Ahh, the historical drama, a classic genre of film making. Indeed, a favorite genre at Oscar time. But today, according to the instructions I’ve been given, we’re going to limit the definition a bit.
(Incidentally, this is #44 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
So, generally a historical drama is just a drama that takes place in the past. But I’ve been asked to list my five favorite historical dramas that are actually based on real people and events. So, not just purely fictional stories that are set on the backdrop of real events (say, like Titanic, or some people’s favorite, Pearl Harbor), but movies about real people doing real things, at least more or less.
Also, we’re going to limit ourselves to movies which are made at least 20 years after the events they depict. So this would eliminate, for example, The Big Short, which is based on events that took place about 7-8 years earlier.
Directed by Ron Howard
Produced in 1995
Depicting events taking place primarily in 1970 (roughly 25 years earlier)
As I mentioned in my post about Tom Hanks, Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies. The story depicts the failed space mission which would have been the third to land on the moon, and is impressive in its sense of scope of the efforts that went into rescuing three endangered astronauts. It is engaging storytelling featuring a strong cast, including Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, and the lesser known Loren Dean and Ray McKinnon. Chris Ellis also shows up as NASA Director of Flight Crew Operations and former Mercury 7 astronaut, Deke Slayton.
The Right Stuff
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Produced in 1983
Depicting events taking place from 1947 to 1963, thus just squeaking in under the 20 year time limit
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Right Stuff (really, since it came out), but I remember it being really good. The story is less focused than Apollo 13, mentioned above, but it gives an almost majestic feel to the early days of the American space program. Like a lot of these movies, it features a great cast, including Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris (again), and Fred Ward. Oh, and Scott Paulin turns up as Mercury 7 astronaut and future NASA Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton.
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Produced in 2016
Depicting events largely taking place from 1961 to 1962, or about 54-55 years earlier
This is the most recent film on this list, and once again deals with the early days of the American space program. This time, the focus is on human “computers” in the days before mechanical computers were common: three African-American women who all made significant contributions the space program and to NASA. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe all do a great job as the leads, but I was particular impressed by Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group, who gives the best performance I’ve seen from him for years. Also, Evan Holtzman shows up briefly as Mercury 7 astronaut and future NASA Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton.
Directed by Ben Affleck
Produced in 2012
Depicting events which took place in 1979-1980, or 32-33 years earlier
More than any other film on this list, Argo has been criticized for its historical inaccuracy. Or if not criticized, at least noted for it: many of the film’s most dramatic situations are purely fictional, aside from the general situation of six American diplomats trying to avoid capture during the Iran hostage crisis. Still, the measure of how good a film is not found in its historical accuracy, even when the film is showing up on a list like this. And Argo is a great movie, about efforts to rescue these diplomats by faking the production of a science fiction movie in Iran. Ben Affleck does a great job as both star and director, and he is surrounded by a bunch of other good actors, including John Goodman, Alan Arkin and more. Surprisingly, Deke Slayton is not depicted in this movie, despite his ongoing involvement with NASA and the American space program during this time.
Directed by Robert Redford
Produced in 1994
Depicting events which took place in 1957-1959, or 35-37 years earlier
Quiz Show is perhaps my favorite movie on this list. It tells a remarkably subtle yet insightful story about a scandal involving rigged game shows in the early days of television. The story works on multiple levels, speaking not just about the characters involved but also about issues of perception, the response of the public to the relatively new medium of television, and the way Jewish people were perceived in US society. Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro give very different but equally effective performances as two of the contestants, and Rob Morrow and especially Paul Scofield are also good. Future Mercury 7 astronaut Deke Slayton was not famous at the time, so while it’s not surprising that he doesn’t feature in the movie, it’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t work in a brief cameo. (Actually, who knows, maybe they did…?)
Runners-up: Many, actually. I strongly considered Gettysburg, but the ending of that movie is less interesting than the beginning. I also like Catch Me If You Can but didn’t really think of it until it was a bit late. Bridge of Spies might have replaced Hidden Figures if I hadn’t been running with the Deke Slayton joke.
Considered but Rejected: Thirteen Days, Bobby, The King’s Speech, The Railway Man, A Beautiful Mind, Amistad or Glory, even though many of those were good movies. Also Schindler’s List, which though I fully respect as an impressive piece of work, I don’t really like that much.
Full Disclosure: I have never seen Lincoln, Munich, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, or 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Or lots of other stuff.