21 Intriguing Movies Inspired by True Events

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Movies of all genres can be comedic, endearing, or delightfully spooky, but the most truly inspiring movies are the ones based on a true story. Any story can entertain us, but when we see the events that someone else actually lived through, the odds they overcame, the care or intelligence or creativity they displayed; that’s just something else.

There’s no inspiration quite like knowing the events you’re beholding are really real. That being said, not all movies based on true events are created equal. Some of them aren’t heroic, they’re tragic or horrifying. But fear not; we’ve sorted through the broad assortment of true-life films and picked out the best for you.

These were voted the most gripping movies based on real life, and they’ll have you on the edge of your seat, even if you know what happened!

1. Hidden Figures (2016)

Image Credit: Fox 2000 Pictures.

Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, three women who began working at NASA as part of the West Computers, a segregated group of African American women who were hired to process aeronautic data during the Space Race era. It is based on the true story of these women who helped restore the nation’s confidence in NASA.

The film received critical acclaim due to its writing, directing, historical accuracy, and cinematography. It is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a critic and audience score of 93%.

2. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Scene from Erin Brockovick
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Julia Roberts portrays real-life investigative journalist Erin Brockovich in the film of the same name. She fought against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company regarding its culpability for the Hinkley groundwater contamination incident. It adds humor, delivering a movie that tells an important story while entertaining the audience. Julia Roberts is incredible in the role, making Erin likable and easy to root for.

The film was a box-office success and gained a positive critical reaction. It is certified fresh with a critic score of 85% and an audience score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes.

3. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Scene from Zero Dark Thirty
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Zero Dark Thirty is a thriller film that stars Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a fictional CIA intelligence analyst who is said to be based on a real-life person. It dramatizes the nearly decade-long international manhunt for Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist network Al-Qaeda, after the September 11 attacks. It is gripping and intense. Zero Dark Thirty received widespread critical acclaim for its acting, direction, screenplay, and editing and was a major box office success, grossing $132 million worldwide.

4. Apollo 13 (1995)

Scene from Apollo 13
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

A glance at who is involved with Apollo 13 and it is clear why this movie is so great. It is directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise. This film dramatizes the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission. Howard went to great lengths to create a technically accurate movie, employing NASA’s assistance in astronaut and flight-controller training for his cast. Critics have described it as a masterfully told drama bolstered by an ensemble of solid performances.

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5. The Social Network (2010)

Scene from The Social Network
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The Social Network portrays the founding of Facebook, a wildly popular social networking website. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, Armie Hammer as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, and Max Minghella as Divya Narendra.

The story is captivating and intriguing, even for those who know how the network came about. The incredible performances of the actors largely enhance it. The Social Network has maintained a strong reputation since its initial release and is commonly cited by critics as one of the best films of the 2010s and 21st century.

6. October Sky (1999)

Scene from October Sky
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

October Sky tells the true story of Homer H. Hickam Jr. (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a coal miner’s son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to take up rocketry against his father’s wishes and eventually became a NASA engineer.

Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job with the role, representing Homer with emotional depth and accuracy. Using home movie footage, an epilogue reveals the real-life outcomes of the main characters’ lives.

7. Sully (2016)

Scene from Sully
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

This film tells the real-life story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks. It dives into what happens when he tries to make an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River after US Airways Flight 1549 strikes a flock of geese. Not only is this movie suspenseful, but it is inspirational as well. All 155 crew members and passengers survive the miraculous landing, giving it a feel-good aspect. Tom Hanks is praised the most in this film, with many agreeing he delivered an incredible performance as an everyday hero.

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8. Moneyball (2011)

Scene from Moneyball
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 season and their general manager Billy Beane’s attempts to assemble a competitive team.

In the film, Beane (Brad Pitt) and assistant general manager Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) face the franchise’s limited budget for players but build a team of undervalued talent by thoroughly scouting and analyzing the players. This one isn’t just for sports fans, as it also delivers a lot of drama and humor. Critics praise Moneyball for turning a niche subject into a touching and brilliant film.

9. The King’s Speech (2010)

Scene from The King's Speech
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company.

The King’s Speech stars Colin Firth as the future King George VI, who visits speech and language therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, to help him with his stammer. They become friends, and when George does indeed take the throne, he leans on Logue for his first wartime speech.

While several events in the film simply did not happen or were greatly exaggerated, it still maintains a lot of historical accuracy. This movie has high stakes, but it is also inspirational and touching. Many critics state that this movie is predictable but so stylishly produced with a stellar performance by Colin Firth that it remains a rousing period drama.

10. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Scene from Saving Mr. Banks
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Another Tom Hanks film makes a list with Saving Mr. Banks. This film is a biographical drama that is centered on the development of the 1964 film Mary Poppins. It stars Emma Thompson as author P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as film producer Walt Disney.

Saving Mr. Banks depicts the author’s tragic childhood in rural Queensland in 1906 and the two weeks of meetings in 1961 in Los Angeles, during which Disney attempts to obtain the film rights to her novels. It is filled with incredible music, wonderful performances, and quite a bit of humor.

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11. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures.

Catch Me if You Can centers around the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a con artist who’s bluffed his way through life by printing and forging checks, bribery and charm, and sheer charisma. After his eventual capture, he agrees to work for the FBI to enhance the security in written checks and banking practices for a shortened sentence. The movie also features Tom Hanks in the role of Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent chasing down Abagnale. It’s a comedic take on a real-life story, and one you shouldn’t miss!

12. Braveheart (1995)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

We’ve all heard of Braveheart and watching Mel Gibson portray an angry Scottish war-leader, but did you know it’s based on real events and people? While there are many fictionalized events (such as kilts and plaid, which weren’t part of the Scottish heritage until much later), William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Scotland’s fight against Edward I, aka “Longshanks.”

While it’s not a perfectly historical movie, it’s still a fascinating, mostly-true story of the Scotch struggle for independence and the heroes who led their armies.

13. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Photo Credit: Enigma Productions.

This film follows the training and preparation of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who are eventually accepted to represent Britain in the 1924 Olympics. Both runners face additional barriers to running from their mentors and families. Liddell is constantly criticized by his sister for choosing running over serving God, as they were raised in a missionary family. Abrahams is Jewish and the professors and leaders at Cambridge, where he attends university, look down on both him and his running. The real-life drama follows their journeys to the Olympics and back again in a story of courage, perseverance and faith.

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14. The Monuments Men (2014)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The Monuments Men features George Clooney, Bill Murray, Matt Damon and others as a fictional portrayal of the real men who were tasked with rescuing the greatest pieces of western art that the Nazi soldiers were plundering on their retreat towards Germany. When the war was drawing to a close, the front lines and even rural places became even more dangerous as the Germans took retaliatory measures on their way out: they fired without a second thought and took with them the most famous pieces of art from museums and private collections. The Monuments men sometimes went even behind enemy lines to try to recover the stolen artwork before it could be destroyed or lost.

15. The Bling Ring (2013)

Photo Credit: American Zoetrope.

This movie combines crime and theft with teenage friendships and Hollywood. It’s based on the true story of a group of teens in LA who were obsessed with celebrities and wanted to have everything that their idols possessed. To that end, they’d stalk their favorite celebrities on the internet to find out when they were out of town, and then break into their homes and rob them of jewelry, money and other high-end items. The Bling Ring features Emma Watson alongside others, and brings together teenage drama with true crime. What could be more fascinating?!

16. Julie and Julia (2009)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The movie Julie and Julia is the first movie ever based on a blog. Julie Powell’s blog was originally titled “The Julie/Julia Project,” and it document’s Powell’s experience of cooking through all 541 of Julia Child’s recipes in her original cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The movie jumps back and forth between Julie Powell, learning French cooking in her few spare hours in a cramped apartment kitchen, and Julia Childs learning to cook in France. It’s delightful, heart-warming and comedic all at once.

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17. Schindler’s List (1993)

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

This is a WWII film that documents the true story of a businessman turned hero. Schindler started out wanting to open a factory next to one of the work camps that had opened in Poland. To gain permissions and keep his factory open, he curried favor with the Nazi officials in the city, but when he saw how mistreated the Jews were in the camps and the ghettos, he manipulated that relationship in order to obtain permission for more Jewish people to work in his factories, which spared them from the camps. Schindler is credited with saving more than 1200 Jews from concentration camps during the duration of the war, and this movie tells his heroic story.

18. Seabiscuit (2003)

Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures.

Seabiscuit is based on the true story of a thoroughbred racehorse who was born smaller than most other racers, and became overlooked. But his surprising success catapulted him to fame in America in the 1920s, in the middle of the Great Depression. The movie is rather loosely based on Seabiscuit’s life, as it works in the healing journey of the jockey who raced him alongside Seabiscuit’s own career. But even with fictional details woven in, the story of Seabiscuit himself is a true one, and there’s very little more inspiring than watching an underdog win against all odds.

19. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Photo Credit: New Regency Productions.

This movie is the true and heartbreaking story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York and working as a violinist. In 1841 he’s conned into taking a gig in another city, but instead he’s brought to the south and enslaved. The movie, which is based on his memoir of the same title, follows the twelve years he was enslaved before he was able to prove his freedom and return to his family. The movie shows the cruel, traumatizing and tragic ways in which enslaved people were treated in the American South. It’s a sobering film, and one that everybody should see.

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20. The Imitation Game (2014)

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company.

The Imitation Game tells the story of British man Alan Turing, who worked to decode messages from the German enigma machines in World War II. But Turing has a secret: he’s not attracted to women. And because he feels like an outcast, he acts like one, and becomes very difficult to work with. Turing is eventually granted permission to put together his own team to work at cracking the German codes, and eventually he succeeds at creating a machine that can crack their codes quickly enough to be pivotal in the war effort.

Turing’s work was instrumental in defending the Allies in World War II and later in the invention of the computer, and this movie is a moving depiction of Turning’s life and struggles, and we recommend it!

21. Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018)

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Lee Israel was a struggling writer who was trying to make ends meet. Rather than give up on writing, she discovered that there was a market for the letters and communication of deceased celebrities. There’s only one problem: these letters are stowed away in libraries, where it will be discovered if they’re missing. So Israel begins to forge letters. Some she steals from libraries and replaces with her forgeries, and others she forges completely. But first her customers and then the authorities catch on. Eventually, Israel is convicted and sentenced, and then gains permission from Jack, a co-conspirator, to write about their experience selling the forgeries together.

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

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