"Based on actual events…"
It's a title screen that has been popping up on our theater screens more and more frequently. Some could say it's just another indicator of Hollywood's lack of original ideas. Or the generous observer could say that showbiz has become more aware that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and that some of the most miraculous stories can be found throughout history.
The announcement is also one very carefully crafted sentence. It opens the door to any amount of fictionalization that could occur in the standard film, while also communicating to the audience that there is truth in what they are about to see. The amount of truth, though, is omitted. Once a studio has possession of the story, it is their discretion to dramatize wherever they deem necessary, for better or worse. In the end, regardless of the integrity of the filmmakers, the pressure to produce box office hits and the great expense undertaken by the studio requires the focus to be on creating an entertaining final product over historical accuracy.
In contrast, the documentarian's approach, collecting firsthand testimony, archival footage, and expert opinions, is the most authentic way to understand someone's story, and the medium can be entertaining and informative all at once.
Some stories are so amazing that they've been deemed worthy of being told by both sides. Here's a list of great documentaries that are just as riveting, if not more so, than their fictionalized counterparts.