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This week's Flashback Five springs out of a joke a movie-loving pal made to me as an aside about Bryan Singer's new thriller about the military officers who unsuccessfully plotted to kill Germany's dictator during the 1940's, Valkyrie. My friend was about to start sharing his feelings about the movie, but first said, for maximum comedic effect, "Spoiler alert -- they don't kill Hitler." It made me think about other films wherein you know, going in, what will happen, but that nonetheless work as superb pieces of suspenseful storytelling.
1. All the President's Men (1976)
Yes, we all know about Watergate, and we all know Nixon resigned, so how can All the President's Men be as exciting as it is? Because we know what happened, but we don't know how it happened -- and William Goldman's script shows us every blind alley, every false start, and every mistake along the way as two rookie reporters gnaw on the bone of a story until they uncover the juicy secrets inside.
2. Apollo 13 (1995)
Again, the Apollo 13 astronauts arrived back alive -- but Ron Howard shows us the on-the-fly problem solving it took to make that happen, as the NASA team on the ground and the men in the capsule work the problem with careful contemplation and gutsy guesswork. With an uncredited script rewrite by the great John Sayles lending a little swagger and style to the tale, Apollo 13 turns facts into thrills.
3. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Operation Market Garden, which parachuted an Allied strike force deep into Holland to cut off German supply routes, could have ended World War II in one stroke, in 1944. That, of course, didn't happen, but the big-screen sweep and scope of A Bridge Too Far -- with an all-star cast including Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, and Robert Redford -- throws so many stories of crazy-brave heroics at us that we're still on the edge of our seat.
4. Titanic (1997)
The boat sinks -- I know it, you know it, the guy with the beard explains exactly how it happens early in the movie with 3-D models and animation. But James Cameron pumps up the volume by showing us Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet caught up in the flooding decks and twisted metal and icy water. Titanic may take a bunch of historical liberties, but it's a great example of how a little fiction can inject even the firmest facts with pulse-pounding suspense.
5. Zodiac (2007)
The Zodiac Killer was never found -- so David Fincher's brilliant 2007 epic doesn't really focus on that, instead showing what the hunt for the Zodiac does to the city and the men the Zodiac haunted. When Jake Gyllenhaal is invited downstairs by a man who may be the murderer he's been obsessed with, we feel his fear like a cold stab in the heart.
Five Honorable Mentions:
Reversal of Fortune (1990) turned a scandalous court case into a divine soap opera thanks to Jeremy Irons's and Glenn Close's work as Claus and Sunny von Bulow.
Breach (2007) wrung great, grim tension out of the facts surrounding the biggest espionage case in modern history thanks to great work from Chris Cooper as an uptight traitor.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) gives everything away in the title, but the great cinematography and the amazing mood set by director Andrew Dominik make for a film that's about the journey, not the destination.
The Day of the Jackal (1973) invents a fake plot to kill French president Charles de Gaulle and comes up with a suspense classic.
Escape From Alcatraz (1979) is a film that dramatizes a real event that has a tantalizing cloud of possibilities hovering over it. Clint Eastwood at his grizzled best.