There’s nothing Hollywood producers love more than a scandal. Give them a big, juicy story that they can stamp a “truth is stranger than fiction” tagline on, and they’ll be turning out a movie before the ink on the newspaper headlines are dry. Luckily, the resulting “based on a true story” films are often excellent, here are some great examples of the genre.
10. Eight Men Out
There are few things considered to be more “American” than baseball, which is why a major cheating scandal that rocked the sport in 1919 could be the subject of a hit movie nearly 70 years later.
Eight Men Out tells the true story of eight members of the Chicago White Sox who were accused of conspiring to intentionally throw the 1919 World Series. The players were tried and found not guilty in 1921, but were still permanently banned from professional baseball, and many spent the rest of their lives professing their innocence including the legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
The film features a stellar ensemble cast with standout performances by John Cusack and David Strathairn as accused players Buck Weaver and Eddie Cicotte.
Director John Sayles successfully shows all sides of this controversy by highlighting the various ways the players were mistreated by their club owner and the desperation that may have led them to agree to throw the game. This scandal has loomed large in the mind of sports fans for decades, which is why it inspired not only this film, but the 1989 classic Field of Dreams as well.
The most recent film on this list, Denial details the libel lawsuit filed against historian Deborah E. Lipstadt by controversial British figure David Irving. Irving was suing Lipstadt for labeling him as a Holocaust denier in her book, despite the fact that he had regularly made claims that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. Rather than settle the case, Lipstadt bravely decided to take Irving on in court to expose his offensive lies for what they were.
The always reliable Rachel Weisz gives a strong performance as Lipstadt, but it is the criminally underrated Timothy Spall who steals the spotlight as the smarmy, manipulative Irving. This is a great film for anyone who is passionate about both history and courtroom dramas, or anyone who wants to see a real-life villain get taken down in spectacular fashion.
8. Shattered Glass
In 1998, Stephen Glass was journalism’s “it” boy. Only in his 20’s, Glass was a staff writer for The New Republic, one of the most respected news magazines in the country, and people couldn’t get enough of his engaging, funny and insightful stories on everything from politics to computer hacking. There was only one problem – almost all of his articles were entirely fabricated.
Shattered Glass tells the story of Stephen’s downfall and features arguably the only critically-acclaimed performance in Hayden Christensen’s entire career. Christensen does an amazing job portraying Glass as a loveable manipulator who had the entire newsroom wrapped around his finger.
This entire film is worth the watch for the moment when Glass’s lies are finally exposed and Christensen looks at his editor, played skillfully by Peter Sarsgaard, with sad puppy dog eyes and asks “are you mad at me?” It’s a chilling moment where you realize that he either doesn’t understand the depth of what he’s done and how he’s damaged the reputation of the magazine and his friends and fellow writers who believed in him, or he simply doesn’t care.
7. The Queen
While some may argue that The Queen is more of a biopic than a scandal film, it’s important to note that the movie doesn’t profile the life of Queen Elizabeth II, but rather focuses on how she handled one of the largest scandals in the history of the modern monarchy. The death of Princess Diana shook England to its very core, and brought out all the frustrations the British people felt about the royal family’s cold public persona.
This film brings a different perspective to this story by showing Queen Elizabeth wrestling with the complexity of mourning a woman who was both the mother of her grandchildren, and a person who had spent the last few years publicly criticising everything she had spent her life building and protecting.
It’s a complex and compelling story that had yet to be told from this unique point of view. Helen Mirren plays the title role with an impressive mix of compassion and stoicism which earned her a much-deserved Oscar. It’s also worth noting that the film features one of the three times Michael Sheen has played former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
6. Erin Brockovich
It was only a matter of time before Julia Roberts was finally handed an Oscar-worthy script, and she hit the jackpot with Erin Brockovich. Take an already compelling true story about a single mother battling against a corporation that knowingly released cancer-causing chemicals into a small town’s water supply, and pair it with a script filled with more ass-kicking monologues than a Steven Segal movie, and you really can’t lose.
While it’s possible to argue that the movie relies a little too heavily on its righteous speeches, Roberts delivers them with such gusto you find yourself getting sucked in either way. Try watching the scene where she expertly schools a room of cold, high-powered lawyers with her personal knowledge of each of the hundreds of plaintiffs in the lawsuit without getting the urge to stand up and cheer.
While Roberts definitely gets most of the credit for the success of Erin Brockovich, the often overlooked Aaron Eckhart also does an excellent job as her dutiful, motorcycle-riding boyfriend. The real Brockovich also makes a short appearance as a diner waitress early in the film in a moving scene where Roberts encourages her kids to order food even though she clearly can’t afford any for herself.