The 10 Best Movies Based on Real-Life Scandals

5. The Big Short

The financial crisis brought on by the U.S. housing bubble took millions of people by surprise – except for a group of financial investors and hedge fund managers who saw that the crash was coming and worked out a way to make billions off of it.

The Big Short tells the stories of these investors while simultaneously finding an entertaining way to weave in explanatory cut-aways that fully explain how this crisis came to be. The movie is based off of a novel by Michael Lewis, who also wrote the books that inspired the successful sports films Moneyball and The Blind Side.

It’s one of a series of great films that deal with this crash, including HBO’s Too Big to Fail and 2011’s Margin Call. While all three films do an excellent job of shining a light on how we got to this point, The Big Short was the most successful, earning 5 Oscar nominations and near-universal critical acclaim.

This film is very much an ensemble effort, with the majority of the male-dominant cast getting fairly equal screen time. While Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt deliver solid performances, most of the praise can be given to Christian Bale and Steve Carell, both of whom skillfully adopted the very unique personalities of their real-life characters. Bale in particular shines as hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who is known for this muted affect and sometimes strange tics, which Bale mimics perfectly.


4. Quiz Show

Ralph Fiennes - “Quiz Show”

In 1958, a handsome, charismatic college professor named Charles Van Doren was on a massive winning streak on the NBC game show Twenty-One. He became a national sensation, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars before finally losing and passing the crown to a new champion.

No one had a hard time believing that a Columbia University professor could answer all those questions, except for the members of the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight who eventually uncovered that he had been given all the questions – and often the answers – in advance.

A cheating scandal on a 1950’s game show may not sound particularly thrilling, but what makes 1994’s Quiz Show so fascinating isn’t the cheating itself, but the way it portrayed how the characters use and manipulate each other while perpetuating the lie. Ralph Fiennes plays Van Doren with such earnestness that you can almost believe he truly didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, and Hank Azaria and David Paymer are excellent as manipulative NBC executives who sweet-talk him into thinking he’s doing what’s best for himself, the network and the TV-watchers at home.

While all the performances are strong, the real show-stealer here is John Turturro as former Twenty-One Herb Stempel, who expertly tows the line between witty and unhinged as he fights to expose the cheating.


3. Spotlight


There’s been so much said about the horrific child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that seems hard to believe how close it came to never being exposed. Spotlight tells the story of how writers for the Spotlight section of The Boston Globe uncovered a massive conspiracy in the Boston diocese to cover up abuse committed by priests, and how hard they had to fight to get victims stories heard.

There are many great performances in this film – particularly from Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci – but what stands out the most is the delicate and effective way director Thomas McCarthy portrays the now-adult victims. McCarthy used real interviews taken by the Spotlight team in the early 2000’s to craft the scenes with molestation victims, and they manage to be stark and moving without the use of emotionally manipulative language or camera angles. It’s a film that tackles a difficult subject with a great deal of grace.


2. Serpico


Frank Serpico was a New York City cop in the 1960’s and 70’s who was ostracized by his fellow officers after speaking out against police corruption. In 1971, he was shot in the cheek by a suspect and the other officers who were there at the scene left him to die. Just two years later, Sidney Lument released Serpico, considered to be one of the greatest films of all time and a major turning point in Al Pacino’s career.

This film treats its title character and his story with the respect he deserves, without turning him into an unrelatable saint. Serpico was a complicated man, and the movie does not shy away from that, which adds to its sense of realism. It’s a film that remains relevant today as we continue to debate the topic of police corruption, something the real Serpico has continued to dedicate his life to exposing.


1. All the President’s Men


Considered by many to be the definitive scandal film, this 1976 classic details the greatest political scandal of all time and the journalists who exposed it.

In 1972, a group of men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two Washington Post reporters, were sent to cover this simple breaking and entering story, but what they discovered was a massive conspiracy to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates that would eventually lead to the resignation of then-president Richard Nixon.

Along with Spotlight, All the President’s Men shows the power of well-researched journalism and what happens when reports refuse to take “no comment” for an answer. Also, much like Serpico, it’s a 70’s film that still has a great deal of relevance today, as public criticism and mistrust of government reaches near all-time highs.