Wednesday, October 17, 2012

10 Great True Story Movies You Already Know the Endings To


I’ve read a ton of reviews of Ben Affleck’s new film, Argo, since posting mine a few days ago, and while most are rather positive, I’ve noticed a trend in reviews, especially among older-aged critics.

Many say despite the fact that they like Argo, they find themselves unable to fully appreciate it because they already know the story’s ending. This is an age-old movie discussion: Can you enjoy a film that you already know the ending to? My simple answer: of course you can.

I don’t like Titanic. Never have. And my distaste for that film has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I knew the ship was going to sink. Inversely, I have loved Malcolm X since the first time I saw it, always with the understanding that the titular character would die in the end.

So, a list. Here are 10 great films based on true stories whose endings are of common knowledge. A few notes: this list is true story specific. Discussing the merits of seeing a movie (say, like The Sixth Sense) that you unwilling know the ending to is an entirely different argument. Lastly, by assuming most know the endings to the stories the following films depict, I’m admittedly being a tad presumptuous with this list. If you don’t know what happened to Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or have never heard of Watergate, then feel free to pass over the films you don’t want spoiled.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Most know that famed bank robbing lovers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were gruesomely mowed down by several police officers. So, how did director Arthur Penn opt to show you something you weren’t expecting? By… showing you something you weren’t expecting. He shot their demise in tedious slow motion, in full light, with blood and screams and dread. The man singlehandedly changed American cinema during a scene we all saw coming. 

All the President’s Men (1976)
After all the research and interviews and covert parking garage meetings, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward finally convince their Executive Editor, Ben Bradlee, that they have proof to back their story of Watergate. They’re going to blow the whole thing wide open, and ultimately help force the resignation of President Nixon. In one of the best, most telling shots in film history, the film ends with the camera slowly panning into Woodward and Bernstein typing their story furiously in the background, as Nixon, on TV, is inaugurated as President in the foreground. 

Malcolm X (1992)
One of the things that makes Malcolm X as endearing as it is, is the fact that the film doesn’t end with the death of its main subject. Instead, Spike Lee ingeniously has actor and Civil Rights activist, Ossie Davis, orate the eulogy he gave at X’s funeral, while Lee fills the frame with archive footage of the real Malcolm X. It’s the perfect swan song for an epic masterpiece. Easily one of the smartest choices of Lee’s career. 

Schindler’s List (1993)
Similar to Malcolm X, Steven Spielberg wisely chose to end his film not with Oscar Schindler basking in the glory of all the good he’d done, but rather with a stirring sequence of truth. Gracefully switching to color, we watch as the real life Jewish people Schindler saved, accompanied by the actor who portrayed them in the movie, gently place rocks on Schindler’s grave. That’s unlike anything I’ve seen before or since.

Apollo 13 (1995)
There’s something so emotional about watching Jim Lovell and Co. silently fall back into orbit. Their module dangles in the air, slowly parachuting to the ocean, Ed Harris’ Gene Kranz melts in his chair, cries, and we all let out a sigh a relief we knew was coming.

Minutes earlier, Kranz told his superior that, “I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” And he was damn right. 

Monster (2003)
Often inaccurately cited as the first female serial killer, I knew the demise of Aileen Wuornos long before I stepped into Patty Jenkins’ unrelenting film. I had seen Nick Broomfield’s unflinching documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and had followed the case closely to see if Wuornos would get an 11th hour stay of execution. Now, in knowing how the film would end, did that make it any less gut wrenching? Not in the slightest. 

Downfall (2004)
Is it possible to make a beyond-engrossing film about the final days of Adolf Hitler’s life? With Bruno Ganz fearlessly playing the lead, you bet your ass. Perhaps the many many many many internet parodies would agree.

Zodiac (2007)
Since the publication of his book that started it all, author Robert Graysmith has released other tell-alls in which he confidently asserts that Arthur Leigh Allen was indeed the Zodiac killer. David Fincher wisely chose to end his film with the same mentality that most people still have: we’ll never really know who tormented the San Francisco bay area for all those years. An intelligent, and no less eerie, end to a story that may very well never find its conclusion. 

'Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man Came singing songs of love.

Milk (2008) 
Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning film, The Times of Harvey Milk, is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen. Period.

I was well aware that Gus Van Sant’s film wouldn’t end without Sean Penn meeting his demise at the hands of an enraged Josh Brolin. (I wasn’t aware, however, that Van Sant would begin his film by verbally announcing this.) But that didn’t matter. Milk is a wholly courageous movie about a wholly courageous man. Van Sant did the story justice, despite the fact that we all knew how it was going to go down.

Public Enemies (2009)
Anyone with moderate interest in historical American crime knows that John Dillinger met his maker at the hands of the FBI, courtesy of the woman in red (who was actually wearing orange, but anyway).

But thanks to Johnny Depp’s accurate portrayal, guided by Michael Mann’s ever-so-reliable direction, the life and death of Dillinger is never, for a second, anything else than evocative. Bye bye, Blackbird. 

There are many more films worthy to make this list, feel free to tell me some of your favorites!

30 comments:

  1. I've seen all but Downfall but this is a damn good list.

    I would've added A Night to Remember, which I saw recently and loved. I mean, yeah, it basically covers the same territory as Titanic, but it doesn't sugarcoat the details at all.

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    1. Thanks! I haven't seen A Night to Remember, but have heard nothing by good things. Glad to hear it leaves the gloss at the door.

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  2. I really have to see Malcolm X. I love films whose endings one knows and is still surprised by it. Like I love Titanic and it kills me.

    My favourite from this list has to be Bonnie and Clyde just because it was so shocking still. And I cried bucket loads in Milk.
    Of course one of my favourite endings of all time is Marie Antoinette because it doesn't actually show the beheading but you know it's there in the horizon. It's the fact that nothing is shown is what gets me.

    Also though it isn't a true story, Moulin Rouge! starts with Ewan McGregor's character talking about how the woman he loves is dead and then we see their whole romance and it still is so awful and sad at the end.

    I think it takes a great skill to still surprise someone with an ending that was bound to happen.

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    1. Yeah, I completely agree with your final sentence - if you can be surprised by a film whose ending you're aware of, then that definitely speaks volumes for the movie.

      Marie Antoinette is a great choice, for exactly the reason you mentioned!

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  3. I haven't watched Public Enemies, but I've seen all the others and those are all good picks, especially Schindler's List. I'm not sure how many people know the Zodiac Killer story, though. I saw a lot of comments from disappointed viewers at the time the movie came to DVD because they were not expecting an open ended movie.

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    1. Thanks man, glad you dig the list.

      These youngins, Chip, we gotta teach 'em about these psychopathic serial killers.

      But really, I love that people were upset that Fincher ended the story accurately, and not with some hammed-up Hollywood version (like, uh... Dirty Harry).

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  4. I think I would put Bonnie and Clyde and Downfall in my top 15.

    All of these are such good movies, who cares if you already know the story, there's much more to the craft than an ending. Every viewer should know that

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    1. Couldn't agree more, brother man. Sadly, a lot of viewers don't see it that way. Shame.

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  5. The end to Schindler's List is fantastic - it brings this whole new dimension to the movie that isn't used to emotionally manipulate, but you see the true worth of the true story. After three hours of the grittiest, bleakest stuff, it ends on this poignant, bittersweet note. I absolutely adore it.

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    1. Yep, couldn't agree more. The first time I saw the film, I had no idea what was happening, but when Ben Kingsley walked into frame, it all clicked. Perfect way to end a perfect film.

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  6. That's kind of a ridiculous argument on their part. It's all about the story and how it's presented. As long as it's told well, it shouldn't matter as much that we know the end.

    Awesome list, BTW. Happy to see Bonnie & Clyde included. Saw that for the first time this summer, and it blew me away.

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    1. Yeah, I am in complete agreement with you. It's a very flimsy argument, at best. But oh well.

      Glad you dig Bonnie and Clyde, that one has really stood the test of time.

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  7. If you couldn't watch a film you knew the ending to, you'd never be able to watch *any* film more than once, surely. I feel terribly sorry for people like that. Or is it terrible contempt? I don't know.

    As for Titanic, knowing the "ending" was a problem for me, but that was because I was sick of the romantic bullshit and couldn't wait for it to get to the fucking iceberg...

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    1. Your first paragraph pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject perfectly. It's such a shoddy argument. (sigh), oh well.

      As for your Titanic comment: Bring on the BERG!!

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  8. Yep. Can't argue with any of these. All the President's Men is especially true for me. It was so engrossing that I was worried Woodward and Bernstein would be murdered for prying into the conspiracy. I knew that didn't happen, but it was just so nerve-racking. Nice list man.

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    1. Thanks dude. Glad you're an All the President's Men fan, that movie has and will always stand the test of time. A truly remarkable film.

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  9. Great lists! Sometimes it even happens in the movies that are original - we know the ending within first few moments of American Beauty.

    It never really ruins things for me as I don't even mind spoilers, in Zodiac's case though it was very frustrating not to know for sute. Fincher could only do this like this, so it's not really a flaw in the movie other than it annoys me not to know who Zodiac was.

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    1. Thanks! I think it annoys a whole shit load of people to not really know who the Zodiac is. But that is kind of the crux of the whole thing: It is one, if not the, most infamous unsolved case in American crime. Crazy shit.

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  10. Wonderful list! I especially like Milk and Zodiac being on here. I thought of Miracle when I read this list. The hockey movie, even though I knew they won, I still was on the edge of my seat during it. It's not the best movie out there, but I enjoyed it.

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    1. Thanks! Ah, I LOVE Miracle, which is still so odd to me, because the tired sports biopic is definitely NOT my kind of film. Had I remembered that one, I definitely would've included it here. Great choice, and thanks for reading/commenting!

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  11. Great idea for a list and you list some great ones here. I actually don't mind seeing films I already know the ending to, I mean I think if done well it could still be very gripping and emotionally fulfilling. Schindler's List is one of those films, and though I knew the ending of ARGO I didn't read up too much details about it so the film was still quite tense all around.

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    1. Yep, that's exactly the point I was hoping to get at - even if you know how the real story went down, there's no reason the film itself can't be engrossing. Thanks for the comment, Ruth!

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  12. Great list! Sadly I've only seen 3 of these movies, but they were great ones. I'm glad you loved the closing shot of All the President's Men as much as I did. Terrific film! Milk and Schindler's List were wonderful, too.

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    1. Thanks! That shot from President's Men is just epic, isn't it? So much going on there. In a lot of ways, they simple do not make 'em like they used to.

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  13. I still haven't seen Bonnie and Clyde, I feel ashamed.
    As for the others, great picks. Monster is a great film.

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    1. Oh Bonnie and Clyde is one of those movies that is just as good (if not better) than everything you've heard. It lives up to the hype. Glad you like the picks!

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  14. Such a great idea for a list, Alex! So many classic movies I haven't seen and now want to watch more than ever... Thanks for giving away all their endings... JK! If you are hooked by a good storyline, knowing the resolution shouldn't make it any less enjoyable. Old man Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

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    1. Thanks! I can't recommend all of these flicks highly enough, even if you already know their endings!

      Nice Emerson quote, very fitting indeed.

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