From Top Gun to Tora! Tora! Tora!, films about aviation have been a staple of American movies for nearly a century. But which of these movies are the most accurate? Which are the best? While Maverick flying upside-down might not be realistic, other movies have tried to get it right, much to the delight of flight fans everywhere. These are the best aviation movies you need to watch, and we’ll tell you just how accurate they are!
The Right Stuff Got A Lot Wrong
The Right Stuff was released in 1983 to critical acclaim. It followed the story of the first military pilots selected as astronauts for Project Mercury. The movie holds a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, even though it’s not always factually accurate.
One of the more notable “dramatic liberties” the movie takes is making the flight of the X-1 to break the sound barrier a spur of the moment and a death-defying decision. In truth, the craft was rigorously tested and safe before this moment.
The Aviator Is Surprisingly Honest About Howard Hughes
On the surface, The Aviator is a fantastical re-telling of Howard Hughes’ life from the ’20s through the ’40s. During this time period, he became a successful movie producer and aviation enthusiast/daredevil.
According to Daily History, the movie is not as crazy as it appears. Hughes himself was an over the top figure and, “The movie accurately shows that Hughes was a lifelong lover of aviation and an innovative aerospace engineer.”
Top Gun Was A Great Recruitment Tool, But Factually Inaccurate
Top Gun is perhaps the most famous aviation film ever made. Starring Tom Cruise, the classic action film was released in 1986 and follows the exploits of rebel naval academy pilot LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
The film, which was made in cooperation with the Navy, may not have been a factually accurate depiction of life in the sky (by a long shot) but it did serve as an incredible recruiting tool. After the movie became a massive hit, it was reported that the number of men trying to sign up for the Navy increased by 500 percent.
The Spirit Of St. Louis Takes Honest Flight With Charles Lindbergh’s Life
Released in 1957 and directed by Billy Wilder, The Spirit of St. Louis is a harrowing look at the life of Charles Lindbergh as he prepares to make the world’s first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight.
The movie was a box-office failure at the time but has been hailed since then as an honest and accurate portrayal of Lindbergh’s story. The Smithsonian even uses the film as part of its “classics” series of screening for those curious about history.
Tora! Tora! Tora! Is A Misguided Classic
Today, Tora! Tora! Tora! is seen as a classic war and aviation film praised for its battle scenes. When it was released, it didn’t find the same praise, partially because of all the liberties it takes re-telling the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
According to Daily History, “the movie’s portrayal of the role of Emperor Hirohito was also incorrect, and it understates his role in the events in the run-up to the Japanese attack on the 7th of December 1941. These are serious failings, and they undermine the credibility of the film and give a false sense of the events.”
Historians Love The Great Waldo Pepper
George Roy Hill is most famous for directing The Sting in 1973, which has overshadowed the film he released two years later, The Great Waldo Pepper. Starring Robert Redford as a disaffected WWI pilot who examines his postwar dislocation in the ’20s, historians hail the film as one of the most accurate ever made.
Aviation and film historians Ed Schnepf and Jack Hardwick gave the film a four-star rating for its attention to period details and period-accurate aircraft featured.
Flight Is Laughably Unrealistic
Flight was heralded by critics when it came out in 2012 and was one of the most successful movies of Denzel Washington’s career. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Actor and another for Best Original Screenplay.
With the success and accolades Flight received, you might assume it gets aviation right. But as one real-life pilot revealed to The Daily Beast, it couldn’t be more wrong, “I cannot begin to describe how wrong it is, from the absurd idea that you would actually increase to maximum flying speed to race between storm cells to Whitaker’s impetuous descent, which for some inexplicable reason he believes will help lead them safely through the weather—all without permission from air-traffic control. Are you kidding?”
Flyboys Never Soars To Truthful Heights
A WWI drama released in 2006 and starring James Franco, Flyboys follows a group of Americans who travel to France to serve in the French Air Service. A unique take on aviation and war movies, Flyboys lacked the historical authenticity that could have made it a classic.
The main reason for the failure of the accuracy of the movie was the military advisor used, Jack Livesey. Just before the film came out, Livesey was revealed to be a fraud, lying about his military service for most of his adult life to be able to reap the professional and personal benefits.
Air Force One May Or May Not Be Accurate
Air Force One is a classic action film from the ’90s that stars Harrison Ford as the president on his plane who has to save everyone on board from terrorists. A commercial and critical success, we may never know how accurate the movie actually portrays the most famous jet in America.
The reason for the unknown accuracy of the film is obviously for security purposes. What we do know is that producers and crew toured Air Force One while developing the movie. One feature, the escape pod, has been confirmed by one former President to not be a real feature, however.
Pearl Harbor Was An Endless Misfire
Pearl Harbor made 450 million worldwide when it was released in 2001. The epic retelling of the attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a hit with audiences thanks to a pulpy love story and an action-packed 40-minute finale.
As far the historical accuracy of the movie and its flight scenes, well, it probably should be categorized as fiction, as just about everything that happens in the film, from the jets used to the glasses characters wore never existed at the time events take place.
The Man Sully Is Based On Says They Got It Right
Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of Captain Sullenberger, the man behind the “Miracle on the Hudson.” In 2009, the pilot saved his entire flight of passengers when he was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. According to the captain:
“The level of detail, the granularity of it… All those kinds of things translate pretty well to the screen, and it seems real. It feels real.”
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines Used Era-Appropriate Aircraft
Released in 1965, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines may be a comedy, but that doesn’t mean it took liberties with history. The laugher focuses on the early era of aviation and features a sprawling ensemble cast.
During production, the director went through great pains to have 1910-era aircraft accurately be re-created that were going to be featured in the film. The only modern updates he allowed were those needed to ensure the safety of the cast and crew.
Wings Was Made By A Former U.S. Army Corpsman
Wings made its theatrical debut in 1928. The oldest film on this list, it also might be the most accurate. Legendary director William Wellman ran the show, and prior to filming was given access to a huge arsenal of authentic military vehicles and aircraft.
Wellman had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and used his connections to get permission to use the vehicles. The aerial fights, which stand up with the movies of today, are considered by historians to be as accurate as any movie made about war could be.
Midway (1976) Is Riddled With Mistakes
Starring Charlton Heston, Midway came out in 1976 and was a retelling of the famous Battle of Midway during World War II. It was a huge hit with audiences and was the 10th most profitable film of the year.
Unfortunately, Midway was riddled with mistakes and inaccuracies. One of the most prominent mistakes in the film is the planes used during the battle. Historical footage shown is also footage taken from different events with different aircraft altogether.
Midway (2019) Is Surprisingly Accurate
When a movie comes from the director of Independence Day, you probably expect it to riddled with inaccuracies. Get ready to be surprised by Midway, then. Sharing a title with the movie from 1976 and starring Nick Jonas, this one gets it (mostly) right.
Shortly after coming out, USA Today fact-checked the expensive action pic with retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, who said, “The people are real, what they did is real. This movie captures the courage and sacrifice and stakes involved in the battle.” While he admits there are some mistakes made by the movie, he also confirms it takes far fewer liberties than its predecessor.
Memphis Belle Is Loosely Based In Truth
Memphis Belle came out in 1990 as a co-production between the United States and Great Britain. It tells the story of the 25th mission of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber. It was based on the last mission for the American aircraft, and when we say based, we mean loosely.
The film was successful and is still fondly remembered by audiences, but historians have been less kind. Characters are composites of several real people while the date of the mission depicted is not that of the craft’s actual swan song.
Flight Plan Is A Mixed Bag
Flight Plan was a huge hit in 2005. Starring Jodie Foster, the mystery film used a missing child as a plot point, which sounds implausible for a film that takes place on an aircraft. And even though the plane in the movie is fictional, it is based on a real one.
Aviation historian Simon Beck explains, “The aircraft is a fictional mammoth airliner called the ‘E-474’, a double-deck jumbo modeled strongly after the Airbus A-380, the large size being suitable for the missing-person plot of the film.” The portrayal of flight attendants, however, was widely panned as inaccurate.
The Real Frank Abagnale Set The Story Straight On Catch Me If You Can
In the ’70s, Frank Abagnale was 17-years-old when he became one of the world’s most wanted con artists for posing as a doctor and a Pan American World Airways pilot. His story was told in the movies Catch Me If You Can, which was directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 2002.
Abagnale watched the movie twice and revealed, “I thought he stayed very close to the story… He [Spielberg] was very concerned about being accurate, first of all, because it was the first time he made a movie about a real person living. Second, the Bureau had an information officer on the set for all the shooting of the entire film to make sure that what he said about the FBI … was accurate.”
The First Of The Few Is A Romanticized Take On History
In the United States, The First of the Few was released with the title Spitfire. A British production, the movie is the true story of the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire. A hit when it was released in 1942, it was also a romanticized and inaccurate telling of the real tale.
R.J. Mitchell designed the plane and was portrayed as becoming mysteriously ill and working himself to death from his passion. While he did grow seriously ill in real life, it was not from his work. He struggled with cancer for several years until tragically passing away in 1937.
The Blue Max Used The Wrong Planes
Following a German fighter pilot during WWI on the Western Front, The Blue Max was a commercial success but a historical failure. Based on the highly researched novel of the same name, author Jack D. Hunter revealed one major flaw with the movie:
“I saw Fokker D-7s with inverted engines and 1916-style insignia, Dr-1s with radial engines and smoke canisters on their landing gear struts, machine-guns that looked like Space Cadet props spouting flame without benefit of ammo tracks, every pilot wearing an Uhlan uniform and Battle of Britain style goggles, Gypsy Moths pretending to be Albatros D-3s, a Stampe presented as an RE-8—the anachronisms and goofs compounded.”