This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has come to an end, but every year, the festival is literally inundated with movies based on true stories.
Maybe it’s just the time of the year when filmmakers and studios are looking to release Oscar-bait, and they know how many true stories (or “based on them”) have gone on to win Best Picture. Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave, Argo and The King’s Speech are just three of those winners, and all of them played at TIFF.
We took an analytical look at sixteen of the “true stories” at this year’s fest to try to see which ones a.) Might be of interest and entertaining to moviegoers, b.) Have a chance at awards and most importantly, c.) Are believable.
Battle of the Sexes
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Directors: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Stars: Emma Stone (Billie Jean King), Steve Carell (Bobbie Riggs)
Tagline: After winning the US Open and setting up an all-women tennis league, King is challenged by former champ Bobbie Riggs to an inter-gender match to decide which of the sexes is better.
Writing: Another decent well-crafted screenplay by the Oscar-winning writer of Slumdog Millionaire.
Direction: Not spectacular but a solid crowd-pleasing film, especially for women sick that sexism still prevails 45 years after this match.
Performances: Emma Stone definitely stands out, but Riseborough is also quite good as her hairdresser Marilyn, with whom she had an affair.
Entertainment Value: Excellent. You can probably recommend this movie to any woman in your life and they’ll thank you for thinking of them.
White Male Factor: With two of three key white male roles being antagonists for the women in the movie, it’s not that high.
Oscar Chances: Very good, but more for Stone than anything else.
Plausibility: Although there is definitely some private conversations and moments Beaufoy and the filmmakers would have to speculate to know what was said, it’s all handled in a way that makes you feel as if it’s how everything happened.
Writer: Ronnie Sandahl
Director: Janus Metz
Stars: Sverrir Gudnason (Bjorn Borg), Shia LaBeouf (John McEnroe), Stellan Skarsgard (Lennard Bergelin)
Tagline: Covering the week-long build-up to the 1980 Wimbledon finals between four-time winner Borg and the young American upstart McEnroe.
Writing: Not bad considering the complexities of the stories being told.
Direction: Very impressive, partially because it’s a difficult script with multiple stories and timelines, but also, the recreation of the tennis matches was more impressive than those in Battle of the Sexes.
Performances: LaBeouf is very good and well cast, but it’s the Swedish actor such as virtual unknown Gudnason and Stellan Skarsgard as his trainer that leaves a lasting impression.
Entertainment Value: If you like tennis or watched the nail-biting 1980 Wimbledon finals than you’ll probably enjoy the movie more than anyone else.
White Male Factor: Other than Borg’s fiancé, played by Tuva Novotny, a very small role, this is pretty much all white men all the time.
Oscar Chances: Sadly, this doesn’t look like it’s strong enough to get into the Oscar race unless Sweden puts it up as its foreign language choice.
Plausibility: Having no idea how screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl did his research, it’s hard to determine how much of what was happening off-court was real, but the recreations of the tennis matches were shockingly authentic.
Writer: William Nicholson
Director: Andy Serkis
Stars: Andrew Garfield (Robin Cavendish), Claire Foy (Diana Cavendish)
Tagline: After being paralyzed and forced to be on a respirator for life, Robin Cavendish finds ways to survive and travel around the world with the help of his wife Diana and new innovations in technology.
Writing: Quite good, but nothing too spectacular.
Direction: Nice directorial debut by the actor best known for his performance capture roles in the Planet of the Apes movies.
Performances: Another excellent performance by Garfield and The Crown’s Claire Foy is also quite good, but not quite as impressive as Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything.
Entertainment Value: Surprisingly good and up there with The Theory of Everything despite the tough subject matter.
White Male Factor: Not bad all things considered, mainly because Foy is kept front and center throughout the story.
Oscar Chances: Mid-to-fair because Garfield and Foy are both good, but we’ve seen better.
Plausibility: Very good, particularly because Jonathan Cavendish, son of the two main characters, produced the film and was there for much of the story.
Writer: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan Director: John Curran
Stars: Jason Clarke (Ted Kennedy), Kate Mara (Mary Jo Kopechne), Ed Helms (Joe Gargan)
Tagline: As Senator Kennedy parties with his pals on Martha’s Vineyard, an unfortunate accident leaves Mary Jo Kopechne dead and Kennedy’s team scrambling to spin his involvement.
Writing: This is a very good script along the lines of The Butler.
Direction: Curran’s a solid director who helps keep the film interesting despite its slow pace.
Performances: Clarke is very good, as is Helms as his cousin and lawyer who is frequently ignored because he doesn’t have the name “Kennedy.”
Entertainment Value: People in Massachusetts will definitely be more interested than others, but it might be a tough sell otherwise.
White Male Factor: Mary Jo Kopechne is the only significant female role and she’s dead in the first 15 minutes. Otherwise, this is mostly white guys across the board.
Oscar Chances: Not likely, only because everything about the film is fairly subdued.
Plausibility: Not knowing how the screenwriters researched the movie, it feels like there’s a lot of conjecture about what really happened. It honestly leaves you feeling like Sen. Edward Kennedy basically got away with murder, and we have a murderer still sitting in the Senate, or at least that seems to be the filmmaker’s intent.
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), Ben Mendelsohn (King George IV), Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill)
Tagline: As Germany rolls across Europe towards England, Churchill, the newly selected Prime Minister, must decide whether to fight Hitler’s unstoppable German army or try to sign a peace treaty.
Writing: An absolutely fantastic script that deals with the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy of the government trying to save the United Kingdom.
Direction: Some of Wright’s best work since Atonement
Performances: All excellent but Oldman is next level.
Entertainment Value: This movie should appeal to a fairly large, but older audience, especially those interested in history and WWII in particular, but it doesn’t have the guns and explosions of Dunkirk.
White Male Factor: Pretty high actually. With the exception of Churchill’s typist, played by Lily James, and his wife, it’s all white men, all the time.
Oscar Chances: This will probably be the movie to beat at the Oscars or at least in the Top 3. Guaranteed win for Oldman, definite nominations for the screenplay, a few of his fellow actors, director Joe Wright and a good amount of technical awards, too.
Plausibility: A great film but not particularly believable, especially a last act moment when Churchill mingles with normal people trying to see what they think about negotiating with Hitler or fighting back. His whole relationship with his typist also seems very Hollywood, even if they are nice
The Death of Stalin
Writer: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
Director: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Jeffrey Tambor (Georgy Malenkov), Steve Buscemi (Nikita Khrushchev), Andrea Riseborough (Svetlana Stalin)
Tagline: When Soviet dictator Stalin suddenly dies, it creates a vacuum for others trying to take over the leadership while also trying to atone for the crimes they did under Stalin’s command.
Writing: It’s Iannucci, the creator of HBO’s Veep, so clearly, it’s going to be very, very funny.
Direction: Some impressive set pieces in what’s clearly a bigger production than Iannucci’s earlier film In the Loop.
Performances: All the actors are quite good in getting into their roles, although it’s more about the wigs and make-up in some cases.
Entertainment Value: Probably higher for those with an interest in Russia history and politics, as well as Ianucci’s distinct sense of humor. This is sort of a comedy version of Darkest Hour.
White Male Factor: A pianist played by Olga Kurylenko and another great performance by Andrea Riseborough as the daughter of the dictator helps keep this from being a bunch of Russian bros.
Oscar Chances: Writers might enjoy Ianucci’s original script, but it just doesn’t seem the material will connect even though Buscemi is quite great.
Plausibility: This is based on a comic book and adds a lot of Armando Iannuci’s own sense of humor to make a movie that’s not meant to be taken even remotely seriously.
The Disaster Artist
Writer: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Director: James Franco
Stars: James Franco (Tommy Wiseau), Dave Franco (Greg Sestero)
Tagline: The story of how the world’s worst movie, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, came to be so bad.
Writing: An amazing achievement to adapt Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book into a funny mainstream comedy.
Direction: Likewise, Franco does an amazing job with his most accessible film to date as a director.
Performances: Everyone is generally okay and very funny, but Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau is next level fantastic.
Entertainment Value: You really can’t get a more hilarious and entertaining comedy based on a true story than this.
White Male Factor: You’d think it would be pretty high but at least there are few actress like Alison Brie as Greg’s girlfriend and Ari Graynor, who plays Juliette Danielle, the female lead of The Room, to keep it from being too much about the Franco Bros.
Oscar Chances: Honestly, Franco’s performance is so amazing with so many layers, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sneaks into the Oscar race, and maybe possibly the adapted screenplay?
Plausibility: Based on the non-fiction book co-written by Sestero, who was there at all times during the making of The Room, and with both Sestero and Wiseau involved with the production, it’s easy to believe the making of Wiseau’s movie was as insane as it’s depicted here.
Writer: Steven Rogers
Director: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Margot Robbie (Tonya Harding), Sebastian Stan (Jeff Gillooly), Allison Janney (LaVona Gordon), Paul Walter Houser (Shawn Eckhardt)
Tagline: After struggling through a life of physical and emotional abuse, competitive figure skater Tonya Harding is on her way to the 1992 Olympics until her husband Jeff and his friend Shawn decide to threaten her competition Nancy Kerrigan, and that plan goes very wrong. (And it’s a comedy.)
Writing: Some funny stuff from Rogers helps keep the story moving although it does take a long time to get to the famed “incident” for which many will be watching the film.
Direction: My biggest problem with the movie is that it’s too long and desperately needs editing to flow better.
Performances: Robbie is fantastic, as is Allison Janney as her mother LaVona. Paul Walter Houser also gives a funny performance, stealing the second half of the movie.
Entertainment Value: Like The Disaster Artist this is a very funny movie that’s always played for laughs even when dealing with tough subjects like physical abuse. Those interested in the Harding/Kerrigan incident won’t be disappointed, nor will those who just want to laugh at awful people.
White Male Factor: The first hour is dominated by Tonya, her mother LaVona and her trainer (Julianne Nicholson), but the 2nd hour becomes more about Jeff, Shawn and their cockeyed plot.
Oscar Chances: Robie has a small chance at getting a nomination, plus Janney gives a solid supporting role, but this one feels more like a Golden Globe contender.
Plausibility: Although the script is supposedly derived from real interviews with the players, there’s so much artistic license taken to enhance the humor, that it’s not particularly believable.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Writer/Director: Peter Landesman
Stars: Liam Neeson (Mark Felt), Diane Lane (Audrey Felt)
Tagline: The story of how the FBI special agent leaked information to reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein under the codename “Deep Throat” that led to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
Writing: Perfectly fine but nothing spectacular.
Direction: The same.
Performances: Neeson gives a decent performance that doesn’t require a ton of emotional weightlifting.
Entertainment Value: There are probably people interested in the subject but the movie is so slow and dull, I’m not sure it will appeal to wider audiences outside large cities esp. Washington DC.
White Male Factor: Like Chappaquidick, this is pretty much all white men all the time with the exception of Diane Lane’s small role and that of Maika Monroe as Felt’s daughter.
Oscar Chances: None. This isn’t All the President’s Men or even Spotlight.
Plausibility: Being based on Mark Felt’s own book, it’s very believable, but only from his own very tight-focused perspective.
Writer: Emma Jensen
Director: Haifaa Al-Monsour
Stars: Elle Fanning (Mary Shelley), Douglas Booth (Percy Shelley), Bel Powley (Claire Clairmont)
Tagline: Following the love affair between Percy and Mary Shelley that led to the latter writing Frankenstein.
Writing: Not great.
Direction: Nothing spectacular.
Performances: Starting with Elle Fanning’s bad British accent, the performances are nothing special, and at times, quite bad.
Entertainment Value: If you’re interested in poetry and literary history than this might be your cup of tea, otherwise there isn’t much to keep one interested.
White Male Factor: You can’t get a much more girlie movie than one about a famous female literary figure and her romance that’s both written and directed by women.
Oscar Chances: No chance in hell.
Plausibility: Absolutely zero. This feels more like fiction and flights of fancy than anything based in fact.
Writer/Director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain (Molly Bloom); Idris Elba (Her attorney)
Tagline: The former champion skier Bloom becomes involved in the world of high-stakes underground poker games only to be indicted by the FBI in an attempt for her to help them take down Russian mobsters.
Writing: It’s Aaron Sorkin. Need you even ask?
Direction: For Sorkin’s directorial debut, he shows off quite a flair for making his very specific type of dialogue and narrative work.
Performances: Chastain is impressive, as is Elba, but the others are just there to make them look better, even Michael Cera.
Entertainment Value: Possibly a little too brainy and clinical for mainstream audiences, if you can imagine Steve Jobs or The Social Network with less heart or humanity. Should be a thrill for poker enthusiasts.
White Male Factor: Written and directed by a man and other than Chastain and Idris Elba, it’s basically all white males all the time.
Oscar Chances: Very good for Chastain and Sorkin’s script; pretty good chance for Elba as well.
Plausibility: Considering how much this is directly based on Molly Bloom’s book and how closely Sorkin worked with Bloom, I’d believe that this all happened… but probably more Bloom’s perspective.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Writer / Director: Angela Robinson
Stars: Luke Evans (William Marston), Rebecca Hall (Elizabeth Marston), Bella Heathcote (Olive Byrne)
Tagline: Psychology professor William Marston and his wife take on a lab assistant, who they both fall in love with. Marston’s relationship with these two amazing women helps inspire him to create Wonder Woman.
Writing: Well researched and solidly written.
Direction: It’s not a very splashy film in terms of the direction but it flows smoothly as it covers a lot of ground over a number of decades.
Performances: Hall is the best of the three of them but all give fairly solid performances.
Entertainment Value: If you’re a fan of Wonder Woman, either the movie or the comics, then there’s a good chance you’ll be interested, but it’s a decent drama even if you aren’t a Wonder Woman fan.
White Male Factor: Luke Evans is really the only white male in the mix as writer/director Robinson herself is African-American and the two women have hugely key roles to warrant their mention in the title.
Oscar Chances: Rebecca Hall’s performance is quite fantastic, but she has a better chance if she’s run as supporting, even though she’s as much a lead as Evans.
Plausibility: Tough to say because there’s so much in the film that was probably never written about, but Robinson did her due diligence in terms of research and detective work to make it all seem very real.
Writer: John Pollono
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal (Jeff Bauman), Tatiana Maslany (Erin Hurley), Miranda Richardson (Patty Bauman)
Tagline: At the 2013 terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon, Jeff Bauman loses both his legs and has to deal with his recovery.
Writing: A very strong screenplay that covers a lot of ground.
Direction: This is a pretty big departure for Green, and he handles it as if he’s been making movies based on true stories for years.
Performances: Gyllenhaal is very good, but Maslany is incredibly impressive in a film role that finally shows her range and pulls out amazing emotions from Gyllenhaal.
Entertainment Value: Jeff Bauman’s story is quite inspirational but there are parts of the movie and his story that might seem like a bummer to some movieogers. People who live in Boston will love it, though.
White Male Factor: There are a lot of white men in the movie, both in front of and behind the camera, but Maslany does an amazing job not allowing machismo to dominate the film.
Oscar Chances: Both Gyllenhaal and Maslany give solid performances but one wonders whether Oscar voters aren’t interested in another story about the Boston Marathon bombings after snubbing Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day.
Plausibility: Actually, most of this seems quite believable, especially since Green had the real Jeff Bauman and Erin Hurley and others involved around to keep things real.
Writers: Paul Feig, Jon Hartmere
Director: Neil Burger
Stars: Bryan Cranston (Phillip), Kevin Hart (Dell)
Tagline: A quadriplegic billionaire hires an ex-con as his caretaker to help him with every day things, but his new caretaker ends up pushing him to live his life more fully.
Writing: A little flat compared to the original French comedy The Intouchables on which the movie is based.
Direction: Decent but nothing to write home about.
Performances: Cranston is good, and Kevin Hart basically does his usual comedy schtick.
Entertainment Value: The movie is very entertaining although quite flat compared to the French original.
White Male Factor: Bryan Cranston is really the only significant white male character in the movie, most of his scenes with either Hart and/or Nicole Kidman.
Oscar Chances: It’s doubtful this will fare much better then maybe Golden Globe nods.
Plausibility: Considering that the original people on which the French movie Intouchables were completely different — Philippe being French and Abdel being Arabic – moving the story to New York and changing nationalities already rules out the chances that this might be anything like the true story.
Victoria & Abdul
Writer: Lee Hall
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Dame Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Eddie Izzard (Bertie, Victoria’s son and successor to her throne)
Tagline: Queen Victoria strikes up an unlikely friendship with an Indian visitor who becomes her close friend, confidante and “munshi” (teacher).
Writing: Surprisingly good dialogue and well-structured storytelling.
Direction: Frears is the king when it comes to historical dramedies about royalty. He did direct Helen Mirren to an Oscar for The Queen after all.
Performances: Dame Judi is fantastic as always. Everyone else is in the usual “Working Title Films” mode i.e. all good but none of them as good as Dench herself.
Entertainment Value: Very high because there’s a lot of fun moments and laughs, then some darker more dramatic moments, but the film keeps you invested throughout.
White Male Factor: Despite the writer and director, there isn’t a ton with so much focusing on Victoria and her relationship with an Indian man.
Oscar Chances: Dench seems like a given but anything else might be tough this year.
Plausibility: Not particularly high considering that no one even knew Abdul existed 15 years ago, and all they have to go by is his diary and a few other historical mentions.
Woman Walks Ahead
Writer: Stephen Knight
Director: Susanna White
Stars: Jessica Chastain (Catherine Weldon), Michael Greyeyes (Chief Sitting Bull)
Tagline: New Yorker Catherine Weldon travels to North Dakota to try to paint Sioux Chief Crazy Horse, although the plains are a rough place for a woman on her own.
Writing: Another really strong script from the Eastern Promises screenwriter, this one a screenplay he’s been trying to get made for 14 years.
Direction: Not bad, all things considered. White has a way of making every character important.
Performances: Chastain is amazing and Greyeyes gives an equally impressive performance.
Entertainment Value: Although there are dark moments, the film is very entertaining while being informative. It’s so much about the relationship between these two people from different backgrounds.
White Male Factor: Pretty low despite Chastain’s character being one of the only women in the movie, but the 2nd lead is a Canadian native. They’re surrounded by white men, but they really stand out amongst the cast.
Oscar Chances: Without distribution as of yet, it’s not likely. While Chastain is good, this one is more in the vein of The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Plausibility: Not particularly because the story happened so long ago and not much was written about the encounter. There were a couple other true stories I didn’t get around to seeing, including Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and The Current War, but the above at least gives you an overview of the true stories to expect in theaters over the next few months and into the next year.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor