The old saying “truth is stranger than fiction” rings especially true for Hollywood. The following films feature events that are too insane to be true — but they really happened! Here are 10 crazy movies actually based on a true story.
Dog Day Afternoon
This 1975 Sidney Lumet crime drama starring Al Pacino was nominated for six Oscars, and Pacino’s intense performance (“Attica! Attica!”) is widely considered one of the greatest of all time.
Pacino was well cast not only for his performance but also his shocking resemblance to real-life bank robber John Wojtowicz.
Although his name was changed to Sonny Wortzik in the film, Wojtowicz really did rob a Brooklyn bank in the summer of 1972, holding up seven hostages for 14 hours in an attempt to get the money to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. (After he was arrested, he sold the movie rights to his story to pay for it.)
In The Terminal, Tom Hanks plays a foreigner stranded in a U.S. airport after a civil war breaks out in his home country, invalidating his passport. Government officials won’t allow him to enter the country and he is forced to live in the terminal’s transit lounge for nine months until the coup ends.
If you find it unbelievable for Tom Hanks to be stuck in an airport for nine months, consider this: in real life, a man was stuck there for 18 years.
His name is Mehran Karimi Nasseri, and he lived in a terminal in Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport from 1988 to 2006. He wrote an autobiography called The Terminal Man, which inspired director Steven Spielberg to make the film.
This 2010 survival movie by Danny Boyle has James Franco take on the real-life role of Aron Ralston, an adventurous canyoneer who was forced to amputate his own arm following an accident when he was hiking alone in a Utah canyon in 2003. For an unimaginable 127 hours, Ralston’s arm was trapped by a boulder in an isolated slot canyon.
After running out of food and water, Ralston narrowly escaped death by cutting off his trapped arm with a small, cheap knife. He was able to hike out of the canyon and was rescued four hours later.
Ralston has said the film is “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama.”
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
This 2005 movie is based on the real-life experiences of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel. She was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 16, but after five years of medical treatment failed to help her, her family became convinced she was afflicted with a demonic possession.
The Catholic Church began performing exorcisms on her in 1975, and continued to do so until she passed away nearly a year later from malnutrition.
The film is loosely based on the 1978 court case that ensued following her death; the priests who performed the exorcisms as well as Michel’s parents were found guilty of manslaughter resulting from negligence.
After you watch this 2007 movie, you’ll want to lock your doors and windows immediately. The film is based on the “Zodiac” serial killer who committed murders in the 1960s and 1970s and whose identity is still unknown.
As the killer took the lives of young men and women under 30, he sent letters to the Bay Area press, taunting the police with messages hidden within cryptograms, only one of which has ever been decrypted.
In the film, Mark Ruffalo plays a nerve-wracked and obsessed detective on the case, trying to find a killer who still can’t be found today.
This 2000 film starring Julia Roberts tells the story of real-life legal clerk and environmental activist Erin Brockovich. Brockovich, a single mother of three with no legal training, really did finagle her way into a job at a law office.
In 1993, her work was instrumental in obtaining a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. The lawsuit had alleged the company had contaminated groundwater and adversely affected the health of the residents of Hinkley, California.
Brockovich has claimed the movie was “98 percent accurate.”
This 2005 rags-to-riches film chronicles the life of heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock, played by Russell Crowe. In real life, Braddock lived in poverty during the Great Depression, working as a longshoreman to try to support his struggling family.
After several successful boxing matches, he was given a shot at the World Heavyweight Champion title against legendary fighter Max Baer. Baer was supposed to win the 1935 fight easily, but Braddock took the fight seriously.
“When you’ve been through what I’ve had to face in the last two years, a Max Baer or a Bengal tiger looks like a house pet. He might come at me with a cannon and a blackjack and he would still be a picnic compared to what I’ve had to face,” Braddock told reporters.
He won the fight in what is considered one of the greatest upsets in boxing history, and earned the nickname “Cinderella Man.”
This 2015 film is a captivating look at the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigative efforts and eventual exposure of child sex abuse by the Catholic Church in 2002. The Boston Globe journalists won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.
Spotlight won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in 2016.
The Polka King
This 2018 Netflix film is not your average Jack Black comedy. It tells the story of Jan “Lewan” Lewandowski, a Polish immigrant who came to America in the 1970s with the dream of becoming a polka star.
The film is as funny as it is tragic. In reality, Lewan ran a Ponzi scheme, robbing hundreds of people of millions of dollars. He was arrested in 2004 and released from prison in 2009.
Hotel Rwanda (2004) is the inspirational true story of Rwandan citizen and humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina. He used his position as a hotel manager to hide and protect over 1,200 Tutsu and Hutu refugees from militia during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
In the film, he was portrayed by Don Cheadle, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance.