chicago in 1927 to record music. Viola Davis is a dream in this movie as she is in everything. If you would like to know how early performers were treated by the mainstream music industry, you absolutely must watch this stunning movie.
One of the most important stories from the Civil Rights Era, Selma, tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for equal voting rights. Specifically, the film follows the leader as he organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The lesson of this amazing movie is clear: march on.
Girl, Interrupted (1993)
Based on a memoir, Girl, Interrupted tells the story of a young woman who tries to commit suicide and ends up having to spend 18 months in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. The film does an excellent job of developing fully formed characters who both help and hinder the protagonist’s journey.
A League of Their Own (1993)
A League of Their Own tells the story of an all-female baseball league that springs up after many of the male players become involved with WWII. Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna make this film an absolute treat.
Out of Africa (1985)
A study on wealth, class, colonialism, racism, and sexism, Out of Africa is a movie that manages to do a ton with a very simple story. A Danish Baroness (played by Meryl Streep) moves to Africa to start a plantation, after she finds out her husband has been faithful to her, she reevaluates her life. What results is an affair with a big-game hunter. Ultimately, she must choose between love and personal growth. This movie swept the Oscars in 1986!
Apocalypse Now (1979)
If you like your war movies with a heaping dose of psychological horror, you will get a lot out of Apocalypse Now. In the film, an Army officer in Vietnam is given the mission to assassinate a renegade colonel who sees himself as invincible. It’s a wild ride!
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, an English officer who travels to the Middle East and successfully unites a coalition of Arab tribes to fight the Turks in WWI. Lawrence’s allegiances are tested and he becomes torn between orders he receives from Britain and the newfound comradery he experiences with the Arab allies. This movie was considered one of the best movies ever made following its release in the 1960s.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
In the years before the Civil War, a free Balck man named Solomon Northup was kidnapped in New York and sold into slavery in the south. 12 Years a Slave tells his story as he spends twelve years enslaved before his fortunes change.
After the assassination of 11 Israeli Olympians in Munich, the Israeli government embarked on a secret mission to find and murder the members of the terrorist group Black September who carried out the initial attack. Munich follows the team tasked with the mission and their inner conflicts with it.
Selena tells the story of a Tejano singer and her meteoric rise to mainstream success in the US and around the world. Selena fuses her Mexican-American heritage with her love for Tejano music as well as American pop music to create a sound that we all know and love. Jennifer Lopez shines in the title role of this amazing biopic.
A resilient Korean family moves to Arkansas in search of their own “American Dream.” Despite the challenges of life in the Ozarks in the 1980s, the family discovers the true meaning of home is actually family.
I, Tonya (2017)
I, Tonya looks at the scandal involving Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding through a bit of a different lens. Seen from Tonya’s perspective, we learn about the intense pressure the skater put on herself coupled with the outside forces impacting her in a negative way. She was the victim of abuse from both her mother and her ex-husband who would ultimately go on to carry out “the incident.”
Ron Stallworth is the first Black detective to serve in Colorado Springs Police Department. He is determined to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and expose their criminality. He enlists the help of Flip Zimmerman (a white cop) to infiltrate the KKK and the two embark on the investigation of a lifetime. Although this is a period film, it feels extremely relevant for audiences today.
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
A bored server named Bonnie falls for an ex-con named Clyde. Together, the young, passionate pair embark on a violent crime spree that finds them stealing cars, robbing banks, and causing chaos in rural America. This movie from 1967 is surprisingly sexy and it should be lumped in with other edgy dramas released in the decade like Easy Rider and The Graduate.
If you love classical music, Amadeus is the arty biopic you need in your life. The film follows the troubled life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as told by his rival Antonio Salieri, who claimed he murdered the genius composer. This film is somehow timeless and perfectly indicative of the 1980s. You have to give it a try!
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
A bleak yet compassionate film, Boys Don’t Cry tells the story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man, who must navigate love and life in rural Nebraska. Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny are both phenomenal in this film from 1999. Audiences are rarely treated to movies based on true stories about trans life and this was a real standout from 20 years ago.
Angela’s Ashes (1999)
Another bleak but beautiful film, Angela’s Ashes is based on the autobiography of Frank McCourt whose family moved to Brooklyn to escape the poverty and hopelessness of pre-war Limerick, Ireland. However, after a death in the family, they leave Brooklyn to return to Ireland only to find the situation there is even direr. It’s a bit gloomy but life was very hard for very many in the 1940s.
If you have not seen Titanic, how have you not seen Titanic? The film is a romance set on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. Spoiler: the boat sinks. This is probably one of the biggest blockbuster movies based on true stores ever made.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Although not as good as the source material, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil follows one journalist’s journey through the eccentric world of beautiful architecture and Southern lore that you will find in Savannah, Georgia. The journalist is there to write a story on a local millionaire’s famous Christmas parties, but he discovers that there is much more to the millionaire than meets the eye. Could he be a murderer? The journalist stays in Savannah to cover the murder trial that follows.
Roma città aperta / Rome, City Apart (1945)
Italian Neorealist Cinema sprang from the destruction and heartache of WWII. Filmmakers took to the destroyed streets of Rome to both document and tell narrative stories about the war and the effects it had on citizens living in the crumbled city. One of the best examples is Rome, City Apart (Open City). The film tells the story of the Nazi occupation of Rome as a young boy seeks refuge from the Nazis. The sets in this film are actually shots of the war-ravaged city. It doesn’t get more “based on a true story” than that.
Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte / The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon is not a film that often gets categorized with other movies based on true stories but it does try to explain the mindset of many Germans prior to the start of WWI. If you’d like a snapshot of pastoral German life in the days leading up to the first world war, this masterpiece from Michael Haneke should do the trick.
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Roma is a loose autobiography of Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood years in Mexico City. The story is told from the perspective of the family’s maid, Cleo, who tries her best to do right by the family. As the “family” falls apart, after the father runs away with his mistress, it turns out that the maid is truly the only one keeping the rest of them afloat.
There you go! We hope you enjoyed this list of movies based on true stories. It’s amazing how many award-winning and beloved films are based on actual events! But, we suppose fact really is more interesting than fiction. Movies based on true stories instantly feel like the stakes are higher which makes them even more rewarding to see Happy watching!
Andrew is a Chicago-based writer who enjoys finding the best of the internet, obsessively making lists, and cooking for friends. After studying Film and Art History, he developed a deep love for both topics. Celebrity news, pop culture, and stories that bring people together are his passions.
- 1 Here Are 50 Movies Based on True Stories That You Have to See!
- 1.1 Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
- 1.2 Dark Waters (2019)
- 1.3 Eat Pray Love (2010)
- 1.4 Moneyball (2011)
- 1.5 Julie & Julia (2009)
- 1.6 Ray (2004)
- 1.7 The King’s Speech (2010)
- 1.8 Hidden Figures (2016)
- 1.9 Spotlight (2015)
- 1.10 Schindler’s List (1993)
- 1.11 Frost/Nixon (2008)
- 1.12 Capote (2005)
- 1.13 Hustlers (2019)
- 1.14 All the President’s Men (1976)
- 1.15 Zodiac (2007)
- 1.16 Hotel Rwanda (2004)
- 2 Keep Reading for More Movies Based on True Stories!
- 2.1 The Farewell (2019)
- 2.2 The Last King of Scotland (2006)
- 2.3 The Pianist (2002)
- 2.4 Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
- 2.5 Erin Brockovich (2000)
- 2.6 The Imitation Game (2014)
- 2.7 Lost Girls (2020)
- 2.8 The Big Sick (2017)
- 2.9 Milk (2008)
- 2.10 Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
- 2.11 Nomadland (2020)
- 2.12 Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
- 2.13 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
- 2.14 Selma (2014)
- 2.15 Girl, Interrupted (1993)
- 2.16 A League of Their Own (1993)
- 2.17 Out of Africa (1985)
- 2.18 Apocalypse Now (1979)
- 2.19 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
- 2.20 12 Years a Slave (2013)
- 2.21 Munich (2005)
- 2.22 Selena (1997)
- 2.23 Minari (2020)
- 2.24 I, Tonya (2017)
- 2.25 BlacKkKlansman (2018)
- 2.26 Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
- 2.27 Amadeus (1984)
- 2.28 Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
- 2.29 Angela’s Ashes (1999)
- 2.30 Titanic (1997)
- 2.31 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
- 2.32 Roma città aperta / Rome, City Apart (1945)
- 2.33 Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte / The White Ribbon (2009)
- 2.34 Roma (2018)
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