Wait, you’re telling us Watergate is an actual thing that happened, and in 1974 two reporters really did take down a sitting US president? Who knew? Jokes aside, even with its unspoilable ending, Alan Pakula’s journalism procedural stays riveting, and might be even more important today, with certain other recent leaders of the free world attempting to label the press ‘the enemy of the people’. Shot and acted with typical ‘70s naturalism, the film rejects any impulse to flesh out the home lives of Woodward and Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), or imagine what was happening inside the White House, or otherwise deviate from or embellish the central investigation. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman put trust in the idea that watching professionals do their work with the highest possible stakes is thrilling enough. They were right.
Cinematic truth often differs from actual truth, and even the most accurate depictions of real events to appear on the big screen typically feature at least a sprinkling of dramatic license. And so, in compiling this list of the best movies based on true stories, we paid particular attention to those films that approached their subjects with something close to a journalistic eye – none of this vague ‘inspired by true events’ stuff.
Among them are Oscar winning dramas covering major moments in history, salacious crime stories drawn from magazine articles, odd character studies, psychedelic head-trips and other wild tales no one would believe if they didn’t actually happen. Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction – and often, the truth makes the best movies.