18 Documentaries That Are As Exciting As A Nail-Biting Thriller

List Rules
Vote up the documentaries that keep you on the edge of your seat.

Audiences are used to being excited by action, adventure, and horror movies. Fans of non-fiction films can get the same kind of excitement. The old saying “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to these movies. Rather than stunts and special effects, they provide suspense through true stories that take wild twists or show real people going through extraordinary circumstances.

Topics in these sometimes-funny, sometimes-scary documentaries range from a fight over the Donkey Kong world championship, to a political campaign that goes completely off the rails, to the efforts to rescue a group of children from a flooded cave. Documentary films have often been unfairly given the label “dry," but none of the following examples are anything close to that. They're guaranteed to have you biting your nails or leaning forward in your seat, eagerly waiting to see what unbelievable thing is going to happen next. They are as exciting, if not more so, than any carefully scripted Hollywood blockbuster.

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    39 VOTES


    Alexei Navalny is arguably Vladimir Putin's worst enemy. He's certainly Putin's harshest critic. Navalny makes a close examination of the events that found the Russian leader attempting to kill the anti-corruption activist who gained a groundswell of support in Russia. On August 20, 2020, Navalny was unknowingly poisoned with a nerve agent. The effects were painful and nearly claimed his life. The documentary opens with footage of its central figure being taken off an airplane, wailing in agony.

    From there, director Daniel Roher's cameras follow Navalny as he and his team - including his wife and daughter - launch an investigation to determine who carried out Putin's orders. They track down clues and information, hitting road blocks along the way, yet never allowing them to impede their progress. In an especially riveting twist, Navalny calls the men who administered the poison after making an educated guess about their identities. One of them even cops to the crime, not realizing to whom he's speaking. The film plays like a detective story, with the team assembling the pieces to prove what happened, all while realizing that Putin's minions could strike again at any moment. Every new development leaves you astonished. 

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    41 VOTES

    The Rescue is a film that will have you holding your breath for 107 straight minutes. That's an apt response, as it tells the story of a 2018 incident in which 12 young soccer players and their coach were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand. They went in for some routine exploring when a massive storm hit, quickly filling the cave with water and making it impossible to exit. Fortunately, there was a small pocket inside where they could sit, although they did so without food or general comforts.

    By all measures, there was no logical way to get them out, due in part to the force of the water current. The Rescue depicts the Navy SEALs' failure to get far enough into the cave, plus the Hail Mary idea devised by Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two middle-aged diving experts, and a doctor. What they proposed was literally insane, yet it was the only thing anybody could come up with that had even a one-in-a-million chance of working. Their plan was far from foolproof. In fact, it was incredibly dangerous. A few scenes in the movie have been recreated, but there's a great deal of authentic footage from their unbelievable efforts. If you have any fingernails left after watching The Rescue, it will be a shock. 

  • You don’t even need to care about video games to get wrapped up in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. You just have to like compelling human stories. The film is about two men locked into battle for the Donkey Kong championship of the world. Steve Wiebe is an ordinary guy who breaks the record long held by Billy Mitchell. Mitchell has let his Donkey Kong success go to his head and has relished the fame he's achieved in gaming circles, so he doesn't take well to having his status usurped. He subsequently bends a lot of rules to snatch back his title. 

    The King of Kong is an incisive documentary about the often vicious nature of competition. Weibe makes for a cheer-worthy hero, and Mitchell's relentless egotism makes him a world-class villain. You really want to see this guy get knocked down a peg (or ten). Observing his twisted psychology offers a master class in narcissism. Several shocking real-life twists and turns in the story keep things as unpredictable as they are riveting. Most of all, The King of Kong builds high drama from the question of whether decency or manipulation will prevail. It may be about a silly video game, but it speaks to the world at large, where some folks play by the rules and others fight dirty.

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    30 VOTES

    The Imposter is a wicked tale of deception. Director Bart Layton digs deep into a true event that sounds like fiction, but isn't. A young boy named Nicholas Barclay went missing from his Texas town. His parents had no idea where he was or what happened to him. Three years later, he turned up in Spain, of all places. He was reunited with his family, claiming to have been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. 

    In reality, “Nicholas” was Frédéric Bourdin, a French con artist who duped this grieving family into believing he was their missing boy. And it worked, at least for a while. The Imposter has Bourdin narrate his own story. Upon hearing the premise, it's understandable to have a million questions run through your mind. The movie answers them methodically, telling viewers how he pulled off this cruel scam and what some of his motivations were. In doing so, it becomes a gripping psychological work, not just about an antisocial personality, but also about how a desire to believe Nicholas was still alive got the Barclays to look past any doubts they may have had and embrace the fantasy.