The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

Argo The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

The Oscars and the hubbub of awards season now settling into memory and looking back on 2012, it was a very good year for glorious portraits of actual individuals in action. As we celebrate the success of Best Picture Argo (such an understatement!) and fellow nominees Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, it seems a perfect time to take a look back at some of the other most compelling real life stories brought to film.

With literally dozens of worthy real life stories available, today we’ll stick with those in the same vein as our current titans: ten stories of military operation, of leadership and teamwork, of Davids facing Goliaths vicious and powerful, of hot-blooded passion, bone-chilling realization, and just plain grit.

Brace yourself and get your queue list ready!

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Black Hawk Down

Director: Ridley Scott

BlackHawkDown The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

This one’s interesting: it runs the full approval gamut from “numbingly depersonalized” to “exceptional accomplishment.” But love it or hate it, it deserves inclusion here as one of the great cinematic examples of our soldiers’ service and experience, and most definitely meets our criterion of “compelling” (overpowering; having a powerful and irresistible effect; requiring acute admiration, attention, or respect).

In October 1993, a team of Army Rangers moved into the Somali city of Mogadishu (“the Mog”) in order to capture two lieutenants of a warlord deliberately causing the starvation of the citizenry, and what was supposed to be a 30-minute operation became a 13-hour ordeal.

How well this gut-wrenching tale is told remains up for debate (I could list its script’s shortcomings, but onward), however for those interested in an accurate representation of the firefight and the heart it takes to face it, Black Hawk Down is not to be missed.

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Thirteen Days

Director: Roger Donaldson

ThirteenDays The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

In October 1962 (what is it with October?), the United States and the Soviet Union came within minutes of nuclear war.

We’re all aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis and are inclined to offer a raised-eyebrowed, “Wow, glad that didn’t happen,” but it remains a rather cerebral notion in these days so far removed from its specter.

Until Roger Donaldson gets hold of it.

Donaldson is the master of examining the alarming through the eyes of the Everyman. Oftentimes an exceptionally skilled Everyman, to be sure, but it’s never the skill that filters the tale, it’s the man. And here it’s Kenny O’Donnell, special assistant to John F. Kennedy and close adviser as Kennedy held our world in his instincts.

With a slow burn reaching an invisible flame, Donaldson marches us through the events, using such a low-key touch that it actually cracks the self-protective minimizing denial with which the subject so often seems handled, and leaves us rattled.

This isn’t the story of an executive formulating political and military strategy, it’s the story of a couple of men trying to prevent our literal collective death, and how very nearly they failed. So close it was that one almost can’t embrace the success, and Donaldson makes us feel it.

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The Killing Fields

Director: Roland Joffé

KillingFields The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

In 1975, tyrant Pol Pot took over Cambodia and “cleansed” his country of over two million people during the “Year Zero” campaign carried out by his forces, the Khmer Rouge. Covering the proceedings were New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian photographer, Dith Pran. They stayed behind when Phnom Penh fell, Pran was seized, and Sydney made it his life’s mission to save him.

If you see only one title on this illustrious list, make it this one. As things progress, one feels the pressure constricting one’s innards, the tingling across the scalp, the almost numbing effect of the score and helicopters at one notable event, and the truly stunning power of their last two lines. I haven’t seen it since the theatrical run, and still I’ve put hand to forehead at least five times while writing this piece.

Chilling it was during Argo to hear one American reflect upon the characteristic that brought him to being in that paralyzingly frightening predicament ~ it bore a precise and unnerving echo to a conversation between two individuals here; the observation stops one in one’s tracks, and very nearly undoes Sydney. Word to the wise, that is all…

Harrowing and triumphant, The Killing Fields is where Sam Waterston earned my permanent unconditional affection, and while you’re watching, bear in mind that Haing S. Ngor, who portrayed Pran, himself was seized by the Khmer Rouge during Year Zero. Mercy…

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Apollo 13

Director: Ron Howard

Apollo13 The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

If Thirteen Days was so white hot that we almost can’t embrace the success, then Apollo 13 is its counterpart, the ultimate example of intense heat ignited to glory. This account of NASA’s finest hour, of its most successful failure, endures as one of cinema’s most dazzlingly satisfying endeavors. Exhaustion and endorphins imminent.

In April 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft took off destination moon, helmed by Jim Lovell and manned by Fred Haise and Jack Swigert (taking over for a grounded Ken Mattingly). Hours into the mission, the craft found itself crippled and the crew imperiled, as the three watched helplessly as the oxygen drained into space. Thus began a world-class collaboration comprised of hundreds of mission controllers, four clever and courageous astronauts, and the uncompromising leadership of Flight Director Gene Kranz.

Apollo 13 is a story of astonishing obstacle, unflinching resolve, undying optimism, and model-worthy valor. Failure to see it is not an option.

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All the President’s Men

Director: Alan J. Pakula

AllPresidentsMen The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

Politics is a dirty business (news flash). So when some scurrilous staffers burglarized and bugged the opposition’s war room during the 1972 presidential campaign, it seemed like unremarkable, if interesting, news to be covered for two Washington Post reporters.

Except that it wasn’t. It was the chilling dawning upon Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that something much more sinister slithered and lurked in dark parking garages and the mute mouths of the intimidated. Something more was whispered by an anonymous informant code name Deep Throat. Something found itself dragged into the light as the Watergate Scandal, and culminated in the unprecedented resignation of a United States president.

Here our compelling real life stories are moving from the natural and the systemic/military to the personal, where peril becomes based not on where you are, but on who you are. Specifically. As in, piss these people off and you could find yourself off.

But press on nonetheless, as did Woodward and Bernstein, and you change forever the course of history for hundreds, for thousands, even for millions. Let’s meet the Davids and their Goliaths…

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Norma Rae

Director: Martin Ritt

NormaRae The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

Before 1974, life in the textile mills of – well, probably anywhere, but here we’re talking North Carolina – were something out of a Dickens novel. Earning $2.65 per hour under intolerable conditions, thirtysomething Crystal Lee Sutton had finally had enough, and teamed up with union organizer Eli Zivkovich, to the great chagrin of virtually everyone in her world.

Sutton and Zivkovich have been renamed to Norma Rae Webster and Rueben Warshowsky, and the backstory has been tweaked for drama, but fact underpins all, and the legendary scene wherein Norma Rae launches her personal version of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore” is verbatim.

Soulful, passionate, sensitive, and determined, Norma Rae shows us the gumption ~ and what it takes to maintain it ~ to say, “Enough. Things must be better.” And trust that you know what, they just might be.


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Erin Brockovich

Director: Steven Soderbergh

ErinBrockovich The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

Sometimes the task falls to the unlikeliest creature imaginable. The 1993 class action lawsuit, the case that felled the titan with the largest direct action settlement in US history, was uncovered and led by a brassy, untrained, provocative single mother of three with whiplash and a smart mouth.

Erin Brockovich isn’t as hair-raising as some on this list, but the astonishing disparity between this dedicated advocate and her adversary, billion-dollar California company Pacific Gas & Electric, warrants its inclusion. It’s bright, sharp, compassionate, righteously indignant, and hits every emotional hot button of the fray.

The perseverance Brockovich brought to the cause and the constant (if often nonplussed) support of her boss, the beleaguered and outgunned solo practitioner Ed Masry, inspire the best within us never to accept an injustice without a fight, and never, but never to underestimate the little guy (even when it may be us).

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Donnie Brasco

Director: Mike Newell

DonnieBrasco The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

It’s all very well to be fighting for your life against space itself, or risking it by poking your journalistic nose where some would argue it doesn’t belong, or being unceremoniously carried to the clink… but how about walking straight into the Mafia and becoming one of them? That takes some real, well… guts.

And that’s exactly what family man and FBI agent Joe Pistone did in September 1976, when he went undercover into the Bonanno crime family as “Donnie Brasco.” So effective was he during the six-year operation that were he willing to commit murder, he would be inducted into the Mafia as a “made” man.

Unfortunately for Pistone and his family (as in wife and children), the toll exacted was remarkable: given the depth of his cover and intensity of his relationship with his “wise guy mentor” Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio, lines of allegiance blurred, alarming conflicts of interest evolved, black and white melted to grey, and the degree of difficulty in completing his mission escalated to levels Pistone himself never envisioned.

Our hero ever one wrong move away from certain execution, Donnie Brasco gives us an inside look into what it takes to do what these folks do to keep us safe.

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Director: Mike Nichols

Silkwood The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film

Like Crystal Lee Sutton and Erin Brockovich, Karen Silkwood never imagined that she would be called upon to face such a foe. In this case, one could argue that Goliath won, but still we know her story, and still the Philistine army suffered.

A blue-collar metallurgy worker in an Oklahoman Kerr-McGee plutonium plant, Silkwood discovered in 1974 that faulty rods had been produced, and that management had falsified safety and inspection records. With that, her life turned to radioactive nightmare, galvanizing her to surreptitiously gather proof for the New York Times.

Intense, desperate, and deeply moving, Silkwood paints the plight of those lacking the wherewithal to stage the fight, indicts the delusional moral turpitude of those complicit for their own benefit, and inspires us toward the greater good, both for its own sake and in honor of those who fought before us.

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The Impossible

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona

TheImpossible The Most Compelling Real Life Stories Brought To Film
In concluding this impressive compilation, we return to the beginning, to 2012 and a story of unparalleled tenacity pure cussed determination and the fight reduced to its most elemental: that for one’s beloveds, and for one’s own very heartbeat.

Little description needed here, no doubt, of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that unleashed the equivalent of 23,000 Hiroshima-level atomic bombs upon an unsuspecting Thai coastline, consuming 235,000 in its fury. So overwhelming was it, and so powerful is the film, that when the trailer was shown nearing the anniversary of the disaster, many affected were re-traumatized.  And indeed, its title surely ranks as among the best in cinema.

Naomi Watts received a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Maria, loving wife to the loving Henry and mother of their three boys (the eldest of whom played by an egregiously overlooked Tom Holland, superb heir to the mantle of Jamie Bell).

Enjoying the pool on Boxing Day, they heard a rumble, and then a roar, and in the space of five or so seconds, were beset by the utter destruction of the world. Though silent to an observer, inside I was absolutely screaming, taken by a strange, primal outpouring; Watts broke the torrent’s surface, grabbed a tree and voiced  it herself, and I thought, “Yeah. There it is, that would be it.”

Devastatingly realistic, comprised of extras and supporting performers who actually experienced the event, and filmed almost entirely on location, The Impossible shows us nature unfurled with such power as to feel almost evil, reminds us how tenuous and precious we all are, reverently remembers those lost and those found, and encourages us always to hold on ~ hold on! ~ and embrace the possibility of miracle.

And That’s a Wrap ~ for Now

So there we have them! Ten compelling real life stories that will thrill, inspire, and exceptionally impress. What makes them great is not the telling of the accomplishments themselves, but rather how well they communicate the experience of their subjects. And while we don’t have time here to extol the filmmaking prowess, rest assured this list is packed with superb performances, stellar execution, and Oscar gold. Enjoy!

Bonus Titles:

  • Fair Game ~ The aftermath of the malicious 2003 outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame as payback for her husband’s Op Ed letter criticizing the Bush administration. Director: Doug Liman
  • Frost/Nixon ~ The 1977 interviews by David Frost of Richard Nixon after the latter’s resignation, in which Frost elicits the truth. Director: Ron Howard

Have you seen these films ~ what do you think? What other real life stories would you include on this particular list? Are there other such real life stories lists you’d like to see? Do share your opinions, we love hearing from you!

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