Movies You Won’t Believe Are Based On True Stories

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This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

Movies You Won’t Believe Are Based On True Stories

At first glance, the script for War Dogs probably read like an outlandish action comedy.

How could a couple of stoner dudes from Miami secure a $300 million contract to supply arms to the U.S. government? How could the Pentagon supply tens of millions of shoddy weapons to Afghani troops fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban? How could the U.S. government be tricked into purchasing decomposing, 40-year-old munitions that were culled from a Communist surplus stockpile or manufactured cheaply in China — from a supplier run by the likes of a 22-year-old masseur?

To get the too-crazy-to-be-true story in full detail, you'll have to read Rolling Stone's throughly reported account, or the resulting book, Arms and the Dudes. But if a funny, fictionalized version of the events suits you, then War Dogs will do just fine. Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as the unexpected arms dealers in the movie, which is helmed by Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover. Bradley Cooper also co-stars as a ridiculously shady character who helps them pull it off. (Today, the three principal players in the scheme are embroiled in a lawsuit — not with the government, ironically, but with each other, over who pocketed that $300 million payday.)

War Dogs is a perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction, but it's not the first film of its kind. Ahead, scroll through movies you won't believe are based on true stories.

Hustlers, 2019

Based on a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers follows a group of former strippers who come up with a plan to squeeze cash out of former clients in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Upside, 2019

This film starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston is actually a remake of 2011 French film Les Intouchables, itself based on a true story. Hart plays Dell Scott, an ex-con from the projects who gets inadvertently hired as a caregiver for Philip Lacasse (Cranston), a successful businessman left paraplegic by a paragliding accident. Their friendship was inspired by the real-life relationship between French aristocrat Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Algerian immigrant Abdel Sellou. Years after Borgo published their story in his memoir, A Second Wind, the two remain close friends.

The Post, 2018

The Post zooms in on the moment that catapulted the Washington Post into being a top newspaper, and asserted the importance of sharing knowledge with the American people — even if it made the government uncomfortable. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of the Washington Post, is faced with a decision that will change journalism forever: To publish, or not to publish, the classified Pentagon Papers that reveal the history of America's interventions in French Indochina?

Molly's Game, 2017

For ten years, Molly Bloom ran an exclusive, underground poker game frequented by Hollywood A-List actors, mobsters, and magnates. In Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain plays Bloom from the time she's just an Olympic-class skiier to the time she's on trial for her illegal gambling ring.

Spotlight, 2016

In 2001, an intrepid group of Boston reporters got to the bottom of allegations against John Geoghan, a priest thought to have molested many boys throughout his career. While searching for the facts of one incriminating case, they uncover an entire rotting system. Based on the Boston Globe's real reportage, Spotlight watches like a snapshot of real life.

Into the Wild, 2007

Recent graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) has admirable ideals. He wants to live freely, outside of the capitalist system. He rids himself of possessions and embarks on a journey to live in the wild. His trip takes him to Alaska, where, entirely unprepared, he encounters problems he'd never seen in his previously privileged life.

The Imitation Game, 2014

During World War II, the Nazis cloaked all of their radio correspondence with the enigma code to prevent Allied forces from understanding their messages. British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his trusty gang of left-brained thinkers build the world's first computer in an effort to crack the code. As war and carnage wracked the European continent and the Pacific Islands, the most important Allied technology was developed in a quaint British village in the countryside.

The Imitation Game also looks into Turing's personal life, and how despicably the U.K. treated Turing following the war due to his sexual orientation.

127 Hours, 2010

After an intrepid hike in Utah goes awry, mountaineer Aron Ralston (James Franco) is trapped between a fallen boulder and canyon wall. Over the course of five days, Ralston tries to escape, and comes to a dire conclusion: He must amputate his arm if he's to survive. Otherwise, he'll remain stuck to the canyon wall, and will starve to death.

The acclaimed film is based off Ralston's aptly titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place..

The Impossible, 2012

On December 24, 2004, a massive tsunami hit the coast of Thailand and resulted in devastation and death. But when the film starts, none of the five main characters are aware of that. They've just finished opening the last of their Christmas presents and are headed to a day by the beach. Each family member is forced to make difficult decisions in the chaotic aftermath.

The family's miraculous story is based on the real experience of Maria Belón and her family, Spanish tourists who were in Thailand at the time of the disaster.

All Good Things, 2010

The pace of this movie is so slow and suspenseful while building up to the final twist that it's easy to forget that this romantic thriller is based on a real unsolved crime. Directed by Andrew Jarecki, this movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling tells the story of a charismatic young couple (Dunst, Gosling) and their tumultuous marriage, which ends with the vanishing of the wife. The story is based on the now-infamous Robert Durst (of HBO's The Jinx) and the situations surrounding the disappearance and murder of his wife, Kathleen McCormack, in 1982.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007

Journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby was editor-in-chief of Elle France when he suffered a stroke that left him unconscious for 20 days. When he woke up, his mind was intact — but his body was paralyzed. Bauby chronicled his experience with what is known as locked-in syndrome in a 1997 memoir, which we wrote by blinking his left eyelid to indicate letters in the alphabet. The writing process took him 10 months, and his memoir became the basis for the French drama of the same name.

Open Water, 2003

In 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan went scuba diving with a group to see Australia's Great Barrier Reef. They never returned. (The crew apparently didn't take an accurate head count.) What happened next is anybody's guess — their bodies were never found, and the couple is assumed to have died out at sea. The haunting film imagines what their final days and hours looked like — battling jellyfish, mental anguish, starvation, and lots of sharks.

Balto, 1995

In 1995, a potentially lethal diphtheria epidemic threatened the youth of Nome, Alaska. When the plane that was supposed to fly a supply of antiserum from Seattle to Nome wouldn't start, the situation became dire. The serum was transported by train to the town of Nenana — where it was decided that sled dogs were the best option to get the lifesaving medicine to the remote town in time to prevent an outbreak. More than 20 mushers and their teams of intrepid dogs braved blizzards and freezing temperatures in relay runs. The final, most dangerous part of the run was led by a husky named Balto — the subject of this very stressful children's movie.

Alpha Dog, 2006

This crime drama not only boasts an incredible cast — including Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, Sharon Stone, and Bruce Willis — but a fact-based plot. The story revolves around the 2000 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. The names and details were changed, but the essence of what happened — a petty drug feud spun out of hand — remains. In fact, the Santa Barbara DA provided the filmmakers with court documents and expert consulting. The case was ongoing when the movie was released, but the killer was convicted in 2008.

Catch Me If You Can, 2002

The story of Frank Abagnale — played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film based on Abagnale's memoir — is truly unbelievable. But the teenager really did pose as professionals, most notably a Pan-Am pilot and a Georgia hospital doctor. And when we say "pose," we mean he actually flew planes and treated patients. The professional impostor's lifestyle was bankrolled in part by Pan-Am, but mostly by forging checks. Oh, and he really did escape police custody — twice. Abagnale spent less than five years behind bars before becoming a fraud consultant for the federal government.

Braveheart, 1995

In 13th-century Scotland, a warrior named William Wallace led his people in the fight for autonomy from England during the First War of Scottish Independence. His men did achieve some incredible victories on the battlefield, inspiring patriotic epic poems including "The Wallace," which is the basis of the Mel Gibson vehicle. The most excruciating scenes in the movie — when Wallace is tried, hanged, drawn, and quartered by King Edward I for high treason — are, sadly, based in reality.

Seven Years in Tibet, 1997

In 1944, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer — portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie adaptation of Harrer's best-selling memoir — and his companion were exploring British India during WWII when they were captured by the British and taken to an internment camp. After escaping to Tibet, where they stayed for — you guessed it — seven years, they became deeply embedded in the country's life and culture. Most incredibly, Harrer really did tutor and befriend the young Dalai Lama.

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