“Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through these links.”
There’s something powerful about watching a movie based on a true story. For one thing, these movies prove that reality can be more mind-boggling, serendipitous, inspiring, or infuriating than anything you can think up in your head. And for another, the only thing that makes a wild plot point or character even more unbelievable (but yet also believable?) is knowing you could actually meet them in your everyday life. I mean, it would be kinda cool to cross paths with the real-life version of Jennifer Lopez‘s Hustlers character, right? Or… you could just *think* about how cool it would be to encounter these very real people, or live these very real lives, from the comfort of your couch. That works, too!
Some stories get even better once you know they’re true. Take the family classic, The Sound of Music, for example. Knowing that there really was a young nun-in-training, turned governess, and then stepmother of seven talented children, frolicking about the Austrian hills in singsong before touring the world only enhances the story, right?
Grab your popcorn, because from films that teach you about poignant parts of royal history like Spencer, to ones that make you feel warm fuzzies spread from your head to your toes like The Tender Bar, to blockbusters like Elvis, movies based on real events can tell stories of the most wicked of our kind to the incredibly exceptional. Just be prepared to laugh, cry, and sometimes scream because you know what they say—the truth is stranger than fiction.
Ready to get real? Check out these 79 best movies based on true stories:
On Oct. 5, 2017, New York Times journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor published an exposé about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, revealing three decades of sexual abuse allegations. Those allegations served as a catalyst for the #MeToo movement, and led to Weinstein being convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. She Said is an adaptation of the 2019 book of the same title, which details the investigative work of Twohey and Kantor and the behind-the-scenes processes they used to break the Weinstein story.
Directed by Sally El-Hosaini, this biographical film tells the true story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, two Syrian swimmers who are training to compete at the Olympics. When their safety is threatened by the country’s civil war, the Mardini sisters decide to embark on a difficult journey across land and sea in hopes of reaching Germany to fulfill their athletic dreams and reunite with their family. The Swimmers is a powerful portrait of their story and the global refugee crisis.
The Good Nurse
Jessica Chastain stars as Amy Loughren, a single mother and nurse who suspects that her close friend and colleague Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) is responsible for the mysterious deaths of numerous ICU patients. This movie is based on the 2013 book The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber, which chronicles the crimes of Cullen, a real-life convicted serial killer who murdered dozens of patients throughout the Northeast region during his 16-year nursing career.
The Woman King
The Woman King follows the Agojie, a real all-female warrior group that played an instrumental role in protecting the West African kingdom of Dahomey (located in present-day Benin) during the 17th to 19th centuries. Set in the 1820s, this historical drama stars EGOT winner Viola Davis, who was praised by critics for her performance as General Nanisca, an Agojie leader responsible for training the next generation of women soldiers and preparing them for battle against a neighboring enemy.
Spoiler Alert tells the tragic love story of author Michael Ausiello (played by Jim Parsons) and his partner Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge), who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Based on Ausiello’s bestselling 2017 memoir of the same name, this film shows their 14-year-long relationship leading up to Cowan’s death. Make sure to have tissues on hand for this touching tearjerker.
Starring Tom Hanks and Austin Butler (who won a Golden Globe for his lead performance as the rock-and-roll singer), this biopic chronicles Elvis Presley’s rise to stardom from the perspective of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The film spans the course of 20 years, exploring the many triumphs, challenges, and controversies of Presley’s life and music career, and the relationships he had with Parker and his wife Priscilla.
This gripping survival film retells the famous 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue mission, in which a group of British divers and Thai Navy SEALs work together to save 12 young soccer players and their coach after a sudden rainstorm traps the team in a flooded underground cave system for 18 days.
Set in the 1920s during British rule in India, RRR alters history to imagine what it would’ve been like if real-life freedom fighters Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju had met and become friends. Following its release in theaters, this Telugu-language film quickly became a worldwide sensation, earning universal acclaim and numerous accolades, including Best Foreign Film at the Critics Choice Awards and Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu” at the Golden Globe Awards.
This Disney sports film follows the true story of Nigerian-Greek brothers Giannis, Kostas, and Thanasis Antetokounmpo—the first-ever trio of siblings to win an NBA championship in the league’s history. Rise explores their early lives growing up as immigrants in Athens, and their ascent to fame and success in the United States as top NBA players.
Set in 1943 during World War II, British intelligence officers Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley devise a military plan—code-named “Operation Mincemeat”—that aims to trick Nazi Germany into believing that the Allied countries will invade Greece. This historical drama takes its title from the real-life deceptive strategy that successfully disguised the Allied invasion of Sicily and changed the course of the war.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
William Kamkwamba is kicked out of school when his family is unable to afford his tuition fees. Wanting to continue his education, he visits the school’s library, where he discovers his love for electronics and physics. When a drought devastates his village, he decides to build a windmill that can generate enough energy to save his town from famine. This movie is inspired by the true story of Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba, who co-authored a New York Times-bestselling memoir of the same name.
Rated 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, the biographical dark comedy I, Tonya tells the story of figure skater Tonya Harding and her ties to the 1994 assault on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie earned a Best Actress nomination at the 90th Academy Awards for portraying Harding alongside Allison Janey and Sebastian Stan.
Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for their parts in this biographical drama based on the true story of Ron Woodroof. Woodroof, played by Matthew, was an AIDS patient diagnosed in the mid-1980s and given a short life sentence. As part of an experiment, he set up a smuggling system to bring unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas to treat himself, and soon, the Dallas Buyers Club.
Gary Oldman takes on the role of historical giant Winston Churchill alongside Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James in this 2017 Oscar winner. With the fate of Western Europe hanging in the balance in the early days of World War II, Churchill must change history forever with his courage and leadership, as he fights against incredible odds.
A historical fiction film directed by Pablo Larrain, Spencer is based on the story of Princess Diana’s existential crisis during her separation and impending divorce from Prince Charles, as well as her desperation to leave the British royal family. Kristen Stewart portrays the late Princess beautifully, alongside a stellar cast of Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, and Sean Harris.
A true story that inspired the world, King Richard shows the early talent of two young girls, Venus and Serena Williams, and their father’s unyielding commitment to help them not only become professional tennis players, but the best in the world. Prepared to be inspired (and maybe even grab a racket) by this heartwarming and uplifting journey of a family full of unconditional love and determination.
The Tender Bar
Directed by George Clooney from a screenplay by William Monahan, The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age dramedy based on the 2005 memoir of the same name by J. R. Moehringer tells the story of his life growing up on Long Island. With Tye Sheridan as the titular character alongside Ben Affleck, this heartwarming story shows a young boy seek out a father figure and bond with his uncle Charlie (Affleck) and the patrons at his local bar.
The Sound Of Music
Yes, there was a real life Maria von Trapp. She published a book about her own family—The Story of the Trapp Family Singers back in 1949, 16 years before the five-time Academy Award winner was released. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer lead the cast that play the charming and gorgeous von Trapp family who are reminded of love and music when a young Austrian postulant nun steps into the family home of a strict widowed Naval officer.
Based on the story of the Romanov royal family and the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, this 1997 animated musical historical film follows teenage Anastasia ‘Anya’ Romanov who, after experiencing amnesia, tries to track down her family history with the help of two charming con men. Although nobody knows for sure what happened to the Russian princess, critics have praised the animation and its beautiful soundtrack, which have since gone on to inspire various other adaptations, including a Broadway musical.
Judas And The Black Messiah
Earning six Oscar nominations, Judas and the Black Messiah became a critically-acclaimed classic as soon as it hit the film scene in early 2021. Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who is turned in by an FBI informant.
Nomadland absolutely swept the 2021 Oscars and, honestly, it deserved it. (Side note: Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand deserve the world.) Based on the eponymous nonfiction book about people who left their homes for a life on the road after the 2008 recession, Nomadland is an eye-opening and reflective story about what it means to be alive and why “home” isn’t a place.
Based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters is about the fight for public health in a small town in West Virginia. Residents of the town notice a series of strange animal deaths and tie them to the chemical manufacturing corporation, Dupont. Robert Bilott, a corporate defense lawyer from Cincinnati, comes to the community to fight for the people.
The Two Popes
Yes, big surprise, this is about two popes, but specifically the period of time when the conservative Pope Benedict XVI met with the future liberal Pope Francis. Starring two-time Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins and two-time Tony Award winner Jonathan Pryce, the Netflix film shows the religious leaders challenging each other’s views behind Vatican walls.
Saving Mr. Banks
If you’ve ever wanted to know the story behind Mary Poppins, this movie is for you. Walt Disney tried many times to ask P.L. Travers, the author of the book behind the classic film, for the rights so he could make it into a movie. Eventually, she gave in, but that doesn’t mean she left it all up to the Disney folks. Travers was very involved in creating the on-screen Mary Poppins families still know and love today.
The Farewell is (as you can see on the poster) “based on an actual lie.”Awkwafina stars as Billi, the granddaughter of a woman, Nai-Nai, whose family knows she only has weeks to live due to cancer. They try to protect Nai-Nai from the extent of her illness by not telling her about it. In a last effort to spend time with Nai-Nai and ensure her happiness, the whole family gets together for an impromptu wedding celebration.
World War II American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield (a personal favorite of mine), refused to carry or fire a gun as a seventh-day Adventist Christian. But, during the Battle of Okinawa, he showed just how much he could do by focusing on saving lives rather than taking them. He is the first American to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Based on an August Wilson play as well as real life events, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom focuses on the power dynamic between the white record label owners and Black musicians, most notably “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), over the course of a recording session in 1920s Chicago. The late Chadwick Boseman stars alongside Viola as Levee Green, a member of Ma Rainey’s band who dreams of striking out on his own.
The King’s Speech
King George VI, played by Colin Firth, has to overcome a stutter before becoming king. He works with an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who ends up turning into a friend and mentor during this very important time. It’s a lovely—and Academy Award-winning—movie about overcoming personal obstacles.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
Andra Day stars as Billie Holiday, the brilliant jazz musician adored by fans. In the 1940s, the Federal Department of Narcotics targeted the singer with an undercover sting operation, aiming to silence her.
Hustlers is inspired by a New York Magazine article about a group of New York City strippers who steal from the rich and take for themselves. Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Lizzo, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart, this is one movie you don’t want to miss.
Taking place thirty years after Judy Garland’s breakout role in The Wizard of Oz, this award-winning film chronicles the actress and singer’s performances at multiple sold-out shows in London. Starring Renée Zellweger, whose performance as Judy won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, the film explores all the elements in Judy’s young life that impacted her development into adulthood and, ultimately, led to her sudden death.
Led by Cynthia Erivo, Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, and the hundreds of enslaved people the abolitionist led to freedom.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
Based on a 1998 Esquire article, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood tells the story of a skeptical, investigative journalist assigned to interview Fred Rogers who learns that people in life really can be that good.
Blues music, rock and roll, and Beyoncé as Etta James—it can’t get better than Cadillac Records. The biographical drama depicts the early careers of some of music’s best, including Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and record producer, Leonard Chess of Chess Records.
The Post details the work of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as they work together to expose decades-long government secrets.
Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is a young man wrongfully convicted of murder, and Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is the defense attorney determined to find justice—despite a system built to work against them.
On The Basis of Sex
Ruth Bader Ginsburg lovers will enjoy the biographical legal drama about everyone’s favorite Supreme Court justice and her unwavering fight for equality.
Virginia Walden Ford (Uzo Aduba) is a single mother in Washington D.C., struggling to make ends meet. When she can’t afford to send her son to private school, Miss Virginia takes up a fight with the education system that has been mistreating minority children for decades.
In Lost Girls, an unrelenting mother named Mari Gilbert launches an investigation to determine what really happened to her missing daughter following minimal effort on the case by the police force. Mari’s efforts lead to the discovery of a host of unsolved murder cases involving sex workers and, finally, some answers.
Bad Education tells the wild true story of the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history, which brought down a superstar superintendent, played by Hugh Jackman, and his complicit assistant, played by Allison Janney.
In this movie based on a true story, a mime named Marcel Marceau, played by Jesse Eisenberg, becomes an unlikely hero when he aids the French Resistance in helping to smuggle orphaned Jewish children threatened by the Nazis across the border to Switzerland. While Marceau’s legacy has always revolved heavily around his mime art, this film shines a light on his humanitarian work.
I Still Believe
The only thing more tear-jerking than the plot of this movie is that it’s based on a true love story. A Christian singer-songwriter is forced to accept the cruel reality that his wife is dying from cancer, causing him to question his faith and accept a new reality without the love of his life.
The Last Full Measure
Vietnam War hero William H. Pitsenbarger (also known as PJ to his friends) saved the lives of more than 60 men, ultimately sacrificing his own in his rescue efforts. Years later, Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman is asked to investigate a Medal of Honor request made for PJ, but what he uncovers is a high-level conspiracy involved in the denial of this request. The movie took 20 years to make, so that might be an indication that it’s worth a watch.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Told from the perspective of Ted Bundy’s ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), this dark biopic recounts the infamous serial killer’s “personal” life and long list of crimes. Zac Efron takes on the role of evil and charismatic Bundy, an image you’ll see long after you turn off the lights.
Appointed the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq in 2003, Brazilian United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello traveled to Iraq the same year to help negotiate the withdrawal of American troops from the country. The film follows the tragic events surrounding the real-life bombing of the hotel where Sergio was staying in Baghdad.
Ready to cry over a movie that heavily involves Google Maps? Sounds weird at first, but makes total sense. The story follows Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) as he uses the app to find his family 25 years after being separated from them. Have tissues at the ready.
The evacuation of thousands of surrounded Allied troops on the beach of Dunkirk during World War II was kind of a miracle. Everything had to go just right to avoid total disaster. Oh, and if you’ve ever dreamed of Harry Styles in uniform, you’re welcome. The former boy band member/teen heartthrob makes his acting debut as a soldier with a bit of a mean streak.
This film features the power trifecta of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe playing Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—three black female mathematicians (and complete rockstars) who broke racial and gender barriers to help NASA send astronauts to space in the 1960s.
A newsroom drama with a suspenseful punch, Spotlight follows the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Boston Globe journalists who broke a landmark story about pedophile priests and a Catholic Church cover-up.
The Theory of Everything
The life of Stephen Hawking was nothing short of extraordinary. This biopic based on his ex-wife’s memoir describes Hawking’s relationship, diagnosis with ALS, and the inspiring work that blew the universe wide open.
Some of us work through a major life change with a new haircut, but Cheryl Strayed literally went off the beaten path. Played by Reese Witherspoon, the film follows Strayed’s hike across the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail. An Eat, Pray, Love of sorts set in the wilderness, it’ll make you wonder what you can discover wandering alone.
In 1965, demonstrators marched three times from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to exercise their right to vote, led in part by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The movie is a powerful and strong testament to the protests against racial injustice.
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, a mathematician (can’t relate) who was enough of a genius to break the German intelligence code during WWII. The inspiring line? “Sometimes, it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
The Wolf of Wall Street
Sex, drugs, and corruption (not much rock ‘n’ roll here)… Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a stockbroker who goes off the rails and commits fraud after drug-soaked fraud. Also, it was the movie that broke the world record for cursing in a film.
12 Years A Slave
This film is an intense retelling of Soloman Northrup’s 1853 memoir. Born a free man in New York, Northrup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era. It’s another film that’s so much more than just a movie.
If you love scammer stories (and tbh, who doesn’t?), this is your next Friday night watch. Based on the FBI Abscam operation, two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) take down corrupt politicians (like Jeremy Renner). The all-star cast also includes Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, so yeah, the hustle is life.
Is it possible that Daniel Day-Lewis brought Abraham Lincoln back to life? Okay, obvs not, but his acting is so perfect it’ll give you serious pause. Here’s your history lesson: The year is 1865, and Lincoln is trying to bring the Civil War to an end but wants to make sure the 13th Amendment passes first.
In the early aughts, the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) teams up with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to make a great baseball team. They don’t have money or talent, but they have data. And, uh, it actually worked? Turns out they were onto something, since sports analytics are totally a thing now.
Julie and Julia
Before Instagram foodies, there was Julie Powell, a blogger who sought to cook every single recipe in Julia Child’s first cookbook (major props, since it’s hard enough to get myself to make dinner on a lazy Sunday). The film jumps between Julia’s (Meryl Streep) start as a chef and Julie’s (Amy Adams) tumultuous New York life.
Hiking through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Aron Ralston (James Franco) gets trapped under a boulder (ouch). He has to amputate his arm and escape, or die. Tbh, this is what nightmares are made of. If you’re queasy, watch with a trustworthy friend who’ll tell you when **that** scene is.
The Blind Side
In spite of a tough upbringing, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) found new life in football—one that took him to the NFL. The flick shows Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) and Sean (Tim McGraw) take Oher under their wing and onto the football field. One thing’s for sure: It’d be a win to have Leigh Anne (well, Sandra Bullock, tbh) in your corner.
This biopic takes on the political campaigns, romantic relationships, and **spoiler alert** eventual assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected politician in California in the 1970s.
True crime lovers, listen up. From the late 1960s to the ‘70s, the still-a-mystery Zodiac Killer murdered victims across Northern California and delivered way too many creepy letters. The search for the serial killer inspired this flick starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.
Into The Wild
Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) says goodbye to family, society, and material objects (like, burns his car-level commitment) and hitchhikes to Alaska. Was solitary life in the Alaskan wilderness really what dreams were made of? You’ll just have to see to find out.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote, a writer who reports on the murders of a family in small town Kansas. He can’t get enough of the story—or the murderers responsible—and begins writing about it. Maybe you’ve heard of a little book called In Cold Blood?
Who can resist an underdog story? Not me. And you probs can’t either. Seabiscuit is the underrated horse that exceeds all odds and steals hearts, a glimmering good story in the midst of the Great Depression. He’s a legend.
Gotta Kick It Up!
A feel-good flick through and through, Gotta Kick It Up! follows a middle school teacher who coaches a Latina cheerleading squad (including America Ferrera) that’s just trying really hard to find its rhythm (I get that, I really do). It was inspired by the co-producer’s own experience and hooked fans with the awesome mantra: “¡Si se puede!”
World-class Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) lives in Poland and is forced into the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. It’s a story of resilience and human will, and doesn’t shy away from the violent, horrifying details.
Catch Me If You Can
Scammer alert, scammer alert! Is it a pilot? A doctor? No, it’s a con man! Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert forger, a talent that catches the attention of an FBI agent (Tom Hanks) and puts him hot on Frank’s tail. You can’t help but have fun with this wild tale.
Julia Roberts stars as the titular character, a legal clerk who notices something’s not quite right with the water in a small California town. She takes matters into her own hands and takes on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, spitting fire the whole way through. Talk about badass.
Remember The Titans
In 1971, coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) integrates a high school football team in Virginia. Though it gets off to a rough start (bit of an understatement), the movie shows how teamwork can literally make the dream work. It also convinced me a singalong to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is the only way to break the ice.
Wearing your best Penny Lane shearling coat? Perfect. Cameron Crowe directs this semi-autobiographical film about a teenager Rolling Stone writer who goes on tour with a (fictionalized) rock ‘n’ roll band.
Houston, we have a problem. During a 1970 mission to the moon, an oxygen tank explodes in the aircraft, forcing the three astronauts on board (Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton) to try to get back to Earth safely. Uh, no problem. Strap in, because things get tense—even if you already know how the story ends.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Winona Ryder stars as Susanna Kaysen, a young girl who lives in a mental institution in the late 1960s. There, she befriends Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a long-term resident and diagnosed sociopath.
During the Holocaust, a Nazi party member named Oskar Schindler lets Jewish refugees work at his factories to save their lives. It’s not for the faint of heart, but a must-watch.
A League Of Their Own
Is this the best sports movie of all time? I’d go up to bat for it. A story based on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of 1943 to 1954, sisters Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty) are coached by no-crying-in-baseball Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks).
All The President’s Men
Is there anything the ever-dreamy Robert Redford can’t do? Doesn’t seem like it. This film follows two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) as they investigate the great Watergate scandal. Political dramas can sometimes be a snooze, but this one will keep you on your toes.
This quintessential gangster flick is adapted from Wiseguy, penned by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi. Mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) sees mob life as glamorous, but he’s got another thing coming once he’s actually in “the family.” Between cocaine binges and a big sting operation, there’s juicy drama, betrayals, and uh, mob violence galore. (Not to mention the ’70s fashion is to die for.)
Out Of Africa
In a love story for the ages, Meryl Streep plays Karen Blixen, a woman who moves to Kenya to marry and become an aristocrat (not a bad life plan, tbh). When the marriage goes awry, and he turns out to be a scrub, she falls in love with a hunter (Robert Redford). What could go wrong?
You Might Also Like