Who doesn’t love a good movie with a compelling plot line? There’s just something wonderful when you’re watching a flick with great writing and an all-star cast. And sometimes the best ones are based on true stories. Some of the most memorable movies over the past few decades are literally “ripped from the headlines.”
The Corleone family is an interesting collection of colorful characters from the brooding Michael Corleone, who becomes the reluctant head of the family, to his hot-headed brother Sonny, who meets his end at a tollbooth. But you might be surprised that the book-turned-movie with the same name is actually based on the real-life crime boss Frank Costello, who led the Genovese family in New York. Frank was reimagined as Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando in the first movie, and Robert De Niro in flashbacks throughout the second part.
Americans love a good crime drama, especially about the Italian-American mafia. This time, the plot centers on Henry Hill, a Sicilian-Irish man’s rise and fall in the New York Lucchese crime family between 1955 and 1980. One of the most memorable crimes in the movie is the Lufthansa heist, a real robbery that took place at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Once again, this is a movie adapted from a nonfiction book entitled Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. Goodfellas is considered one of the best gangster drama movies, and it doesn’t hurt that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. It stars some familiar faces in the genre, with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci playing supporting characters to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill.
This time, the gangster genre is shifted from New York to Las Vegas. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci return to co-star in a film about the mafia’s influence and fall from grace in the casino world from the 1960s through the 1990s. Like Goodfellas, this movie is based on a book—Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas—and is also written by Nicholas Pileggi. The film is also directed by Martin Scorsese.
De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein is a Jewish-American gambling handicapper tapped by the Chicago Outlet to run the Tangiers. In real life, De Niro’s character is Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who worked for the Chicago Outfit managing the Stardust, Fremont, Sundance, and Hacienda casinos in Las Vegas. Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro is based on Anthony Spilotro. Even Sharon Stone’s troubled Ginger Rothstein is based on Frank Rosenthal’s real wife, Geri McGee.
It’s not often that Denzel Washington plays an outright bad guy, but when he does, it’s a gripping performance. American Gangster follows the story of real-life Frank Lucas’ rise and fall between the 1960s to his prison release in 1991. Lucas had humble beginnings in La Grange, North Carolina, but eventually rose in prominence after relocating to Harlem in New York City and assuming power.
You might be surprised to find that the real-life Frank Lucas was excited for the release of this film, especially because he was played by Denzel Washington. However, he claims that much of the film was dramatized for cinematic effect. In particular, he states that the child custody court scene is false because he never had any children. Other prosecutors and judges who participated in Lucas’ trials also agree that much of the film was embellished.
The 1970s was a crazy time to be alive in America. American Hustle follows the FBI sting of Abscam (ABSCAM), which nabbed a ring of corrupt politicians and businessmen primarily from, and representing, New Jersey constituents. However, this film is very loosely based on the actual events and even admits in the beginning that only “some of this actually happened” in its disclaimer. Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists-turned-informants to Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent. Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence round out the cast as the mayor of Camden and the wife of Christian Bale’s character, respectively.
If you haven’t learned by now, crime doesn’t pay. Maybe that’s why so many of these biopics follow criminal plot lines. American Made takes a straightforward look at the rise of the DEA’s war on drugs. Tom Cruise plays the very real Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who’s so deep in debt that while working for the CIA, he thinks running drugs for the Medellin cartel in Colombia would be a good idea. The story’s timeline lines up with the infamous Pablo Escobar’s rise to power in South America during the 1980s.
Honorable Mention: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
In case you think the only biopic films people want to see have to be based on crime, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will put that concern to rest. Tina Fey departs from her comedic norm in this film based on war correspondents in the Afghan war zone. The movie particularly focuses on the unique experiences of female journalists and is based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, a journalist.
This surely isn’t a comprehensive list of every biopic film created, but some of these go down in history as must-see movies. Which ones have you seen and which films do you think should have made the list?