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13 Great Films About Real-Life Scandals

13 Great Films About Real-Life Scandals


Oscar season heats up significantly this week with the release of “Spotlight.” The presumptive front-runner in the awards race for many, Thomas McCarthy’s film starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup has been picking up glowing reviews (read ours here) since its Venice Film Festival premiere, telling the gripping story of attempts by reporters for the Boston Globe to uncover the cover-up of child molestation by Catholic priests in the city.

McCarthy’s film fits into a long history of Hollywood movies tackling real-life scandal, from horrifying institutional corruption of the kind shown here to scurrilous sex scandals involving public figures. With the movie hitting theaters on Friday, we’ve picked out thirteen of the best films based on real-life scandals. Take a look below, and let us know any we miss that you like in the comments.

“All The President’s Men” (1976)
Alan J. Pakula
‘s investigative masterpiece is a pinnacle of dogged journalism in cinema. Every film depicting journalists at work that came out after “All The President’s Men” —especially those concentrated on a roll-up-your-sleeves ethic, sleepless nights, and over-caffeinated nerves found in newsrooms— works in the eternal shadow cast by this classic bastion of determinism to report the truth. Only a few years after the Watergate debacle shamed Richard Nixon into resignation and opened a nation’s eyes to an administration that trampled constitutional rights, William Goldman adapted Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward‘s eponymous book into an Oscar-winning sensation of cutthroat dialogue and paranoid beats. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman iconically portray Woodward and Bernstein (endearingly nicknamed “Woodstein”) while every supporting character —from Hal Holbrook‘s parking-lot source “Deep Throat” to Jason Robard‘s grizzled editor Ben Bradlee— plays an absolutely vital role. Gordon Willis‘ cinematography beautifully accentuates shadows and illuminates the meticulously crafted design of the film. Running after leads, following up with sources and pulling out teeth just to get a single name is rarely as exciting as it is in “All The President’s Men.” The film is alarmingly prescient with respect to our contemporary culture of paranoia and government whistleblowing (this has to be Edward Snowden‘s favorite movie of all time, right?) 

“The Cat’s Meow” (2001)

Until this year, “The Cat’s Meow” was Peter Bogdanovich’s last fiction feature, and marked a modest return to form for a director who’d had plenty of ups and downs over the years. Supposedly based on an anecdote told to him by his friend Orson Welles, the film sets out to solve the murder of Thomas Ince, a pioneering filmmaker who died after a weekend on the yacht of mogul William Randolph Hearst, with Charlie Chaplin, Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, and gossip legend Louella Parsons among the other guests. Bogdanovich’s film suggests a sort of love triangle between Hearst (Edward Hermann), Davies (Kirsten Dunst) and Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), one which turns into murder and cover-up. It’s material that’s perfectly suited to Bogdanovich: he’s one of the great living experts on classic Hollywood, he can film the jazz age better than most, and is able to walk the line between farce and tragedy neatly. It’s in the latter regard that the film really shines: Dunst and Hermann in particular are excellent at bringing a level of pathos to the movie that lesser films would have botched, and it truly sell an unlikely romance. Not all the casting is as effective —both Jennifer Tilly as Parsons and Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn are having enormous fun, but Izzard is fundamentally miscast as Chaplin— but on the whole, it’s a pleasurable ensemble to spend time with, and a smart, if minor, Hollywood mystery.

“Eight Men Out” (1988)

Baseball is by far the most American of sports, and plenty of movies, from “The Pride Of The Yankees” through “Field Of Dreams” to “Moneyball,” have taken advantage of its almost Norman Rockwell-ish status. So when the game’s darker underbelly is revealed, it has a devastating effect  —it’s difficult to imagine a better filmmaker to have tackled the sport’s most shameful moment than John Sayles. “Eight Men Out,” a rare foray into the mainstream for Sayles based on Elkot Asinof’s book, tells the story of “the Black Sox,” the 1919 Chicago White Sox team who were considered one of the greatest ever in the sport, but who ended up embroiled in a match-fixing scandal that forever tarnished its reputation and saw some great players banned from the sport. Sayles juggles the facts and a hefty ensemble (including then up-and-comers like John Cusack and Charlie Sheen doing some of their best work, and a wonderful David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte) with clear-headed, unsentimental manner with a journalistic eye for detail. But he’s also a hugely compassionate filmmaker, and his Loachian sympathy for the working man (earlier demonstrated in “Matewan” and others) shines through by making a story that understands why the players did what they did, even if he implicitly shakes his head sadly that they did it.

“Erin Brockovich” (2000)

One only has to look at the kind of films that followed in the wake of “Erin Brockovich” —“North Country” or “Conviction,” to name two— and it becomes swiftly apparent how middle-of-the-road it could have been, and what a terrific job that writer Susannah Grant and director Steven Soderbergh did in making it a movie that’s anything but. Released in the middle of Soderbergh’s stellar turn-of-the-century run (he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director twice that year, winning for “Traffic”), the film tells the story of the title character (Julia Roberts, who also won Best Actress), a colorfully profane single mother who begins working in the office of an attorney and ends up uncovering an environmental poisoning and cover-up by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company that leads to a giant class action lawsuit. It’s an empowering, deeply feminist story that suggests that these people wouldn’t have gotten justice without the perseverance and persistence of Brockovich, and smartly focuses on the nuts and bolts of legal work rather than forcing the movie into an ill-fitting courtroom drama mould. The outcome is rarely in doubt, particularly with Roberts in such dazzling movie-star form (while adding a grit and nuance that we don’t always see), but it still feels deeply earned when it comes. And Soderbergh gives a theoretically conventional story a languid indie charm, somewhere between Hal Ashby and Jonathan Demme, that makes the film even more winning.

“Fair Game” (2010)

A now-rare foray into non-blockbuster territory for “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge Of Tomorrow” director Doug Liman, “Fair Game” got lost in the midst of both a Cannes premiere and Oscar season. But it’s worth a second look: it’s a sincere, smart take on one of the most shocking abuses of power perpetrated by presidential administration in history, second only to the Watergate scandal in modern times. Based on books by the two subjects of the film, and written by “Spectre” writer Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry, it tells the story of how undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was outed by State Department officials (Bush administration adviser I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby also played a significant role as such) as retribution for her diplomat husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) speaking out against the intelligence on the war in Iraq. It’s smart and authentic, though a little eager to press the melodrama button in places. And it’s an odd fit for Liman: his trademark looseness and smart visual sense isn’t a skillset particularly well catered to by this material. But his clear, indelible anger that his government would throw one of their own under the bus in this manner gives the film a real momentum, and Watts is especially good as Plame, while even those of us with little time for Penn have to acknowledge that he gives a textured and impassioned turn here.

“Hollywoodland” (2006)
Allen Coulter‘s unjustly overlooked film concerns tragedy, thwarted ambition, sexual jealousy and hypocrisy in the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. Starring Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins and Adrien Brody (with Brody’s gumshoe character being the only one not based on a real person), “Hollywoodland” explores the mysterious nature of the death of George Reeves (Affleck), the erstwhile 1950s TV Superman and lover of studio fixer Eddie Mannix’s wife Toni (Lane). Evoking a milieu in which the glamor and gloss of Hollywood conceal rot beneath, Coulter, who has subsequently worked more in TV (“Boardwalk Empire“) tells the story of Reeves’ apparent suicide by gunshot in his bedroom while a soiree went on below. The official verdict was that it was self-inflicted, but many contemporaries assumed murder and the interference and/or manipulation (at least) of Mannix (Hoskins), a character so fascinating he’ll also pop up in the Coen Brothers‘ forthcoming “Hail Caesar!” As this week’s edition of excellent podcast You Must Remember This, which is dedicated to Mannix, points out, Coulter’s film, unlike “The Cat’s Meow,” does not attempt a definitive explanation of questionable events, but instead ambivalently presents the various competing theories as possibilities, and in so doing adds to the aura of mystery that still shrouds this tamped-down Hollywood scandal.

“The Insider” (1999)

A brilliant, uncompromisingly complex and absorbing account of the circumstances leading to tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand‘s (Russell Crowe) controversial “60 Minutes” interview, Michael Mann‘s “The Insider” is perhaps the definition of an unsexy subject made thrilling through exceptional filmmaking. Featuring one of Crowe’s best turns, evoking the loneliness, egotism and insecurity common to whistleblowers better than maybe any other single performance, it pits him opposite a similarly top-flight Al Pacino as “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman. What’s so fascinating about Mann’s approach, and that of co-writer Eric Roth, is that the film becomes as much about the corruption, self-interest and double-dealing within CBS, within various state governances and within the press at large as it is about nasty old Big Tobacco and the lengths it’ll go to to keep their lies under wraps. Yet despite all these massive mechanisms bearing down, Mann never loses sight of the men at the heart of the story, who display a kind of heroism we rarely see explored in movies —the kind that knows it’s not simply about “doing the right thing” but about choosing just which ethical, moral and personal sacrifices you’re willing to make make in order to see justice done. The kind that functions in the real world. “The Insider,” shot through with melancholy and a kind of tired, resigned wisdom, is unusual for being the story of a deserved, hard-earned triumph that was a long time coming, yet feels anything but triumphalist.

“Quiz Show” (1994)
Robert Redford, the face of a number of exceptional conspiracy thrillers in the ’70s, wasn’t done with the subject of digging into national scandals in 1994. He directed his first film on the subject that year, “Quiz Show,” based on Richard Goodwin‘s memoir about the rigging of a network quiz show in the 1950s, which stars John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes as contestants in opposing booths but equal pawns in the capitalistic game of “who’s got the better ratings?” Turturro plays Herb Stempel, a socially awkward, pedantic man with natural encyclopedic knowledge and thus a killer on the popular quiz show ‘Twenty One.’ But once the ratings of the show begin to plateau, the producers of the show (memorably played by David Paymer and Hank Azaria) alongside NBC head honchos and representatives of important sponsor Geritol decide they need new blood. This turns out to be the young, telegenic Columbia professor Charles Van Doren (Fiennes, in one of his most refined performances), and it’s not long before they start feeding him answers, just as they have been doing with Stempel all along. Delicately wrought, thanks to Redford’s experience with familiar material, and subtly punctuated without veering into the sentimental by Paul Attanasio‘s adaptation, “Quiz Show” went on to be a major contender for the Oscars and unravels a type of public offense rarely seen on screen. Keep your eyes peeled for  Martin Scorsese‘s cameo as a shady Geritol exec.

“A Royal Scandal” (1945)

If it’s known at all, “A Royal Scandal” is probably noted among cinephiles due to the odd circumstances of its making: it was billed as written, produced by the great Ernst Lubitsch, but though he rehearsed the actors, he suffered his fifth heart attack on the eve of production, and Otto Preminger stepped in in his place. Whether it might have been more effective under the original director is difficult to say, but as it is, it’s an uneven and disappointing picture. A remake of Lubitsch’s 1942 German silent “Forbidden Paradise,” itself based on the stage play “The Czarina,” the film sees the famously lusty Catherine The Great (Tallulah Bankhead) fall in love with an army officer (William Eythe), who is so disillusioned with her that he decides to plot a revolution. The Lubitsch sparkle is recognizable in the screenplay (“A woman who takes away somebody’s fiancé is not going to respect anybody’s peninsula,” Eythe’s intended Anne Baxter quips at one point), but as he’d continue to demonstrate up through “Skidoo,” Preminger mostly has a tin ear for comedy, and everything feels a little bit off here —a beat too late, a line delivered too grandly. Bankhead in particular is playing to the rafters without the subtle underplaying that the best Lubitsch players pull off, though Charles Coburn steals the show as her quietly amused chancellor.


“Scandal” (1989)
It’s 1959, and osteopath Stephen Ward (John Hurt) is a highfaluting bon vivant rubbing shoulders with England’s elite, MPs and other high-ranking government officials among them. He meets beautiful 16-year-old Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley) in a nightclub and takes her under his wing, nurturing her into a high-society butterfly and introducing her to his friends. It’s the beginning of an unlikely friendship, but even more importantly, it’s the match used to light the dynamite that blew up the British government from the inside out in the early ’60s. Thanks to Ward’s connections and debauched lifestyle —orgies, drugs and alcohol are indulged every single weekend— Christine, living carefree and carpe diem, gets tangled up in affairs with the likes of Lord Astor (Leslie Phillips), Soviet attache Eugene Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe), and, most controversially, England’s Secretary of State for War Jack Profumo (Ian McKellen). What’s most interesting about Michael Caton-Jones‘ “Scandal” —working off  of Michael Thomas‘ script— is that the infamous “Profumo Affair,” which shamed the politician out of office and brought the Conservative Party to its knees, begins only after a whole hour has passed. In the first, Christine and her friendship with Stephen is very much at the forefront, while a pretty hip soundtrack (Dusty Springfield, Nat King Cole, a chirpy Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren duet) and some stylish montages keep things gleefully fun. Once the scandalous part hits, we therefore sympathize with Christine and Stephen on a human level, something that another film tackling the subject might have skipped all together, concentrating more on the political arena and Profumo himself. Thanks to this unconventional approach, the frivolity of baser instincts found in all the players involved, no matter how sympathetic, is both engine and engineer of all fates.

“A Scandal In Paris” (1946)

Melodrama master Douglas Sirk considered “A Scandal In Paris” one of his best films, though the critic-rati have rarely agreed with him, perhaps because like much of his early work, it’s relatively little seen. Count us on Team Sirk on this one: while the film’s atypical for the director, it’s enormously enjoyable and well worth tracking down. Made for United Artists, it’s a strongly fictionalized version of the life of Eugène François Vidocq, considered by many the first private detective and who helped to build the French police force, but had been a criminal in his early life. Here, George Sanders plays Vidocq as a caddish rogue who reinvents himself as the chief of police while trying to rob the Bank of Paris, only to eventually turn against his long-time criminal associate (Akim Tamiroff). Sirk treats the material, which can get dark and almost Victor Hugo-ish in places, with a light, Lubitschian touch, but with the keen interest in morality that would later infuse his more famous work: the film suggests that no one is born good or evil, but has to make a choice. “Within all of us is a saint as well as a dragon,” one character tells Vidocq at one point. Twisty, funny and full of great performances (Carole Landis is particularly good value as a tragic love interest), it’s dismissed by many auteurists as workmanlike, but would that all workmen could turn out a film like this.

“Secret Honor” (1984)
This Robert Altman chamber piece would work wonderfully well if double-billed with “All The President’s Men.” Not only does it play out like a direct response to the latter’s evisceration of Nixon’s biggest blunder, but it’s a polar opposite in style and execution. Filmed in the interiors of one study with a cast consisting of only one player — a volcanic Philip Baker Hall as Nixon, of course— “Secret Honor” is a claustrophobic, dense rant for the ages. Donald Freed and Arnold Stone adapt their own play by the same name, but thanks to Altman’s innate cinematic sensibilities, the film is elevated from the mere theatrical to the familiar vibrant and kinetic spirit present in all his films. Nixon gives his take on Watergate, Henry Kissinger, John F. Kennedy, Vietnam and everything and everyone in between that mired his entire presidency in thick veil of scandal. He never fails to remind the listener on the other end of the tape-recorder (“Roberto,” an off-screen character that becomes a comic relief punchline thanks to Baker’s brilliant delivery) of the good he’s done which the public readily forgets, or how there are a vast number of behind-the-scenes players who are part and parcel of the very same controversy. George Burt‘s score and Pierre Mignot‘s restless camera make the 90 minutes fly by, and Altman’s framing (the portrait of Kissinger is almost another character, breathing down Nixon’s neck) keeps the mise-en-scene consistently interesting throughout. But Hall’s performance is the mantlepiece, vexatiously veering off into tangents while making us feel some modicum of sympathy for the most scandal-mired U.S. president in history.

“Shattered Glass” (2003)

In the internet aggregation age, the long-prized ethics of American journalism has taken a battering, and it now feels like Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass” was quite prescient. It’s an absolutely terrific, underrated movie. The directorial debut of screenwriter Ray (then best known for “Volcano,” now the man behind “The Hunger Games” and “Captain Phillips”), and based on a Vanity Fair article, the film tells the then fresh-in-the-memory story of Stephen Glass, a fast-rising journalist for The New Republic whose colorful, characterful stories proved after investigation by other journalists and his own editor Chuck Lane to be mostly fabricated. Framed cleverly by a speech Glass gives to high school students, it’s undoubtedly indebted to “All The President’s Men” and will strike some as inside baseball, but Ray makes it a lean, riveting watch, not muddying an already-fascinating story with movie bullshit. But his real trump card comes with his cast. Reliable, oft-underused character actors like Steve Zahn, Hank Azaria, Rosario Dawson and Melanie Lynskey get key roles and visibly relish them, but it’s the leads who walk away with the movie. Peter Sarsgaard essentially made his career as Lane: a tough, old-school reporter better at writing than he is at office politics, and who sees straight through his troublesome employee with one look. And remarkably, the film also has a great performance from often-wooden “Star Wars” star Hayden Christensen as Glass. A great early portrait of proto-millennial entitlement, Christensen plays the role with a sort of perpetual whine, like he’s about to turn around and tell his mom about how unfair everything is.

Honorable Mentions:  It’s hard to pin down the ‘scandal’ movie exactly, but among others that we considered but ultimately considered too familiar, not quite right, or just surplus to requirements, were “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” “Casualties Of War,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “American Hustle,” “Philomena,” “True Story,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Missing,” “Serpico,” “The Informant!,” “Dick,” “The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing,” “Welcome To New York,” “Oranges And Sunshine” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” Any others? Let us know in the comments.

— Oliver Lyttelton, Nikola Grozdanovic, Jessica Kiang

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