If I’m watching a movie that makes me glad I’m sober, it’s better than meds. Here are 5 recent favorites, all based on true stories about alcohol, drugs, crime, and consequences.
When one sees 150 movies per year, only a few of them stick. My favorites are intensely dramatic indies based on true tales. When documentaries or features include substance abuse? Slam dunk! They stay in my head. Addiction, true crime, and fame—yes! I went gaga over music biopics Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody.
My friend calls me an excitement junkie. True dat, but there’s another element: If I’m watching a movie that makes me glad I’m sober, it’s better than meds. After hitting rock bottom, and dragging my brokenness into recovery, I had many questions, doubts, and fears. People were incredibly patient.
“Don’t drink, and go to meetings,” they said. I liked this slogan even better: “Don’t think, and go to movies.” So, grab an ice-cold lemonade, crank your air-conditioner to high, then kick back and stream these top five flicks.
1. Trial by Fire
Trial by Fire is based on an article by David Grann for The New Yorker in 2009 about an unlikely friendship between former Texas teacher Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) and death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell). Willingham (“Todd”) was found guilty of an arson-related triple homicide in 1992. He was 23 at the time and told everyone that he’d been asleep when the house burst into flames and he couldn’t save his two-year-old and infant twins.
Gilbert (no relation to the author of Eat, Pray, Love) told The Fix: “In 1999, when I wrote the first letter to Todd, my marriage was over and my kids were out of the house…so I had extra time on my hands.”
Opposed to capital punishment, she volunteered to become a pen-pal with a death row inmate.
“I was randomly given Todd’s name,” Gilbert said.
Willingham was a poor, uneducated, unemployed auto mechanic who guzzled Jack Daniels and beat his wife. He was home with the kids while his wife was supporting the family by working in a bar. In court, the prosecutors repeatedly referred to his serpent tattoo and heavy-metal posters as “death images.” Willingham also had a criminal record—a DUI and a couple of petty thefts in his teens.
When Gilbert received Willingham’s first letter, it felt surprising, “It was very forthright. He thanked me for writing and asked me to let the public know how he and others were treated in the penitentiary. Willingham wrote that after there’d been a prison break, the men were no longer allowed to have art supplies or any activities they’d had before.”
After more correspondence and in-person visits, Gilbert grew to believe Willingham was innocent. As she researched the case, she uncovered glaring problems with the investigation and witness statements. When she found out about suppressed evidence that could have cleared him, she contacted everyone involved in the case. Some people spoke to her, others wouldn’t.
Trial By Fire’s director Edward Zwick told The Fix, “It’s one thing to sit in your own room for 10 minutes and not do anything, or even 10 hours. But a prisoner does it for 10 years…. There’s withdrawal; sense deprivation. With Todd, it wasn’t just alcohol. He was doing drugs too, certainly smoking a lot of pot. He was self-medicating. Then, in the midst of everything taken away, there’s no buffer for the pain in the reality of the situation.”
2. Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation
In 2019, many of us are exhausted, wondering What horrible news will I read today? In the 1960s our nation was in a similar mental state—still reeling from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. An alarming number of Americans didn’t come back from the Vietnam War. Hordes of disgusted citizens marched for civil rights, women’s equality, and to protest war. In 1967, Hair opened off-Broadway in New York, 100,000 hippies descended on Haight-Ashbury, and Jimi Hendrix blew everyone’s mind at the Monterey Pop Festival.
In August 1969, Woodstock, the iconic symbol of peace and love, almost didn’t happen. Event organizers estimated about 10,000 people showing up. Half a million came. It was three days of fantastic music but also dire conditions—rain storms, gobs of slippery mud, and not enough food or water. By the last day, only 200,000 remained. I’m guessing the other 300K have been kicking themselves ever since.
Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, played last. With his searing guitar and electric stage presence, he performed a medley of big hits and that unforgettable version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” A clip of it was included in Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation. The doc had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) and received raves. On August 6, PBS makes it available for streaming.
This hope-inspiring indie includes the voices of attendees. We asked one of them, Susie K. Kaufman, if she’d stayed until the last day for Jimi Hendrix.
“Of course! I was there for the mu-uu-uu-sic.” Her emphasis made a two-syllable word sound like four. “My friends were all musicians too. We did not miss any of the performers. We were there to hear it all.”
Kaufman and her friends drove up to the little New York town of Bethel from Morristown, New Jersey in a VW bus.
“We were all high but I was so intensely focused on the music. I’d been protesting all over the place. I was tired. I really needed a break. Woodstock was life-changing for me. I realized I didn’t need drugs anymore. We’d been with 500,000 people and experienced nothing but peace and kindness. It was exactly what I needed.”
It’s a captivating documentary about what is possible despite overwhelming obstacles. Hopefully, America will get back to loving kindness. Love trumps hate.
3. Charlie Says
Fifty years ago, brainwashed and drugged up disciples killed for Charles Manson. Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) tells the story from a new angle, through the perspective of Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray). The next tier of central characters are killers Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón).
Actor Murray (Game of Thrones) is superb as the vulnerable teen girl. She’s the awkward, shy type that predators often sniff out and seduce. Charlie Says doesn’t glorify anyone, although it is wrenching to watch three teen girls become so enamored with Manson that he’s able to warp their minds. Both Harron and Olivia Klaus, the director of the 2014 TFF doc about Krenwinkel, show what happened in a way that creates empathy for these manipulated girls, but neither film minimizes their heinous crimes.
“[T]he story is told from the women’s perspective—trying to understand why they were in the cult and why they did what they did,” Harron told The Fix.
Today’s “Deep State” conspiracy theory is much the same as Manson’s “Helter Skelter.” When the madman listened to The Beatles’ White Album for the first time in November 1968, he heard imaginary coded messages about an impending race war. Manson believed that black people would defeat white people and it would be up to the Manson Family to save the world by taking over the black race and enslaving them. His disciples soaked in his ramblings and followed his directions to prepare for the apocalypse. He taught his cult to kill.
Watching Murray practice stabbing in one powerful scene is particularly disturbing; seeing three young women confined to an isolated cellblock in a California penitentiary and still devoted to Manson is sickening.
Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) is compelling and believable as a compassionate grad student who sees the tragedy of lives ruined by a master manipulator. Determined to break Manson’s spell, she helps the women come back to the real world. It’s painful to watch them realize that they’d viciously killed innocent people because they’d believed Manson’s irrational preachings of hate and violence.
I couldn’t help thinking about the 20-year-old Neo-Nazi who drove his car through a crowd of peaceful protestors in Charlottesville. He just received life in prison plus 419 years. I wonder whose unhinged rantings he’d been listening to.
4. Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story
After 17 years as the National Hockey League’s toughest enforcer, Bob Probert was in chronic pain. He’d been prescribed OxyContin, three pills per day, but took eight instead—two in the morning, two after lunch, two at dinner, and two at bedtime. He’d dip the pills in cola to dissolve the time-release coating, then chop up what was left in a line and snort it. For a couple of hours his back wouldn’t hurt, his hip flexor wouldn’t bother him, and he could walk without the feeling of knives jabbing at his knees.
Probert was a celebrity player for the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, so much of his life was recorded. During his career, he was suspended twice, jailed for carrying cocaine across the border, and admitted to rehab 10 times. Finally, at age 45, his body gave out. He had a fatal heart attack in the summer of 2010. At the time he was finishing up a memoir about drugs, alcohol, police, customs officials, court appearances, and his battles on ice.
During Tough Guy, you’ll hear Probert read a letter. Have a tissue nearby.
“Dear Disease,” he reads aloud, “You have taken away valuable time from my wonderful wife Dani and my four kids… my self-respect and dignity. You have turned me into someone that I am not.”
Bob’s widow Dani spoke to The Fix. She described a three-day intensive program at one of her husband’s rehabs.
“I didn’t want to go,” she said. “I was like ‘This addiction is his problem.’ But I went and [learned] I had my own baggage.”
She said she found help at Al-Anon meetings and women’s groups. Once she developed some tools, and focused on herself, she had an Aha! moment.
“There’s alcoholism in my family. And I had trauma. My parents were young…. and divorced early. I was raised by everybody but my parents. I thought I was okay when I wasn’t. I had to learn not to be codependent. Our last years together were healthy. I focus on that.”
5. Framing John DeLorean
Part-documentary, part-reenactment, this one tells a story that “has everything” according to DeLorean’s troubled son Zachary. “It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents and hard-core drug dealers.”
DeLorean was a flashy marketing wizard who branded himself as much as the sexy cars he designed. When the carmaker decided his image required a stronger chin, he simply bought one and had it implanted.
Alec Baldwin plays John DeLorean—a man driven by the delusion of his own importance. It was entertaining, and paradoxical, listening to Baldwin discuss DeLorean’s ego while he was made up to look like the celebrated narcissist—including thick black eyebrows, gray hair, and a prosthetic chin.
Tribeca Film Festival’s red carpet for the premier featured three DeLorean cars gliding up to curb. It was exciting to be so close to the futuristic car I recognized from the Back to the Future franchise. When the iconic wings were raised, the cast and crew struggled, trying to contort themselves into positions that allowed them to climb out of the impractical car.
In his heyday, DeLorean was a symbol of the American dream. When GM had enough of his arrogance, they fired him. With a “screw you” he did something unheard of—he created his own car company. Framing John DeLorean is a juicy story of a desperate man who lied to and took advantage of his friends, family, investors, collaborators, and employees. Then he got arrested for a $24 million cocaine deal.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Directed by Academy Award nominee Joe Berlinger, Extremely Wicked tells the story of the double-life led by the vicious serial killer and necrophile, Ted Bundy (Zac Efron). This is the first time the Bundy story is told from the perspective of his long-term girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). Alcohol played a big role in both of their lives. Bundy was executed and Liz Kendall (aka Elizabeth Kloepfer) got sober. It’s a great cast: John Malkovich is a scene stealer. Also featured are Haley Joel Osment, Dylan Baker, and Brian Geraghty.