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.
In Hollywood, the truth is relative. A lot of the time, when a movie claims to be based on actual events, it means there’s a small grain of reality buried in a haystack of dramatic embellishments, to the point that the literal ‘true story’ of the matter becomes so distorted it hardly even qualifies as truth. Sometimes, though, a story is so mind-blowing that the truth needs no stretching to fit on the big screen.
The films on this list are examples of the latter. In these movies, the truth is approached with something close to a journalistic eye – not that any would qualify as a documentary, just that the facts are represented better than most, simply because the stories are so spectacular a screenwriter would hardly come up with anything better. Some are earth-shaking historical events, others are tales of true crime ripped from the headlines. They include peculiar character studies and psychedelic drug trips that challenge the definition of truth itself. In each case, these films prove that truth is often stranger than fiction – and sometimes makes for even better movies.
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