Reel life: movies inspired by true stories this awards season

For inSing


By Jedd Jong


Awards season is upon us again, and producers often have a knack for sniffing out incredible true stories to turn into awards contender films. Said projects can also provide actors with the opportunity to showcase their talents and challenge themselves, sometimes undergoing drastic physical transformations.

It’s easy to be cynical about biopics, and to write them off as emotionally manipulative. After all, Hollywood hasn’t been shy about bending the truth. However, artistic license is to be expected, and half the fun of watching films based on a true story is doing the research afterwards, to ascertain how far the film deviated from actual events.

Historical films or inspirational biopics might seem like a bit of a slog, and they tend to follow predictable patterns. However, this awards cycle has given a few off-kilter films based on a true story that break that mould, and that might even be – who knows – fun to sit through. Naturally, there are a few which are more straightforward, serious affairs, but which pack pedigree behind the scenes too.

From Winston Churchill’s tumultuous first days as wartime Prime Minister, to the glamorous, dangerous world of underground high-stakes poker, to the kidnapping of the grandson of the richest man in the world, here are five films based on true stories to check out this awards season. Warning: veracity may vary.

#1: DARKEST HOUR (Opens 4 Jan)

This is perhaps the most traditional entry on the list. After all, English-made movies and films set during the Second World War have long been perceived as awards-friendly. Directed by Joe Wright of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement fame, this film covers the first few weeks of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As Nazis advance across Western Europe, Churchill must rally the British people as he faces opposition from within his own cabinet.

It might be hard to believe, but celebrated and very hard-working actor Gary Oldman has yet to win an Oscar. This just might be his chance – after all, Oldman won the Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe for this performance. Casting Oldman as Churchill was a gamble that paid off. Prosthetic makeup effects designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji helped to transform Oldman into the iconic British Bulldog. Oldman’s entertaining performance captures the larger-than-life quality so key to Churchill, but also conveys his private decision-making process. The film also stars Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James.

#2: THE POST (Opens 18 Jan)

This is also a film that seems calibrated for maximum awards season appeal. It’s a historical drama that’s timely, given the current political climate. It also has A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the first female publisher of The Washington Post – and of any newspaper in the U.S., for that matter. After The New York Times acquires the top-secret documents known as ‘the Pentagon Papers’, a battle between journalism and the U.S. government ensues. Graham, the Washington Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and other editors and journalists fight tooth and nail to expose the truth about the horrifying scope of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War to the public.

The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Hannah, who worked at Charlize Theron’s production company and as a production assistant on Ugly Betty, caught a one-in-a-million break: it’s not every day that Steven Spielberg wants to direct a film from a screenplay by a first-time screenwriter. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and was encouraged by her boyfriend to write a script about the publisher. Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer was brought on to rework the script. The film’s impressive cast also includes Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons and David Cross.

#3: MOLLY’S GAME (Opens 4 Jan)

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, who went from would-be Olympic skier to cocktail waitress to operating the highest-stakes underground poker games in Los Angeles and New York. The players include Hollywood celebrities, superstar athletes and powerful Wall Street brokers. Eventually, both the Italian and Russian mafia get involved, and Molly is investigated by the FBI.

The film is written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, known for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs and for creating the television series The West Wing and The Newsroom. Molly’s Game also marks Sorkin’s directorial debut. The film is slick, glitzy and packed with Sorkin’s signature firecracker dialogue, but it has also drawn criticism for being superficial and perhaps not as substantial as other fact-based awards contender films. Best Actress nominations for various awards are rolling in for Chastain, who portrayed a similar shrewd, cunning character in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane. Molly’s Game also stars Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera.

#4: I, TONYA (Opens 1 Feb)

If Molly’s Game is a showcase for Jessica Chastain, then I, Tonya is an even flashier one for Margot Robbie. Robbie plays U.S. national team figure skater Tonya Harding, who became an infamous tabloid fixture after her ex-husband masterminded an attack on Tonya’s teammate and rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The film is based on interviews with Tonya and the other figures in the story, including her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who hired the men who attacked Nancy. Janney won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes for her portrayal of the cruel, off-putting yet oddly endearing LaVona.

I, Tonya is a twisted inversion of the standard inspirational sports drama. Packed with dark comedy, violence and plenty of swearing, the film exploits the absurdity of the events surrounding Tonya’s rise and fall. I, Tonya also pulls the curtain back to examine just what made Tonya who she is, depicting the abuse she endured at the hands of her mother and her ex-husband. Robbie’s performance is mesmerising and unmistakably the work of a dedicated actress. While Robbie trained to perform some of the skating herself, the nigh-impossible triple axel jump that was Tonya’s signature move was accomplished using visual effects. Only seven women other than Tonya have landed the triple axel in figure skating history.


Director Ridley Scott brings the story of Paul Getty’s kidnapping to the big screen. Paul (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation), is kidnapped by an Italian criminal organisation. The eldest Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom set by the kidnappers. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams), who was formerly married to John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), will stop at nothing to ensure her son’s safe return to her side. The film also stars Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris and Timothy Hutton.

The role of J. Paul Getty was originally set to be played by Kevin Spacey. Following sexual assault allegations against Spacey, Scott elected to recast the role and reshoot the movie with Christopher Plummer as Getty instead. The scramble to redo the movie was unprecedented and costly. It then emerged that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million payday for the reshoots, while Williams, who plays the lead, received $1000 for the reshoots. After being criticised for this, Wahlberg will now donate the $1.5 million to the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund in Williams’ name. The initiative aims to help combat sexual harassment across industries, after the extent sexual harassment in Hollywood was made known in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

BONUS: THE DISASTER ARTIST (No Singapore release date yet)

For years, the cognoscenti has been chortling and riffing along to what has often been deemed the worst movie ever made: 2003’s The Room. A poorly-acted, hilariously scripted, all-around ineptly made drama, The Room has gone from pop culture oddity to so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon. midnight screenings regularly draw crowds who dress up as their favourite characters, toss footballs around and fling spoons at the screen. Lines like “oh hai Mark,” “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” and “so anyway, how is your sex life?” are oft-quoted gems. It’s a bit of a long story to explain here.

The Disaster Artist stars James Franco as Tommy Wiseau, the peculiar and enigmatic writer-director-star of The Room. James Franco just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for his performance as Wiseau. Franco’s brother Dave stars as Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s friend and the actor who plays Mark, the best friend of Wiseau’s character Johnny, in The Room. Franco is also the director of The Disaster Artist, which is based on the book of the same name written by Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell. The film also stars Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor and Alison Brie, with appearances by Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Sharon Stone and Zac Efron. Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael, whose bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made? had an episode dedicated to The Room, appear in supporting roles. At the time of writing, The Disaster Artist does not have a Singapore release date. However, one hopes that awards season buzz pushes this chronicle of misbegotten cinema to our shores sooner rather than later.



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