Sure, Hollywood is full of movies like Disaster Movie, Fred Claus, and whatever new rom-com Gerard Butler is in, but every now and then a movie comes out that tries to educate the audience about a social issue via a true story. While documentaries are usually the go-to medium to convey a little-engine-that-could story, sometimes a few big-name actors are needed to help spread the word. That’s why many have realized that to tell a true story about social issues to the public -- one that may not have gotten as much attention as it deserves -- a major motion picture might be the way to go.
The most recent film to do so is Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, a drama based on the 1863 autobiography of the same name that tells the story of a free black man (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into a slavery. It is a story that, unfortunately, not many people knew of before the film was made. But thanks to those who thought the story was worth telling, the public now has the opportunity to reassess the issue of slavery and witness a story of true importance.
If a film based on a true story is done well (such as 12 Years a Slave), and if it stays closer to non-fiction than fiction, at the end of it we are more well-informed than we were when we entered the theater, and really, who wouldn’t want to be smarter?
Here are some of our favorite movies that shed light on real-life stories of importance:
12 Years a SlaveThe subject of America’s history with slavery has long been at the core of numerous movies, yet this story seemed to slip through the cracks until now. McQueen’s film tells a powerful human story of tragedy as it follows a free black man named Solomon Northup who is sold into slavery. The film reminds us of the horrors of America’s past and lets us reflect upon the unbelievable cruelty of others. It also reminds us that not every story about slavery has been told yet.
ArgoWhile this adaptation of CIA operative Tony Mendez's book The Master of Disguise and Joshuah Bearman's Wired article "The Great Escape" took flack for transgressing from the facts of the rescue of six U.S. diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the movie did it’s job: It brought to light an untold story of American and Iranian hostility.
Hotel RwandaBased on real life events in Rwanda during the spring of 1994, the film follows Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) as he attempts to rescue his family and thousands of refugees from the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide. It brings to life the issues of genocide, the results of violence, and the political corruption that ran rampant at the time.
The Killing FieldsThis drama is based on the experiences of two journalists (Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg) during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The film successfully sheds light on a totalitarian regime and the mass murder of millions of Cambodians.
Fruitvale StationIn another recent real-life story portrayed through film, Fruitvale Station follows the 2009 shooting of an unarmed young black man named Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, and in the process tells a powerful story of police brutality.
Erin BrockovichWhile Erin Brockovich is definitely a little lighter in tone than the other five films, it nevertheless tells a dramatization of the true story of woman (played by Julia Roberts) who went up against a big corporation, PG&E, that was knowingly harming citizens with contaminated groundwater. Plus, Roberts won an Oscar for it.
Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.