Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

Top 10 Films Based on Real-Life Crimes

Hollywood does a good job of coming up with compelling and realistic movie plots, but they just don’t compare to the cinematic depictions of real-life crimes. Some of the best crime movies are inspired by real criminal acts and events that have shaped society and changed the way we view and punish crimes. Here are the top 10 films based on real-life crimes.

  1. Zodiac (2007)

    Zodiac is a mystery-thriller that chronicles the ongoing hunt for the infamous Zodiac serial killer, who murdered at least seven people in the San Francisco bay area during the late ’60s and ’70s. Jake Gyllenhaal plays San Francisco Chronicle¬†decode the killer’s encrypted letters political cartoonist-turned-crime author, Robert Graysmith, who tried to that were sent to the police and newspaper. Despite years of investigation, the Zodiac murders still remain unsolved.

  2. Public Enemies (2009)

    Public Enemies chronicles the story of notorious bank robber John Dillinger and his gang of outlaws as they escape from prison and outrun the FBI. Johnny Depp gave a critically acclaimed performance as Dillinger, and Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the real-life FBI agent who led the manhunt that eventually ended the outlaws’ crime spree.

  3. Summer of Sam (1999)

    Spike Lee’s crime drama Summer of Sam is based on the real-life Son of Sam serial murders that took place in New York City during the summer of 1977. The film follows one tight-knit Italian-American neighborhood that has grown fearful for their lives and begins to suspect one another of being the killer.

  4. Goodfellas (1990)

    The hit film, Goodfellas, is based on the real-life story of Mafioso Henry Hill and his rise from a small-time gangster to a convicted criminal, whose testimony helped bring down some of New York’s most notorious mobsters. Hill, played by Ray Liotta, enters the Witness Protection Program to protect himself and his family’s life, and later becomes an FBI informant.

  5. American Gangster (2007)

    American Gangster tells the true story of Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas, who was famous for smuggling heroin into the U.S. by way of American soldiers’ coffins from the Vietnam War. Denzel Washington plays the innovative drug dealer who is investigated and arrested by detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe.

  6. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

    Dog Day Afternoon is based on the real robbery of a Brooklyn bank in 1972. The film was inspired by the events recorded in P.F. Kluge’s article “The Boys in the Bank.” Al Pacino plays the first-time bank robber, Sonny Wortzik, who hopes to steal enough money to help his lover undergo a sex change operation, but what was supposed to be a quick transaction turns into a day-long siege that ends in tragedy.

  7. Donnie Brasco (1997)

    Crime drama Donnie Brasco tells the story of undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone and his work to uncover the crimes of a large New York mafia family. Pistone, played by Johnny Depp, assumes the new name of Donnie Brasco, a street burglar, and joins the Bonnano family. Brasco’s undercover work helped bring down 120 mobsters who received life sentences.

  8. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

    Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is an award-winning comedy-drama about real-life conman Frank Abagnale Jr., played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his journey to becoming one of the most innovative and skilled criminals in U.S. history. At only 19 years old, Abagnale made millions by posing as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a parish prosecutor.

  9. Monster (2003)

    Monster is a crime drama based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, a real prostitute-turned-serial killer who was executed for murdering six men in Florida. Wuornos’ first victim was killed in self-defense, but she continues to rob and murder her clients to support her and her lover, Selby Wall, played by Christina Ricci. Actress Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for her critically acclaimed portrayal of Wuornos in the film.

  10. Blow (2001)

    Blow tells the real-life story of American cocaine smuggler George Jung, played by Johnny Depp, and his journey to becoming one of the world’s most prolific drug dealers. But his success and wealth come back to haunt him when he’s betrayed by his wife, Mirtha, who plants a stash of cocaine in his car which lands him a 60-year prison sentence.