17 Iconic Movies That Are Historically Accurate

Audiences can tell when historical movies are inaccurate. But when a movie gets it right, it can be eye-opening to see some of history’s most influential moments played out on screen. Read on to learn more about iconic films that nailed historical accuracy over the decades.

Real NASA Consultants Helped In The Making Of Apollo 13

One of the most pivotal moments in American history was the Apollo 13 mission by astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. They attempted to go to the moon in 1970, but an explosion aboard their spacecraft caused them to lose oxygen and electricity.

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Universal Studios/MovieStillsDB
Universal Studios/MovieStillsDB

Ron Howard brought this story to the silver screen with actors Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton in 1995’s Apollo 13. Since there was a lot of video footage, Howard was able to work off something tangible. According to Screen Rant, Howard brought NASA consultants on set and needed special permission to film at various locations.

Goodfellas Was Based On The Novel Wiseguy

From the mind of Martin Scorsese came the crime biopic Goodfellas. The 1990 film starred Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and more as members of a mob group during the mid-20th century. It’s based on the novel Wiseguy, which details the life of mobster Henry Hill through the eyes of a crime reporter.

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Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB
Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB

Goodfellas is now a classic part of American cinematic history, with a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Famed critic Roger Ebert said, “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather.”

Jake LaMotta’s Memoir Inspired Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese directed 1980’s Raging Bull based on the memoir by professional boxer Jake LaMotta. Actor Robert De Niro starred in the main role as a self-destructive boxer who ends up ruining his relationships with his wife and family. De Niro won the Oscar for Best Actor and the film also won for Best Editing.

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United Artists/MovieStillsDB
United Artists/MovieStillsDB

De Niro was inspired to make the movie after reading LaMotta’s memoir and got Scorsese involved. LaMotta felt that De Niro perfectly captured his essence.

Selma Included A Perfect Scene-By-Scene Reenactment

Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma is a historical drama focusing on the 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama led by Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and more. Selma earned a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars and John Legend and Common won the Best Song Oscar for “Glory.”

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Paramount Pictures & 20th Century Fox/MovieStillsDB
Paramount Pictures & 20th Century Fox/MovieStillsDB

Information is Beautiful did a scene-by-scene analysis of Selma and scored it with 100 percent accuracy. “This movie painstakingly recreates events as they happened, and takes care to include everybody who was involved,” said journalist David McCandless.

Leonardo DiCaprio Gave A Spot-On Performance In The Wolf Of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill, and more starred in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 biopic, The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie tells the story of a stockbroker named Jordan Belfort in New York City who goes down the wrong path by committing corruption and fraud.

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Paramount Pictures/MovieStillsDB
Paramount Pictures/MovieStillsDB

The Wolf of Wall Street earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. The real Jordan Belfort thought DiCaprio was spot-on throughout his entire performance.

Jennifer Lopez Did Her Homework Before Making Selena

Jennifer Lopez rose to superstardom as the titular character in the 1997 musical biopic Selena. She portrayed the internationally acclaimed Tejano pop star Selena Quintanilla-PĂ©rez as a teenager and her last years as a young adult. Writer and director Gregory Nava wanted to make this film as a response to her passing.

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Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB
Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB

Nava got right to work on Selena because he didn’t want any negative stereotypes or stories about her spreading through the media. In order to get Selena’s accent just right, Lopez told Billboard that she studied old tapes of her interviews and performances.

Gandhi Remains A Part Of Indian History

Released in 1982, Gandhi is a biographical film about the life of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. Coming in at three hours and 11 minutes, the film accurately depicts Gandhi’s life, the Indian independence movement, and the British colonization of India.

Ben Kingsley as Gandhi
Columbia Pictures/MovieStillsDB
Columbia Pictures/MovieStillsDB

Gandhi received 11 nominations at the Oscars and won eight of them, including Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Director, and Best Picture. Not only was the film successful in India, but audiences all over the world thought it did a great job of telling Gandhi’s story with brilliant performances from the entire cast.

Bridge Of Spies Is An Honest Portrayal Of The Cold War

Written by the Coen brothers and directed by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama about a lawyer (Tom Hanks) who must negotiate the release of a U.S. Air Force pilot (Mark Rylance) who was captured by the Soviet Union. The film did very well at the box office and Rylance won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

tom hanks talking on an old telephone in bridge of spies
Dreamworks Pictures/MovieStillsDB
Dreamworks Pictures/MovieStillsDB

The visual blog Information is Beautiful said that Bridge of Spies was 88.8 percent historically accurate. The actors were able to bring this Cold War-era story to life by capturing the essence of their real-life characters.

Love & Mercy Goes Deeper Into The Life Of Brian Wilson

Most fans of 1960s music have heard of the Beach Boys, but they may not know much about their co-founder and leader, Brian Wilson. Love & Mercy centers on two important stages of Wilson’s life including the making of his hit album, Pet Sounds, and during his treatment with psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy.

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy
River Road Entertainment/MovieStillsDB
River Road Entertainment/MovieStillsDB

While the real Brian Wilson had little to do with the making of the film, he told the Los Angeles Times that it was “very factual.” The scenes with Dr. Landy made Wilson freeze up in fear because they brought back many traumatizing memories. Paul Dano as the younger Wilson earned critical praise for his performance.

Full Metal Jacket Shows American Soldiers’ Perspective On Vietnam

Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket is a Vietnam War-era drama about two privates (Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio) under an aggressive drill instructor. Later, the privates are shipped off to Vietnam to be readied for combat. The film received a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was wildly popular at the box office.

Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket
Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB
Warner Bros./MovieStillsDB

Critics from Time, Metacritic, and more thought Full Metal Jacket was an accurate portrayal of this time in American history. The movie touched on themes of masculinity, military brainwashing, and testing one’s limitations.

Lincoln Was Some Of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Best Work

One of the most memorable Daniel Day-Lewis films ever was the Steven Spielberg-directed Lincoln. The movie focuses on the last four months of the president’s life, during which he was trying to abolish slavery in the United States. Day-Lewis earned the Best Actor Oscar for his performance and the film grossed over $275 million at the box office.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln riding a horse during the Civil War
Dreamworks Pictures/MovieStillsDB
Dreamworks Pictures/MovieStillsDB

“The film was 90 percent on the mark, which given the way Hollywood usually does history is saying something. [It] got with reasonable accuracy a lot of Lincoln’s character, the characters of the main protagonists, and the overall debate over the 13th Amendment,” said American historian Allen Guelzo.

Spotlight Focused On The Little Details

Spotlight swept the Oscars by winning the Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture Academy Awards. The film is based on The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team who investigated priests in the area during the early 2000s. According to the visual blog Information is Beautiful, the film was 76.2 percent historically accurate.

the cast of spotlight in the boston globe office
Participant Media/MovieStillsDB
Participant Media/MovieStillsDB

It was clear that the filmmakers wanted to be correct when it came to the small details such as the costumes and set design. While the movie was released in 2015, there had been many technological changes since 2001 that needed to be portrayed on screen.

A Night To Remember Tells The True Story Of The RMS Titanic

While the 1997 version of Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet is the most-watched version, it doesn’t accurately depict the true story of what really happened aboard the RMS Titanic. Those who want a more factual film should watch 1958’s A Night To Remember.

The Titanic passenger liner sinking in a scene from the film A Night to Remember
Mondadori via Getty Images
Mondadori via Getty Images

A young boy named William MacQuitty, who saw the actual RMS Titanic leave Belfast in 1911, was later hired as the producer. He made sure the original blueprints were used to build the ship and even hired one of the surviving officers (Joseph Boxhall) as the technical advisor.

Moneyball Takes A Careful Look At Sports Data

Moneyball is based on a nonfiction novel of the same name, which centers on the Oakland Athletics baseball team and their general manager. Brad Pitt starred as general manager Billy Beane alongside Jonah Hill his assistant general manager Peter Brand, and the two earned Academy Award nominations for their performances.

Brad Pitt at a baseball field in Moneyball
Sony Pictures/MovieStillsDB
Sony Pictures/MovieStillsDB

According to Razorgator, Moneyball got most of the story accurate. Both Pitt and Hill played their characters as realistically as possible and the filmmakers understood how to incorporate baseball data measurements correctly in the film.

Glory Brings Audiences Back To The Civil War

Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman starred in 1989’s Glory, about the Union Army’s first African American regiment during the Civil War. The film was partially based on the personal letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick) during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.

Matthew Broderick in front of the American flag in Glory
TriStar Pictures/MovieStillsDB
TriStar Pictures/MovieStillsDB

The film earned a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics saying, “Bolstered by exceptional cinematography, powerful storytelling, and an Oscar-winning performance by Denzel Washington, Glory remains one of the finest Civil War movies ever made.” American Civil War historian James M. McPherson believes it’s one of the most accurate Civil War on-screen depictions.

12 Years A Slave Is Based On A Memoir

Hollywood has a history of rewriting the true stories of slavery in the United States, but 2013’s 12 Years a Slave did its best to stay accurate. The film is based on an adaptation of an 1853 slave memoir by Solomon Northup, which was co-edited in 1968 to check for accuracy.

Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard in 12 years a slave drinking tea
Regency Enterprises/MovieStillsDB
Regency Enterprises/MovieStillsDB

Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, and others, played real people and the actors shot their scenes in historic plantations. The movie earned three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Nyong’o).

Tora! Tora! Tora! Is Used In U.S. History Classes

Tora! Tora! Tora! is a 1970 war drama about the events of Pearl Harbor told through the eyes of the Japanese army and United States Navy. The term “tora” comes from the Japanese codeword that “a complete surprise has been achieved.” This was one of the most important events in American history, so the filmmakers wanted it to be as accurate as possible.

three men flying a small plane in tora tora tora
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/MovieStillsDB
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/MovieStillsDB

The filmmakers used research from both the Japanese and American sides to make sure the film had no implicit bias. Screen Rant said that Tora! Tora! Tora! is so close to the original events that it is sometimes used in U.S. history classes.