Life is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction and films "based on a true story" or "actual events" not only provide us with ways to connect with others via shared experience, but recounting true life events aids us in comprehending and coping with the question "how could this have happened?" Telling true stories, sometimes over and over again, becomes a way to exorcise the boogiemen that haunt us, or to gain understanding over phenomenon that we cannot control. James Cameron's fictional narrative based on actual historical events, Titanic, dares to make real an event that only exists in our imagination: the sinking of RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage. Unlike contemporary national or cultural tragedies such as 9/11 where countless images exist to remind us of the real, little to no imagery exists of the actual sinking of the Titanic. Couple that with human error (which means it was preventable), and we have an international tragedy that lives on in our memories in as much horror and intensity as our own imaginations will allow. There have been numerous other cinematic renderings of the RMS Titanic tragedy, notably, the 1943 German propaganda film with the British as the villains, the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck-Clifton Webb melodrama, and 1958's A Night To Remember, touted as one of the most historically accurate. But Cameron's version successfully mixes tragic romance with disaster picture: to be honest, the best part of the movie is from the iceberg forward. But intertwining a class-conflict romance with disaster demonstrates how death functions as the great equalizer between rich and poor while simultaneously increasing our emotional investment in the ship's sinking. Perhaps more importantly, as a spectacle, Cameron's Titanic raises the bar on epic filmmaking: special effects, stunts, and scale are all aided by new technology developed in concert with the movie visually rendering an international tragedy so realistic that audiences can not help but think "so that's how it went down." The sinking of the unsinkable Titanic on its maiden voyage was at once ironic, a lesson in hubris, and a reminder of human fallibility that has haunted generations attempting to make sense of it all. With little to no photographic evidence of the ship's foundering, we can only imagine the shock and horror; James Cameron's Titanic provides us with a stunning imagining of "true events" that allows another generation to excise the ghosts and put the horror to rest.
FINAL VERDICT: SEE IT!
In the early 1970s, one of the greatest films of all time was released, The Godfather, detailing life in the mafia (though that word was never used), and as great as the film was, and still is, it was never thought of as a proper depiction of the lifestyle, but more of a romanticized one. Martin Scorsese, along with Nicholas Pileggi, adapted Pileggi's novel Wiseguys into Goodfellas, which depicted real life Lucchese crime member Henry Hill and in many ways demystified the elements of The Godfather. Out of it came a masterpiece, arguably Scorsese's best (or at least in his top three), that garnered six Oscar nominations, and won one for Joe Pesci for Best Supporting Actor. There isn't a bad performance in the film, which includes previous Scorsese players Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent, and also Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, and Ray Liotta, who had appeared in only a few films, including Something Wild and Field of Dreams, before landing the coveted lead role of Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Its legacy can be seen in David Chase's HBO series The Sopranos, and Scorsese himself even made about the closest thing you could to a sequel, 1995's Casino, which almost serves to demystify Goodfellas considering it's even more visceral violence and tragic consequences. The mafia film nearly replaced the western in terms of a purely American genre, and within the genre there's The Godfather and then there's Goodfellas. That places it in pretty good company.
FINAL VERDICT: SEE IT!
My pick for the best film based on a true story is City of God. Our narrator is a character named Rocket, and the script weaves through several interconnected stories that take place in the 60's and 70's about Rocket and the kids he grew up with in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Every part of this story is gritty, realistic, and oftentimes shocking. As an audience member, you feel like you are in the middle of the action, just like all the characters. Performance-wise, everyone in the film is absolutely spectacular, and they are mostly all children. Absolute standouts are Douglas Silva who plays Li'l Dice, and Leandro Firmino who plays the grown up Li'l Dice, known as Li'l Ze. Director Fernando Meirelles does an unbelievable job at the helm of this. He has style, flair, and an extreme amount of storytelling ability. The visual style of this film is breathtaking and visceral. Long takes, split screens, strobe effects, playback speed effects, he uses them all to his advantage, creating a wonderful visual landscape that adds to the spectacular story that is City of God.
FINAL VERDICT: SEE IT!