The Historical Drama genre has long been a Hollywood favorite, and when the film is based on a true story, it is an extra bonus. I enjoy historical films covering a wide range of entertaining topics: NASA moon shots, financial hijinks on Wall Street, big game hunting in Africa, Cold War espionage, horse racing and politics of Medieval England. The films in this article are, for the most part, true to the times and characters portrayed. The filmmakers have done their homework and know the subject matter. The dialogue and characters are believable, and the situations, events and settings have been accurately re-created. Background information for the best films of this genre come from personal diaries, live interviews, and historical archives. This attention to detail adds credence to the plots, the action and the stories; the movie shines with artistry and style. Take care and avoid the dressed up soap operas infested with modern tastes and revisionist history. Sadly, that weak style is trendy in Hollywood, and is shamefully successful as Oscar-bait. Based on my limited research, the films listed below seem to be getting many of their facts right, and their heart is in the right place. All these movies are, to varying degrees, embellished for box office appeal, but that is to be expected. Tune in to the History Channel if you want to watch a documentary. The following twelve movie reviews are in order by release date, beginning with most recent.
Note: Military history and biography films are excluded from this list. Although those type movies are also considered historical dramas, they are addressed in separate articles.
1. Bridge of Spies 2015
Don't be fooled by the title. This is not a flashy James Bond type spy flick, but an intelligent film based on true events during the Cold War. It gets off to a very slow start, but give it a chance, especially those of you with an interest in history. The production design and acting is first class. But it is Mark Rylance – a little known TV actor- who delivers the most memorable performance as the captured Russian spy, Colonel Abel, and he really does bring some poignancy to his character; who, at the time, was considered the scum of the earth. Sometimes (not too often) the Academy gets it right, and his Oscar was one of their finest hours.
2. The Big Short 2015
Based on a true story from the book by Michael Lewis, this movie attempts to make sense and explain the massive financial meltdown of 2008 (aka the subprime loan crisis). The collapse of bad debt was foreseen by a few smart people who were for the most part ignored and even scorned by the mainstream financial world (real estate always goes up in value. Here drink some more purple tea). So the emotional core of the movie is an underdog saga about a few bold financial advisors who foresaw a perfect storm brewing in the financial world, and placed their well calculated bets to make a big fat profit. The movie is not without flaws; it follows too many story lines and gets muddled. Also the movie totally skips over the vast problem of Liar’s Loans at the root cause of the meltdown, so essentially sanitizes the destructive influence of the politicians and federal agencies that strongly promoted the subprime loan market in the first place
3. Argo 2012
If you are in the mood for a patriot film with CIA heroes, the DVD is probably available at your local library. This movie is overrated and has a few historical inaccuracies, but the suspense and interesting storyline will hold your attention. The 1979 Iran hostage crisis brings back some bad memories, and decades later the U.S. government is still sparring with the Islamic theocracy ruling Iran. In this flick the CIA is portrayed as very clever and competent, but in real life they never predicted or expected the total meltdown of the Shah’s government. So as Iran crumbled into chaos and violence, the US embassy plods along with a zombie momentum, shuffling paperwork as if the world is normal. We all know what happened next, but Argo is a new twist to the bitter hostage story that most of us never knew about.
4. Secretariat 2010
The film gives us an up close, behind-the-scenes look at high stakes horse racing, and does a great job of capturing the pageantry, fun and excitement of major American horse racing events. Seeing a reenactment of the legendary coin toss is worth the price of admission. Penny Chenery won the 1973 Triple Crown right then and there, and she was the only one in the room that knew it. The movie is wonderfully acted – Diane Lane as Penny Chenery and John Malkovich as trainer, Lucien Laurin, were outstanding (career best) and delivered Oscar worthy performances. The movie uses horse racing as a metaphor for life’s peaks and valleys: faith, traditions, winning, losing, sacrifice, and devotion. I cared about Penny; and in her struggles, I saw my own. Not to nitpick, but I was at the 1972 Kentucky Derby when Riva Ridge won the roses. He was a stallion from Meadow Stables (Chenery family owned) also, with same trainer and jockey as Secretariat in 1973. The movie skips over that history to make the Chenery–Secretariat team appear as more of an underdog story to play better for an American audience. That minor criticism aside, this is a hugely underrated film. The Academy snubbed this film and I do not understand why. It is an artistic, entertaining account of one of the most remarkable true stories in modern sports.
5. The Ghost and the Darkness 1996
Based on a true story about two killer lions (130 native victims in less than one year), this movie captures the tension and excitement of big game hunting. The film is well crafted: the hunting rifles are historically correct, and the scenery shots of vast African plains teeming with wildlife are lovely. Michael Douglas plays the macho great white hunter, and Val Kilmer plays mild mannered Colonel John Patterson, who in real life hunted the killer lions, and published a book about his experiences in Kenya, Africa, titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The scenes with the lions are so realistic and scary; I decided to cancel my lion hunt safari.
6. Apollo 13 1995
“Houston, we have a problem," Astronaut James Lovell famously said to the boys at Mission Control. It is a classic understatement that I like to use from time to time. Tom Hanks (Lovell) gives another great performance — instinctive and assured, as he commands a badly wounded spaceship hurtling toward the moon. Tom’s acting here ranks with his most impressive work to date; do not talk to me about Forrest Gump. And Bacon, Paxton, and Sinise are all superb as space cowboys. Though the safe return is historical fact, Director Ron Howard builds nail-biting tension as the camera jumps from ship to mission control, and we watch hard pressed men make one tough decision after another. The margin for error has approached zero. You are there – in Mission Control feeling the intensity, drama, and triumph of the human spirit. Based on true events during the moon shot glory days of NASA.
7. Black Robe 1991
Black Robe was the moniker for the Roman Catholic Jesuit priests who ventured into the untamed American wilderness to convert the wild tribes of the New World. It is a very rare film that makes you feel like you are actually witnessing history (circa 1650). The fake, sentimental Hollywood versions of American history (think Dances with Wolves) are childish by comparison to this film. Few movies try so hard not to satisfy an audience. It is void of romance or crowd pleasing scenes. Instead the realism is gripping and may disturb some gentle viewers. That probably explains the lack of interest in this movie by the mainstream movie fans. The film is crafted with great care, especially the cinematography with striking scenery of pristine North American woodlands and rivers. The film is based on the book (Black Robe) by Brian Moore. Mr. Moore researched the original, very detailed reports sent by Jesuit priests in French Canada to the church leaders in France.
8. JFK 1991
The murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas was a turning point in American history and sent shock waves across the entire nation. This movie attempts to answer some unanswerable questions and is, in effect, a who-done-it without telling you who-done-it. The star studded ensemble cast delivers a strong performance, especially Gary Oldman (who is a dead ringer for Lee Harvey Oswald). The film gets you in touch with your inner paranoia and advances the craziest idea in history - that a cabal of conspirators including: VP Lyndon Johnson, CIA and FBI agents, Dallas cops, Pentagon generals, hospital doctors, communist fanatics, Cuban right wingers, mobsters, a nightclub owner, topless dancers, and the press were able to successfully coordinate a complex scheme to unseat the American president. Having performed a perfect coup, they are able to cover up all the juicy secrets forever. WAIT A MINUTE. Did they all get together at Cowboy Stadium to cook this up? Flaws aside, this movie was made with skill and artistry, and is very entertaining. The story is easily one of the greatest mysteries of our time, and the film engaged my interest from beginning to end. Doesn’t matter whether you are a film lover, historian, pop culture fan, or a hard-core conspiracy believer; this is a must see film.
9. Right Stuff 1983
This film is an embarrassment of riches; astonishing aviation history, a 60’s postcard, a snapshot of Cold War tensions, at least four career best performances. What more do you want?
This film was based on the best-selling book (same name) by Tom Wolfe, about the true story of the early rocket pilot daredevils, in particular: Chuck Yeager, and the original seven Mercury Astronauts. The macho pilots make up one of the best male ensemble casts of all time, and the female cast of understanding wives adds the family dimension with poignancy and grace. In truth, the film has a couple weaknesses: the odd portrayal of the NASA (German) rocket scientists is stereotypical and not funny, and the film is overlong. I recommend fast forwarding thru the plodding, sadistic medical scenes, and then enjoy the rest of the movie. Flaws aside, this is one of the best films of the 1980s, and clearly should have won Oscar for Best Motion Picture. The film is an amazing history lesson, and you do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand and appreciate the spirit of adventure that is rock solid American. A prize DVD for the top shelf of the collection.
10. All the Presidents Men 1976
How could a bungled burglary at an unknown place named Watergate derail an American presidency? Watch this movie based on a true story to see how the impossible happened. We know now that it was the FBI's number two man, and J Edger Hoover loyalist, W Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) who feed Woodward and Bernstein critical inside information that led the trail to Nixon’s White House. Redford and Hoffman were at their best during the 1970's, and do a believable job of depicting news hounds Woodward and Bernstein, even if they do embrace the stereotype version. This is also an interesting time capsule of journalism circa 1970s; decades before desktop computers, lap tops, the internet, email, and cell phones. Although Woodward and Bernstein deserve credit for keeping the Watergate story alive, it was really the White House tapes that sealed Nixon’s fate. Without the tapes going public, he probably would have survived his second term. Must see flick for political junkies.
11. The Wind and the Lion 1975
Arab bandits swarm over the walls of a stately mansion in Tangier. A British gentleman calmly rises and pulls a .455 Mark I Webley pistol from his coat pocket. He drops three intruders before being killed. This griping action scene opens a movie that is loosely based on a true event in Morocco, circa 1904. The movie pretends to portray real history, but in fact takes a generous measure of artistic license. In real life, Ion Perdicaris, a wealthy Greek-American, was kidnapped by Raisuli, the last Barbary pirate, and held for ransom. Perdicaris was assumed to be an American, but in fact he had renounced American citizenship to become a Greek citizen. Teddy Roosevelt slyly hushes up the fact that Perdicaris is only a Greek carpetbagger, and uses the crisis to rally political support during the Republican convention. He dispatches the Atlantic Fleet to Tangier, and declares “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead”. TR’s popularity skyrockets. In this movie version, Perdicaris apparently had a sex change operation (Candace Bergen becomes the kidnap victim), and is 100% American. Needless to say, she swoons for Raisuli, played by Sean Connery. So here we have the typical romance subplot that is a pure Hollywood invention. The strength of the movie is the fine performances of the American trio - President Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith), Marine Captain Jerome (Steve Kanaly), and statesman John Jay (John Huston). Brian Keith delivers an altogether captivating career best effort as TR, in one of the cinema's great performances. He carries the film and makes the movie worth watching. The most interesting fact of this story is that the truth about Perdicaris remained unknown to the public until 1933. That no one gave away the secret for almost thirty years is the most astonishing detail about this tempest in a foreign teakettle.
12. Lion in Winter 1968
A magnificent medieval chess game with legendary actors at the top of their game. It is 1183 AD and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) struggles to decide which one of his three misfit sons to name as heir to the throne of England. To help seal the deal he even lets his Queen out of prison. The King gathers his family and lovely young mistress under the yuletide tree for some serious backstabbing and hateful arguments that end up in the castle dungeon with daggers drawn. An epic Christmas celebration. Kathrine Hepburn plays the smooth and cunning Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, in one of the greatest movie roles of all time. The great thing about this film is that you don't need to be an English History professor to follow the plot. The concise storytelling makes this film understandable, and keep in mind that the realm of King Henry II in 1183 AD consisted of England and a large part of northern France. By necessity King Henry divided his time in both parts of his far flung empire. That's why the gathering is in Normandy, France which was under English rule.