Real life stories normally make for compelling movies, but what if the real story is almost too outrageous to be true? They say art imitates life, but both life and art can sometimes be pretty crazy. Many films take the story and mold it into fiction, while documentaries portray the real-life events as they happened, all the while embracing the truth. The plots in some films can be jaw-dropping and unbelievable, but in these cases, it all really happened, including a honest to goodness ghost story.
9. Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale conned millions of dollars from people while taking on eight different identities, all before his 21st birthday. In the Steven Spielberg-helmed comedy-thriller, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Abagnale against Tom Hanks, who portrays a FBI agent trying to track Abagnale down and squash his scams. Frank served some time in prison but pointed out to the FBI how some of the stolen checks were actually fake. After his real life thrills ended, Abagnale went on to work as a consultant for the FBI and ran his own financial consultant company.
8. Open Water
What really happened to American couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan remains a mystery, even years after their disappearance. The married couple was scuba diving with a group of people on the Great Barrier Reef, when the dive boat accidentally drove off and abandoned them, leaving them to fight for their lives in the deep sea. The entire film takes place in the ocean and employs real sharks. In real life, the couple was never found and no one really knows what exactly occurred, but according to the film, sharks might have been involved. The movie, which was made for a mere $130,000, was a hit and grossed $55 million worldwide.
Sometimes movies can influence real-life outcomes, which is what happened to Bernie Tiede. Jack Black portrays Bernie, a nice man who lives in Carthage, Texas, who befriends octogenarian Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). He eventually convinces her to leave him $10 million in her will, so he murders her. Even though he’s guilty, many of the townspeople rally in support of him, while others want nothing but the worse for him. As in the movie and real life, Bernie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But in a recent twist of fate, Tiede was released from prison on the condition he move in with the film’s director, Richard Linklater.
6. 127 Hours
Literally trapped between a rock and a hard place, hiker Aron Ralston found himself in a life or death scenario when he fell through a passage in Canyonlands National Park. To make matters worse, a boulder tumbles down, smashes his arm and traps it against the rocky wall. After five days of trying to survive, he finally gets up the nerve and is able to sever his arm, using a blade on his pocket tool set. (This gruesome scene is what most people remember about the movie.) In the film version, James Franco plays Ralston and was nominated for an Oscar for his brave performance.
5. Operation Dumbo Drop
During the Vietnam War, U.S. Army Major, Jim Morris had to transport an elephant to a South Vietnamese village. Danny Glover and Ray Liotta portray the military men who triumph a lot of obstacles to deliver the elephant safety, including having the pachyderm parachute from a plane. In real life, elephants were used to calm Vietnamese villagers looking for sources of farm labor. The animals also helped the Americans to monitor enemy activity.
4. The Terminal
Yet another Tom Hanks / Steven Spielberg collaboration, this one was also based on a true story. In the movie, Hanks plays Viktor Navorski from fictional country, Krakozhia. When he arrives at JFK Airport in NYC, he’s denied entry to the U.S. because a war just broke out in his country. He’s no longer recognized as a citizen, thus, cannot enter the U.S. nor go back home. For nine months he has to live in the airport, but he’s eventually granted access to New York. In real life, things didn’t end up so well for the protagonist. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who had been living in Paris, tried to go to London in 1986, but because his papers were lost, he was sent back to France and was forced to live in Terminal 1 at the Charles de Gaulle Airport for 17 years, as he didn’t have a country of origin. In 2006 he was released from the airport and moved into a shelter in Paris.
3. The Imposter
This astounding and fascinating 2012 documentary focuses on Frédéric Bourdin, a man who impersonates other people, including a 16-year-old child (Bourdin was 23 at the time). The film chronicles how Frenchman Bourdin wanted love so bad, he’d pretend he was a missing person. Bourdin was so good at impersonations and morphing into a chameleon, he convinced a Texas family whose son went missing three years prior, that he was indeed their kid, even though Bourdin looked nothing like him. In interviews with the real Bourdin, he confesses how and why he did what he did, and how even after he was caught, he continued to take on fake identities.
2. The Conjuring
What seems like a frightening horror film was actually based on a demonic haunting an East Coast family experienced in 1971. In the film, a family moves into a farmhouse and weird things start occurring: the family dog dies, spirits attack them and bruises appear on the kids for no reason. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson portray real-life paranormal investigators who discover, in the 1800s, a witch cursed the house and the land it resides on. The Warrens went on to find their own occult museum containing once-possessed objects like the real doll used in the movie, Annabelle. The Warrens were infamously involved in another real-life house haunting event, The Amityville Horror case, which was spun into a book and several films.
The Academy Award-winning movie is based on how CIA operative, Tony Mendez portrayed a Hollywood producer in order to help American hostages in Iran return to the U.S. in the ‘70s. During the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took 50 people hostage, but six Americans escaped and found asylum at the home of a Canadian ambassador. Pretending he and the hostages were a film crew, Mendez infiltrated the home and managed to get the six Americans back home safely. Because it is a Hollywood film, Argo did take several dramatic liberties and embellished or underplayed some of the real-life events.