Truth is stranger than fiction, as the old adage has it. But writers and directors have often had the idea to combine the best of both, namely by creating gripping drama – or even hilarious comedy – that is based on fact, even if it sometimes can deviate away from it. With the recent dramatisation of the Salisbury poisonings garnering rave reviews, here’s a guide to the best films based on real events. Whether it’s a serial-killer thriller, a downbeat tale of heroism against the odds or politically tinged tragicomedy, these films and series can’t fail to grip, thrill and surprise.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Netflix
The second instalment in what promises to be an ongoing series of crime dramas from super-producer Ryan Murphy is nothing less than a Nineties-set Talented Mr Ripley, anchored by an astonishing lead performance from Darren Criss as Gianni Versace’s assassin Andrew Cunanan. Although it starts off as a simultaneous exploration of the chaos left in the Versace dynasty by his death (with an excellent Ricky Martin as his bereft lover Antonio D’Amico and Penélope Cruz as Donatella) and Cunanan’s life before and after the killing, its focus soon shifts solely onto its anti-hero.
Thanks to a nuanced script by the British novelist and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, this is a fascinating exploration of sex, money and fame, which builds to an inevitable but still shocking climax.
A Very English Scandal, Amazon Prime
‘These are the greatest charges ever levelled against a Member of Parliament – and considering the House of Commons has had 270 years of bastards, liars, perverts, thieves, blackmailers, inbreds and arsonists, that really is quite an achievement.’ So Adrian Scarborough, as defence barrister extraordinaire George Carman, says to Hugh Grant’s squirming Jeremy Thorpe as the latter awaits trial on conspiracy to murder Ben Whishaw’s Norman Scott.
The Seventies-set saga of how Liberal leader Thorpe was disgraced and all but expelled from public life, despite being found not guilty at his trial, is interpreted by director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Russell T Davies as the blackest of black farces, with the running gag about Scott’s National Insurance card one of the most uproarious jokes in recent television. For all the jokes, there is desperate poignancy here as well, thanks to the extraordinary performances from Grant and Whishaw. Its exploration of homosexuality and hypocrisy in the earliest days of its legalisation eventually packs quite an emotional punch.
United 93, Amazon (rent or buy)
Director Paul Greengrass is best known for his Jason Bourne films, which feature large-scale action set-pieces and famous film stars. He changed pace entirely to make his picture about the 9-11 plane, United 93, that crashed before it hit its target, and the events both on board and on the ground. Eschewing the comforting thrills of his fiction, Greengrass draws on the realistic techniques of his documentary filmmaking background and a cast of largely unknown actors to give the horrific events that he depicts a truly heart-in-mouth quality.
There is no Hollywood gloss here, or happy ending, but an unparalleled recreation of real-life events. Never have the words ‘Let’s roll’ been imbued with such tragic meaning.
Films about motor racing ironically tend to be oddly pedestrian, on the grounds that endless scenes of expensive cars zooming round and round a track can become repetitive and dull. Full credit, then, to director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan that their film about the rivalry between British Formula One racing driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and his Austrian counterpart Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is not only utterly thrilling, but a sly examination of male pride and vanity in the most extreme of circumstances.
As it builds to their final race at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, after Lauda has suffered horrific burn injuries, the narrative is not only constantly surprising – especially if you’re unaware of the events of the race – but giddily exciting too, thanks to Howard’s unusually kinetic direction and a stirring Hans Zimmer score.
The Man With The Iron Heart/Anthropoid, Amazon (rent or buy)
Hollywood has a habit of telling the same story twice simultaneously, once well and once poorly. However, both of the recent films about the assassination of the Nazi supremo Reinhard Heydrich are very much worth seeing, despite their poor performance at the box office. The Man With The Iron Heart focuses mainly on Heydrich himself, and his grim rise to eminence, while Anthropoid is about the desperate attempt hatched by Czech partisans, with help from the British government, to assassinate Heydrich in 1942.
The events, and their grim aftermath, are depicted in unsparing detail, but both climax in the same fashion, with the desperate last stand of a small group of heavily armed men standing up to hundreds of Nazis bent on revenge for the attack on Heydrich. He was a man who even Hitler regarded as ruthless and uncompromising, and called him the ‘man with the iron heart’.
Quiz, ITV Player
This lively and often hilarious account of the so-called ‘coughing major’ scandal proved a highlight of 2020 for millions who were stuck at home under lockdown when it appeared on ITV. It has numerous similarities to A Very English Scandal, perhaps because both were directed by Stephen Frears; they climax with surprising courtroom finales and nimbly skip between comedy and high drama.
Here, the excellent script is by the playwright James Graham, who presents Charles and Diana Ingram in a considerably more sympathetic light than the press coverage at the time and since has done, and suggests that their conviction may have been a grave miscarriage of justice. Matthew MacFadyen and Fleabag’s Sian Clifford are excellent as the Ingrams, but the show is all but stolen by Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant. After a few moments, the chameleonic Sheen so disappears into the role that you’ll swear that you are watching Tarrant himself in 2001.