When a movie is based on a true story—heck, even if it’s just “inspired by” one—nine times out of ten it’s going to be a drama. And if it isn’t a conventional drama it’s probably a war movie which, when you think about it, is really just a bloodier drama. As creative decisions go, that’s entirely justified: a lot of these true stories have their share of sadder moments, and a writer and/or director doesn’t want to risk making light of those events. But one out of those ten times, the filmmaker goes in a different direction and recontextualizes the tale in the form of comedy, science fiction, or something completely different. Today, we salute these exceptions.
6 Secret Honor – Monologue (1980)
Richard Nixon, everybody’s favourite presidential villain, has been depicted on screen a dozen times over, with Anthony Hopkins, Frank Langella and Dan Hedaya constituting a mere fraction of his portrayers (surprisingly, Walter Matthau was never one of them). But most people don’t know that Philip Baker Hall, a character actor with a lengthy filmography to his name who has appeared in The Insider and Zodiac, was one of the first to play the jowly president.
Granted, Secret Honor isn’t the kind of docudrama or biopic normally shown at a major theatre chain, but a lengthy monologue based on the one-person play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone. Hall, as Nixon, is the sole cast member, alone in the president’s private office with a microphone, Scotch and a gun. Laced with profanity and edited in an increasingly erratic fashion, the film serves less as a conventional biography and more like an informal psychological profile. And like any good depiction of Tricky Dick, it climaxes with a string of growled—nay, roared—f-bombs.
5 The Untouchables – Gangster Flick (1987)
True stories about the mafia and organized crime are no stranger to the docudrama category, but Brian De Palma’s 1987 thriller The Untouchables is perhaps the only such movie to embrace the style of older gangster films. Tonally and stylistically similar to The Public Enemy and or even the original Scarface—though with De Palma’s trademark stylistic embellishments—The Untouchables sought less to craft an accurate depiction of Prohibition-era organized crime and focused instead of making a snazzy, indisputably badass thriller.
De Palma’s film focuses on the trials and tribulations of a small band of Bureau of Prohibition agents and police officers in taking down notorious crime kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Led by Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and enforced by cops Jim Malone (Sean Connery) and George Stone (Andy Garcia), the “Untouchables,” named so for their incorruptibility, raid illegal breweries and mob holdouts, and come into conflict not only with Capone but also his violent right-hand man Frank Nitti (played by Billy Drago in one of the least-accurate portrayals of a historical figure known to man). It was a box office hit, and De Palma’s stylistic choices and direction netted no small amount of praise from the critical community.
4 The Sacrament – Horror (2013)
The Sacrament is the latest feature film by independent horror director Ti West, who also helmed the exceptionally accurate Satanist-scare homage The House of the Devil and haunted hotel movie The Innkeepers. Though set in modern day, and featuring a trio of fictional Vice journalists as its lead characters, it’s actually heavily based on the tragic Jonestown massacre of 1978, when Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones convinced over 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide at their agricultural commune in Guyana.
Despite its displacement in time, The Sacrament portrays certain details of the true story with eerie accuracy. These include the drug habits of the cult’s leader, Father (Jim Jones was addicted to opiates), his sexual relations with his closest followers (Jones effectively had a harem), and the cult’s violence against those who would threaten to expose some of its abuses (Jones had armed members of the Peoples Temple shoot an inquest sent to assess the situation, killing Congressman Leo Ryan in the process). West also embraced the horror of the tragedy, shooting the film in the style of a “found footage” documentary, like a less supernatural version of The Blair Witch Project. In spite of its reframed genre, The Sacrament remains one of the most accurate depictions of the Jonestown massacre to date.
3 Naked Lunch – Druggie Espionage Thriller (1991)
The story behind David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is as convoluted as the movie itself. It’s not overtly based on a true story per se, in fact owing its title and general concept to Beat author William S. Burroughs’ 1959 novel of the same name. While the book certainly did draw on aspects of Burroughs’ own life, namely his travels and drug experimentation, it was effectively impossible to adapt directly given its loopy narrative. So the Canadian director decided to make the movie about the creation of the book itself, albeit in the trippiest way possible.
Naked Lunch’s main character is exterminator/would-be writer Bill Lee, a fictionalized take on Burroughs. After accidentally shooting his wife during a William Tell gun dare—much like Burroughs’ actual shooting of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer—Lee flees to the fictional North African nation of Interzone, where he drafts reports of his drug-fuelled espionage with the use of an intelligent and disturbingly biological typewriter. Secondary characters include Lee’s fellow writers Hank and Martin, thinly veiled portrayals Burroughs’ friends and contemporaries Jack Kerouac (of On the Road fame) and Allen Ginsberg. Released over two decades ago, it remains the strangest film in Cronenberg’s career—which is certainly saying something.
2 I’m Not There – Experimental (2007)
Todd Haynes’ 2007 feature I’m Not There was a biopic unlike any other. Rather than tell the story of folk music icon Bob Dylan in a more conventional fashion, in the vein of a Walk the Line, say, he took a more abstract approach. Dylan is portrayed by six different actors—Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw—in their own vignettes, each representing a different era and influence in the singer-songwriter’s life.
In one vignette, Franklin plays Woody, a young black boy named for Dylan’s interest in Woody Guthrie. Bale’s character Jacks Rollins becomes a Christian pastor in his later years, echoing Dylan’s own conversion. Most famously, Cate Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, a genderbent interpretation of mid-’60s “electric” Dylan. Though unconventional as far as biopics go, I’m Not There was generally praised, particularly Blanchett’s performance, though it was regarded as a fringe rather than mainstream work.
1 The Informant! – Comedy (2011)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, who regularly shifts genres and styles from movie to movie, The Informant! is based on the non-fiction book by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It tells the true-to-life story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an executive at a major food company in the 1990s who turns to the FBI in order to blow the whistle on the corporation’s price-fixing schemes. The surprising twist—and this happened in real life so it isn’t a spoiler—is that the seemingly innocent Whitacre had been, however naively, accepting regular kickbacks all along, netting him an even longer prison sentence than his corrupt colleagues.
Rather than telling the story straight, like the somewhat similar based-on-a-true-story whistleblower film The Insider, Soderbergh embraced the absurdity of Whitacre’s case, including his showboating, his occasional incompetence, and lengthy, nonsensical inner monologues. Even the posters took a humorous bent, portraying Damon’s wide-eyed glee as Whitacre. The Informant! isn’t comedic beat for beat, however, with a few more solemn moments near the end touching on the bipolar disorder that allegedly fueled many of Whitacre’s antics and deceptions. Nevertheless, it’s still funnier than the average docudrama.
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