Okay here are the problems with movies that are "based on actual events." People forget the "based on" part and assume that everything on the screen depicts what happened is as it happened. Because of this, other people, many of them historians, lambaste the film for its inaccuracies, also forgetting the "based on" part.
Calm down everyone.
If you want all the details with nothing omitted, and no composite characters and no other liberties taken, go to the History Channel, or the library. As a life long student of history I can tell you two things:1) movies based on historical facts inevitably get things wrong; and 2) I don't care.
A feature length Hollywood film is under no obligation to tell us the unvarnished truth. Oh sure they can go beyond the pale. If a film had Abraham Lincoln bossing around his slaves or William Jennings Bryan watching The Gong Show (1976) I'd be the first to object. But making up lies is a whole lot different than re-creating conversations and such.
In addition to entertaining us, a movie based on historical events can create in the viewer an interest in those events. Works for me all the time. You see a movie on the Battle of Jello Butt Road (I made that up, like I needed to tell you) and all of sudden there are history books on the battle re-issued, websites on it suddenly getting thousands of hits a day and a museum dedicated to it under construction.
Films are a great way to introduce a historical topic or shed some new light on it. Good films can give you a real sense of "what it must have been like" or "what might have actually happened." Watch the movie understanding that's it historical fiction. You can get the general contours of an event or time period and may be inspired to learn the details. As a history teacher I used films all the time, careful to point out to students what was made up and what was important to learn. Worked like a charm. I also used bits of films like the scene from Ellis Island in The Godfather: Part II (1974). For crying out loud it looked like Coppola rode a time machine back to the turn of the century to film those scenes. I also used a few of the street scenes from Gangs of New York (2002) to give students and idea of New York in the mid 19th century.
Here are 12 films that can teach you a little bit about this country's history but more importantly perhaps inspire you to learn more yourself.
Amistad (1997). No one has ever explained to me, nor for that matter tried, why this was not a much, much more widely acclaimed film. When TCM did a documentary on Steven Speilberg, who directed Amistad, almost all of his films were discussed and looked at. Amistad was ignored completely. I don't get it. Anyway. This is an excellent telling of the case of the Amistad Africans. They were taken from their native land by Spanish slave traders and were aboard the slave ship Amistad headed for the West Indies when they staged one of the few successful shipboard slave revolts in history. The ship ended up on US land in 1839 when slavery was still very much extant in this country but the Trans Atlantic slave trade was illegal. What ensued was a dramatic court fight for possession of the slaves that included everyone from abolitionists to the Queen of Spain, not to mention the U.S. President. The film tells the story wonderfully and features a splendid cast that includes Djimon Hounsou as Cinque and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in what I regard as one of movie's greatest ever performances. Its a film that should be shown in every American high school.
Dances with Wolves (1990). It's been increasingly fashionable to dis Kevin Costner's epic about a white soldier who joins a Sioux tribe circa 1870. Sure it's full of historical holes but its sympathetic to the Natives and that counts for a lot. Mostly it gives one a sense of what increasing white encroachment meant to Native tribes. For its faults its also give one a general idea of life among the Sioux and the mentality of the soldiers who persecuted them. On top of all that its damn entertaining and shot beautifully on location.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). A little Pearl Harbor, anyone? This is actually a lot of Pearl harbor and as a bonus you get the Japanese perspective on the events of December 7, 1941 that sent the U.S. headlong into World War II. You get both the military and political angles. One of the more accurate Hollywood productions you'll ever see and a damn good movie in the bargain.
JFK (1991). This is a controversial selection, I know. I'm one of those crazies who's convinced that John F. Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy. This film from director Oliver Stone throws the kitchen sink at you. Military, mafia, CIA ,LBJ are seemingly all implicated. The wise cinematic choice was to find a person to focus on who investigate the assassination. Unfortunately Stone's choice of Jim Garrison has serious problems. Be that as it may this is absolutely terrific film making and inspired lots of people to read up on some of the assassination theories and even prompted demands that the government declassify certain documents related to the assassination. For those reasons alone JFK was a smashing success.
Wild Boys of the Road (1993). There are several Depression Era films that can teach modern audiences much about life during that time. William Wellman's film of young people taking to the rails to relieve the burden on their families and perhaps find better lives for themselves, is but one. You can also check out Heroes For Sale (1933), I am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), Our Daily Bread (1934), Easy Living (1937) and Gold Digger of 1933 (1933) to name a few.
All the President's Men (1976). How can you possible make an entertaining movie about Watergate? How can you possibly make an entertaining film about investigative reporting? The answer to those two questions can be found in Alan J. Pakula's excellent film on Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It doesn't hurt when you cast Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles and have such supporting players as Jason Robards, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam. All the President's Men is a political thriller and it gives viewers a broad outline of the events that led to the stunning end of a presidency.
Glory (1989). As good a Civil War movie as has yet been made. Only one character, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw as portrayed by Matthew Broderick was "a real person" in "real life." Broderick reads from Gould's actual letters as an excellent device to add authenticity to the movie and move the story along. The broad outlines of the story of the the first all African American regiment to see battle in the Civil War were as depicted here. But perhaps more importantly the soldiers and their lot are accurately shown. Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) are excellent but so too are a raft of actors in bit parts such as John Finn as an Irish American drill sergeant. Edward Zwick directed.
Malcolm X (1992). Everything you ever wanted to know about the former Malcolm Little but hadn't gotten around to asking. Denzel Washington was a revelation in the title role of Spike Lee's masterful bio pic. From Malcolm's days as a criminal until his untimely death at the hands of Black Muslim assassins with flashbacks to his youth included, this is the complete story. Based primarily on Malcolm's autobiography as told to Alex Haley and largely accurate. Inspired many to learn more about his extraordinary life.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Based on a John Steinbeck's novel which was, of course, based on the Dust Bowl and ensuing Okie migration to California. Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family's journey and their trials and tribulations. Those that led to their departure, those that followed them on the road and those that awaited them in California. A powerful look at the horrible cost when greed does battle with poverty.
The Big Trail (1930). Ever wonder what it was like on a wagon train headed wet in the 1800's? Wonder no more. Watch this extraordinary film. There are no historical events, per se, depicted but what a job The Big Trail does of capturing the look and feel of what was indeed a very big trail. A recent re-mastered DVD release has brought this amazing film to wider audiences. I'll skip the technical marvels associated with this early talkie and confine myself to comments on it as a look into history. It's good. Really good. There is so much detail amid the huge sweeping picture that the film shows. Actually those technical issues help make this such a powerful history lesson. I've wondered if the film's accuracy is partially a result of when it was made. After all it came out just 50 or so years after events depicted. Raoul Walsh directed and John Wayne starred.
The Front (1976). Woody Allen in a historical drama? Yes but there's a bit of comedy in too. More important for our purposes, The Front is a powerful look at the toll taken on people in the entertainment industry by the communist witch hunts of the 1950's. Allen plays a cashier and bookie who fronts for a blacklisted TV writer. Zero Mostel has an impressive turn as a comedian who pays the ultimate price for McCarthyism. Weak on actual historical events but very strong on its general themes.
Eight Men Out (1988). Not just a baseball movie by any stretch of the imagination. The story of the 1919 World Series and the men who conspired to throw it in pursuit of the mighty dollar. John Sayles directed and John Cusack starred. Yes you'll learn about our national pastime 90 years ago but you'll also get a look at life in the US at the time. In many ways a heart breaking story but a joy to watch in any event.
An American Tail (1986). Yes it's a cartoon, I know. But I showed it to my students every year as a means of understanding immigration in the late 1800's. In this case its a family from Russia emigrating to New York. Yes, they're mice but their experiences are quite similar to what non rodents endured. To wit: the notion of America as the land of milk and honey; the perilous journey across the Atlantic; the hodge podege of people coming here; the vagaries of city life; and the predatory practices of the big city bosses. It's all here along with some of the hokiest songs you'll ever hear.