This week, Joe Anderson and Dominick Mayer, your intrepid Head To Head tandem, will look at movies Based On A True Story and consider which is the king.
When Dom and I agreed on the subject of this week’s head to head, I was bummed to find out that The Patriot doesn’t claim to be based off of true events. I planned on writing about how until there’s a film where a barrel full of rattlesnakes gets launched at red coats while a bunch of colonists chant “Don’t tread on me!” there is no greater patriotic movie moment than when Mel Gibson impales that horse with the American flag. But I can’t. Whatever.
In lieu of this, I have to go with 2007’s Zodiac even though not a single horse dies throughout the course of the film (a criterion we have established is an undisputable mark of quality).
Here’s what I love about movies based on real events: the audience knows what’s coming. No one will be shocked to see the Titanic sink, Ghandi shot, the dinosaurs from Land Before Time stop the meteor that would have changed the planet’s climate and ushered in the Age of Mammals, etc.
For those that might not know, Zodiac is an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s book which details his work and subsequent obsession with the Zodiac murders that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s in northern California. So no surprise when Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t get his man. The real appeal here is watching Graysmith become consumed by an obsession with murders he is powerless to stop. I’ve seen the cop character that lets his work take over his life countless times, but watching the case destroy Graysmith’s marriage (not a creative liberty, by the way) made it seem like anything but a cliché.
Not to mention I can’t remember the last time something held my undivided attention for two and a half hours that involved absolutely no horse murder:
Cool Runnings. Now, before you get on my case about how it’s a silly ’90s nostalgia item, or that I’ve written about it on Heave already, for sheer rewatchability alone this was the first and only film I was inclined to write about. I do think that using the sports movie as a BOATS citation is a bit easy, considering that except for both Longest Yards and that one movie where Keanu Reeves is a janitor and becomes a star QB and there are strippers I think, most sports movies come from actual events. Though Cool Runnings also happened (sorta), it also puts an interesting spin on the real-life movie by coupling it with a surprisingly effective fish-out-of-water comedy.
Bolstered by John Candy bringing as much gravitas as possible to a movie featuring a main character named Sanka Coffee, Runnings works by hitting all the necessary beats with gusto, instead of trying to shake up a narrative that was always going to have a general sheen of “been there, seen that.” Using a tragic running accident (okay, it does convolute a little) as its framework, the four disparate bobsledders end up becoming an inspiration and learning something about one another along the way. Okay, I’m starting to roll my eyes as I write, so here’s an example of how the comedy rescues a movie that could’ve been a hackneyed mess:
Plus, the end of the film, in which the team carries their sled to the finish with as much dignity as they can muster, generates genuine poignance, and it’s precisely because the cast is likable enough to earn it. Not a bad trick for a Disney inspirational BOATS. (Also, this poster is correct. This might be the best cinematic slow clap of all time.)
 For horror movies, “true events” has a looser definition and this rule doesn’t apply as much. I’m pretty sure there have been “factual” movies about demon possession because someone saw a really ugly baby.