The tale told in the hostage drama “Argo” is so far-fetched — no one would believe all its twists and turns — and yet it really happened. It takes a lot of skill to make a suspenseful thriller when the audiences knows how the film will end but, by all accounts, Ben Affleck has pulled it off.
Here are a few other topnotch true-story films that were based on actual events and manage to ratchet up the tension even though we know what happened to the real people. We’ve left off movies that heavily fictionalized real events (like “Titanic”) or were merely “inspired by” or “loosely based” on true stories (like “The Hurt Locker”).
Take a look at 10 of the tensest real-life adaptations below. Warning: SPOILERS.
Adrien Brody deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of real-life war survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. The pianist clearly survived since the film is based on his memoir, but even while he escaped the horrors of the camps, he comes close to death many times. One of the most nerve-wracking scenes is where he’s discovered by a Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann), who demands he play the piano. He plays, not knowing whether his enemy will turn him in or show him mercy.
Despite the leisurely pace of the true story of Big Tobacco whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand, there are incredibly tense moments, including when Wigand (Russell Crowe) realizes he’s been tailed to a golf course. But most gripping is the one in which “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) calls a withdrawn Wigand and we realize he’s on the verge of killing himself. It’s a master class of nonverbal acting from the Oscar-nominated Crowe.
From the first moment, you brace for the terrible plane crash but it’s the slow, torturous aftermath as the survivors fight off cold, gangrene, and starvation — and each other — that makes this tough to watch. That they end up eating their dead friends to survive makes it even tougher, but that’s not the focus of the film. If it weren’t based on actual events, you’d be skeptical of the added complications, like an avalanche that claims even more lives. But that it’s true makes it (pardon the awful pun), utterly chilling.
The final, haunting moment of the film, in which would-be nuclear safety whistle blower Karen Silkwood (played by the always amazing Meryl Streep) is run off the road, is also the image on the poster, so her fate is hardly a surprise. But even though you know the that film ends with her death, the anxiety mounts along with the growing conspiracy against her as she finds herself alone in her battle for the truth.
You go into this movie knowing that the Big Scene is coming up: the one in which trapped hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco) is forced to cut off his own arm to free himself. It’s a testament to director Danny Boyle and Franco (who was nominated for Best Actor) that the movie isn’t <i>just</i> about that scene, but ends up — in the best tradition of true-story films — as a tribute to the surprising depths of the will to live.
‘All the President’s Men’
Made while the Watergate scandal was still shockingly fresh, this political thriller of how two reporters helped bring down the president was a huge influence on Steven Soderbergh, who used it as a model for his own true story, “Erin Brockovich.” As he <a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/16/movies/watching-movies-with-steven-soderbergh-follow-muse-inspiration-balance-lofty.html?pagewanted=2&src=pm”>told the New York Times in 2001</a>, “I guess what impressed me most about ‘All the President’s Men,’ is that there is really no reason why this movie should work. It’s a story that everyone knew… And yet it works so completely.”
No matter how many times you’ve seen Tom Hanks say, “Houston, we have a problem,” you can’t help but get caught up in the drama of whether the three astronauts trapped on a crippled space ship will get home safely. The odds are against them and endless crises arise: one of the worst when they realize they’re running out of oxygen. Credit director Ron Howard with making a movie that has you biting your nails all the way to that hard-earned feel-good ending.
‘Escape From Alcatraz’
Jailbreak films are suspense gold and this account of the legendary real-life 1962 breakout from the seemingly inescapable Alcatraz makes for one of Clint Eastwood’s finest films. The escape takes up only the last half hour of the film, but everything builds to the night he and three other men put their plan in motion. Variety <a href=”http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117790728?refcatid=31″>raved and said</a> the movie is “relentless in establishing a mood and pace of unrelieved tension.”
Playing out in real time with a cast of unknowns, the story of how United Flight 93 was hijacked on 9/11 and how its passengers fought back is almost too painful to watch. Large portions of the film are speculative, since we don’t know exactly what happened in those frantic final moments, but writer/director Paul Greengrass avoids sensationalizing the tragedy. We can’t help but weep — and wish those passengers had lived — as the devastating end we know all too well unfolds.
The real-life story of mobster Henry Hill (memorably embodied by an increasingly twitchy Ray Liotta) might be Martin Scorsese’s best. The scenes where a paranoid Hill suspects he’s being followed by a helicopter, all while planning his next drug run and slaving over his trademark spaghetti sauce, are a masterpiece of editing, making the viewer almost as nervous and keyed-up as the coked-up Hill. Not to mention all the friends and colleagues who are whacked along the way.