MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Trouble With Biopics


We’re close to an all-biopic Oscar season. Maybe that’s why it’s such a frickin’ blur right now.

The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma, Unbroken, Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner, Big Eyes, and American Sniper… all specifically biopics.

Boyhood and Birdman are fiction, but have major biographical elements driving them.

That leaves Gone Girl, Whiplash, Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Into The Woods as the only truly non-biographical movies in the front of the race. And at this point, it looks like one – maybe, maybe two – will make the nominations cut.

Lots of bios.

The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, and Big Eyes take the “off the main biographical story” route. Something other than the expected telling of the story drives both movies.

Mr. Turner chooses a very specific and challenging time in Turner’s life to explore. The Imitation Game takes the long-secret part of Alan Turing’s life, but then embellishes it with a darker (though not dark enough for some) story about his homosexuality.

Of the biopics, the only straight route pieces are Selma and Unbroken. Selma derivatives from the expectation by attempting a more personal, behind-the-scenes portrait of Martin Luther King. But primarily, it is the story about the three attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.

Unbroken covers the life of Louis Zamperini pretty much from his teen years in the early 1930s through the end of WW II in 1945.

Both films offer a lot of beautiful filmmaking and performances. But both also suffer (or benefit, for some) from not having a lot more to say than the real life events of their respective stories. My initial reaction is to put the blame in both cases on young filmmakers. For Ava DuVernay, this is just her third non-doc feature film. For Angelina Jolie, it is her second. Perhaps this is too simplistic an explanation. Perhaps not.

There are plenty of filmmakers who have unique, strong voices from the time of their first film and onto their second or third. Foxcatcher is only Bennett Miller’s third non-doc feature. The Imitation Game is Morten Tyldum’s first English-language film, though he has made three others. Whiplash is a second feature.

More specifically, I feel like both directors on these two films have been too loyal to their source material. Both, for me, feel like the filmmakers thought the idea so strong that a good story well told was enough. But not enough for me. A friend recently described Selma as having “a mesmerizing, tireless focus on process.” I was not mesmerized. I was appreciative, but watching the film, I didn’t feel a single thing that I wasn’t expecting to feel when I heard the title of the movie. In some cases, less. LBJ and Wallace were some funky, politically schizophrenic, profoundly of their era dudes. But they seemed pretty by the book here. MLK screwed around on his wife a bit. Noted. (For me, Coretta Scott King and the performance by Carmen Ejogo was the highlight of the film… but nowhere close to the center of the film.)

Perhaps I know the history too well and a well-made telling of the tale is in order for many viewers. I wanted to feel or know something new by the time the film was over. Mostly, I wondered, as I often have in my 50 years, whether I would have had the courage to go to Selma and march had I been of age. Meaningful, but not new.

And this is an issue I had with both films. Hitting Oprah is scary, but unearned. I don’t care how rough the make-up… she’s Oprah Winfrey and hitting a national, color-barrier-cutting icon is an easy shriek.

Likewise, the “how many times can someone or something try to break Louis Zamperini?” gets outright boring after a while. I get it.The guy is a little bull. But early in the film, when he is causing trouble around town as a teen, I wanted desperately to know why. What is it that he wants to live for? Never found out… except on the presumption that none of us want to die. And most powerfully, in the post-script for the film, the post-war life of Louis Zamperini was, apparently, where all the hard questions were answered…. and I really really, really want to see THAT film. And I would really like to see it as made by Angelina Jolie, who seems to have had some hard times and overcome them in her own life. THAT is a story where her voice as an artist could be singular and mighty.

You know, the high bar on this ground is David Lean, who created masterpieces about war back to back. The Bridge Over The River Kwai with screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman and Lawrence of Arabia with Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson. Unbroken quite literally aspires to what these films achieved. Selma less so, but the back story elements of Lawrence is the foundation on which the Selma script is built.

I am not saying that I expected either of these 2014 films to deliver on the genius of two of the greatest films ever made. But with those films, the language of cinema changed forever. Every film that walks near that turf reflects in some way on what those films established. And the great films since then on these subjects, added to the language. 12 Years A Slave, aside from the issue of race, raised the bar on the cinematic portrayal of abuse – and slavery, specifically, but not exclusively. Zero Dark Thirty – and The Hurt Locker, to a lesser extent – weaved the complexity of political process with great action filmmaking to add new colors. True Grit bent iconic figures the way Lean and Bolt did, but with The Coens’ singular humorous view of humanity. Letters From Iwo Jima turned the WWII movie on its head, not only coming from the Japanese side, but breathing in their language, taking the Japanese of River Kwai a giant leap further. The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Killing Fields, The Right Stuff… even Patton added more language from the eternal reflection of the Lean films.

Am I damning Selma and Unbroken with unobtainable praise? Perhaps. But I see in both stories the opportunity for greatness. There just wasn’t enough subtext for me. They were all text.

Moreover… we are talking in the context of Oscar. And there are many things that we “all know” that turn out to be wrong or which inspire exceptions. But… the last time a history lesson won Best Picture was Schindler’s List in 1993. There was a run between 1978 and 1986 when we saw The Deer Hunter, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, Platoon, and The Last Emperor make the period biopic the winner in 7 of 9 years. But of those 8 films, I would only say Gandhi was in the same straight-history neighborhood as Selma and Unbroken and I would argue intensely that the win was not a way of honoring the man.

Argo, like The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker barely connected with the idea of “real people.” They were off-beat stories and the connections to real life (in Hurt Locker, the war) were not the reasons for their wins, anymore than Slumdog Millionaire was.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that a biopic can’t win. They can. Taste is always in flux. But do we think we will remember either of these two films the way we remember the films of the 80s/90s that won?

Even Chariots of Fire, whose reputation is in unfair disrepair… there is a Chariots-esque sequence in Unbroken. And what do I remember from Chariots? The intimacy of the piece. The motives of the runners. The motives of the people around him. And in Unbroken, what do I take away? A little guy who was a massive underdog and had an achievement that was unexpected. Can’t break him. But did he feel pressure to perform? What was the feeling of the achievement? Aside from specific narrative issues later in the film, how did this define him? I don’t know from the film. I was another nice tough guy moment. Good. But not great.

In the end, it looks like a biopic or near-biopic has a very good chance to win Best Picture. There are a lot to choose from. But I would expect that if one does win, it will illuminate the history from an angle, not from straight ahead.

But you know, history is full of surprises…

3 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Trouble With Biopics”

  1. Larry Gross says:

    David–just for the record, to say Boyhood has biopic elements, is to grievously understate, and de-complicate the accomplishment. Boyhood radically, if subtly, recasts the cinematic vocabulary for depicting a person’s life, as we have known it. That’s why it will be around in another 40 years like the 70’s/80’s flms you mention. To say that it has none of the timidity or straightforwardness you rightly call the others out for is also an understatement.

  2. Scott says:

    Sorry, but Boyhood and Birdman are not in any way to be lumped with biopics. That is like calling a movie of Anna Karenina or Don Quixote or Hamlet a biopic. It is in the nature of most stories to focus on one central character — his emotional, moral, political, social development. Your valid points about true biopics can be made without dragging in movies that simply focus on a central character.

  3. Sean Sweeney says:

    One reason I think Selma worked so well, is that it’s NOT really a Biopic.
    It only covers one year. It’s not called MLK for a reason. It’s just one out of possibly 20 filmable chapters in MLK’s life.
    Where as a film like Chaplin (or even Ray) tried too hard to be tell the whole story and ended up overly bloated.
    Selma is just a little slice of MLK. And that’s appreciated.

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