It comes as no surprise that some of our most heinous historical world events have become the subject of a cinematic depiction. As audiences wanting their thirst for great cinema and intrigue in world issues grow we have had, in the naughties alone, Roman Polanski deliver The Pianist in 2002 and more recently László Nemes’ Son of Saul to quench our desire. Even this week, we have the release of Terry George’s The Promise which tells the story of the Armenian Genocide in the final years of the Ottoman Empire with Oscar Isaac, Charlotte LeBon and Christian Bale hitting our cinemas.
Whether these events are genocides, horrific murders, acts of terrorism or even demonic paranormal activities, our quest for knowledge, understanding and feeling has inspired filmmakers for years. Their films set out to shine a light on the atrocities and suffering of man, and act to empower people against those who want to suppress us or simply just to honour those who have brutally suffered. So, with that in mind, we came up with a list of some of the cinematic depictions of real life tragedies.
Alpha Dog (2006)
Alpha Dog may not even occur to most to appear on this list, but the story of the kidnap and brutal murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz for absolutely no reason is one of pure horror and heartbreaking sadness.
Writer and director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, Face/Off) changed the names of those involved with this shockingly wicked murder within the film and focused on Johnny Truelove’s (Emile Hirsch) vanity and money-fueled obsession with revenge against Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) for owing him money and disrespecting him. After Johnny and his friends kidnap Jake’s brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) he is left in the care of Johnny’s right-hand man Frankie (Justin Timberlake), who subsequently builds a relationship with this sweet innocent boy.
Zack has the time of his life with Frankie introducing him to a whole new world of hedonistic advantage and going along with it all just so his brother doesn’t encounter any further problems but ultimately Zack still finds himself in a shallow grave with a bullet in his head. Also starring Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis and Amanda Seyfried – Alpha Dog met with mixed reactions which saw a young Yelchin praised for his depiction of conflicting emotions.
United 93 (2006)
Any of us old enough to remember that tragic day back on September 11 2001 when terrorists commandeered the skies over America will never forget those chilling morning when so many lost their lives. Not just through the collapsing Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York but also those brave enough to confront their fate head on. United 93 tells the story of one of those hijacked planes.
Piecing together the last minute messages of the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, director Paul Greengrass created a fitting tribute to the men and women on that flight. Documenting the final brave acts of the passengers who, after learning of the other attacks, took matters into their own hands to stop the hijackers from reaching their intended target of the United States Capital in Washington DC before ultimately losing their own lives.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
A plot focused on anything to do with the paranormal is always tagged with ‘allegedly’ and a whole bundle of scepticism. However despite a negative critical response this paranormal horror was a huge commercial success with Lalo Schifrin’s score nominated for an Academy Award. It was also dubbed the most successful film produced by an independent studio at that time.
Starring James Brolin, who initially didn’t want to do the film, as George Lutz, The Amityville Horror is based on the alleged real-life experiences of the young married couple after buying a home on Ocean Avenue in Amityville New York. The house had previously witnessed a mass murder the year before the Lutz family moved in, and the film proceeds to unravel the hauntingly terrifying events the family and those that visit the house experience before they flee never to return.
The Killing Fields (1984)
This powerfully moving film from Roland Joffe focuses on the experiences of two journalists who witness the ferocious regime enacted by the Khmer Rouge in which it is estimated between 740,000 and three million civilians lost their lives. With half of those deaths the result of mass execution during the Cambodian Civil War.
Winning three Oscars and a staggering eight BAFTAs, The Killing Fields is split between Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg over the course of three years which saw Schanberg awarded with a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Cambodian conflict whilst driving a campaign to find Pran. Pran was left behind to endure the horrors of the atrocities the Cambodian people were forced to endure, including stumbling across the infamous Killing Fields in the midst of a cesspool filled with rotting corpses.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Dubbed the African Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda centres on the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and one man’s acts of selfless kindness to save the lives of not just his own family but thousands of Tutsis refugees by opening up his hotel to provide shelter. That man was Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina.
Directed by the In the Name of the Father screenwriter, Terry George, with Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina, Hotel Rwanda is incredibly emotionally affecting in its portrayal of this horrendous genocide in the midst of political corruption, likened to the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population. Cheadle gives a career-defining performance with the film earning a bucket full of award nominations including three Academy Award nominations.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Last year, Ryan Coogler won high praise for his direction and screenwriting with the seventh in the Rocky film saga with Creed which saw Michael B. Jordan as the son of the deceased Apollo Creed. However, back in 2013, Coogler burst onto the screen with his first feature length film, Fruitvale Station, where he first cemented his working partnership with Jordan, concluding in the film winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Having seen the senseless murders at the hands of the racially corrupt US police department escalating since the film’s release, Coogler hasn’t set out to entice rage but approached the last day of Oscar Grant (played by Jordan) with a calming sensitive touch. It emanates a quietly affecting depiction of those last hours of a young man whose life was brutally taken away from him by a BART police officer in Oakland, California. Grant’s character is in no way romanticised as his chequered past is made clear in a film that builds a relationship between Grant and its audience resulting in a gut-wrenching murder.
The first of two Steven Spielberg films to make it onto this list is also his lowest grossing film to date. Co-written by Forest Gump writer, Eric Roth Munich was met with much controversy and was even dubbed a work of fiction due to its ‘bastardisation’ of numerous events.
With a cast that included Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds and Geoffrey Rush, Munich’s core is based on Operation Wrath of God, the Israeli government’s secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization after the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics where eleven Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered by a group called Black September. Taking its inspiration from the book Vengeance about Yuval Aviv, who states he was a Mossad agent, Munich seess a squad of assassins track down and kill alleged members of the group Black September.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Another film which met with controversy as far as to having the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta Scott King goes as far as to boycott the film was Alan Parker’s documentation of the FBI’s investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in the state of Mississippi in 1964. The film which was also heavily criticised for its fictionalisation of history by black activists involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the families of the three murdered activists.
Lead with exceptional performances from William Defoe and Gene Hackman as the FBI agents in the investigation, the pair face an uphill battle to unearth the truth of what happened, meeting opposition not only from the town’s residents but the local police and even the Ku Klux Klan. It even comes to a point where legal lines become blurred in their quest to solve the case.
In what can be described as a thinking person’s thriller, the onus is very much on the details in Zodiac and it has an abundance of them. Director David Fincher has sought meticulously the authenticity and accuracy of the main players of the manhunt for a notorious serial killer in the late 60’s early 70’s. Without his leading cast of Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Downey’s Avengers buddy Mark Ruffalo and their heartfelt and passionate performances this may have led to a far less affecting movie.
The film tells the story of the manhunt for a notorious serial killer who called himself the “Zodiac” and who killed in and around the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Leaving several victims in his wake the Zodiac killer taunted police with letters, blood stained clothing, and ciphers mailed to newspapers, leading to both reporters and detectives reluctantly working together to try and solve a case which proved unsolvable.
Schindler’s List (1993)
The final spot on our list is probably one of the only films that was a sure thing to appear here: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There is no debate over the historical importance of its brutally honest yet humanistic depiction of the horrifying events of the Holocaust during the Second World War. It is almost certainly Spielberg’s masterpiece.
The beauty of the black and white cinematography only adds to its poignancy of one of the most atrocious event of the last century. The film depicts the life of Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, an ethnic German businessman who went from a Nazi worker to Jewish sympathiser, saving the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. A shocking true life tragedy which made cinematic history.