I am very interested in how Oppenheimer will turn out this weekend, even before reading Joey rave about it after seeing it himself. It’s one of the most ambitious American films of the year in terms of scope (Killers of the Flower Moon and Dune: Part Two are the only upcoming releases that might put up a serious challenge for that title), supported by promotional backing that is very nearly unheard of for a non-superhero/franchise/sequel feature these days, and has chosen as its subject the most bizarre, twist-filled, jaw-dropping, unpredictable, and just full-on craziest story in all of science.
It does, however, belong to a very precarious genre, at least in terms of quality: the biopic. Just typing that word gives me the shivers. It has been responsible for some catastrophically bad cinema, some offensive twisting of the truth in favor of pushing a hagiographic agenda, but mostly has produced a mountain of forgettable, pandering treacle that for a long time was a shorthand for what people were referring to when they said “Oscar bait.”
But, to be fair to the dreaded biopic genre, it has also produced some genuinely terrific movies fully deserving of awards and recognition. When I look back on all the biopics I’ve seen, I can’t help but notice some common “trends” that separate my favorites from my least-favorites. Two approaches to their real-life subjects appear to have a better-than-average track record at being worth watching, while another is nearly always a one-way ticket to Monotonopolis.
One type of biopic I often find especially edifying is…
The Surreal, Avant-Garde Presentation
For almost the entirety of my adult life, I have had all of the accumulated knowledge of the entire human race at my fingertips. Most of you reading this – heck, maybe all of you reading this – probably can’t remember a time when you’d have to venture to a physical location like a library or a university building in order to learn about a historical figure. So when you’re a filmmaker interested in a feature film depiction of a real-life person, what can you provide audiences that they can’t get from reading a Wikipedia article about the same person?
Most filmmakers tackling a biopic don’t even bother to ask themselves this question, let alone endeavor to answer it. But if you’re a rare breed of filmmaker, you ensure that your interpretation of a true story can only come from your unique artistic perspective. You don’t bore the audience with rote “and then this happened and then this happened” recitation of the literal truth that anyone can glean from half-an-hour on Google. You go deeper. You sidestep reality to say something more emotionally true about them.
Todd Haynes, as he so often does, demonstrated this innovation when he was tapped to direct a biopic of the legendary singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. I’m Not There is not about the life of Bob Dylan. It’s about all the lives, personalities, interpretations, and musical influences of Bob Dylan through six different characters played by six different actors. Some of the events depicted are recreations of actual events, some are entirely fictional. All are blended together in a collage that feels more true to its subject than a straightforward biopic ever could have managed. In the same year when Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story should have obliterated the formulaic musical biopic forever, Haynes showed us a possible thrilling future for the genre that, sadly, didn’t fully take in the years since.
But it’s not just famous, volatile musicians who can be fortunate enough to get a depiction of their story in an aesthetically adventurous way. Take Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which not only had the challenge of trying to create a functional drama about one of the most uncomplicatedly kind-hearted human beings in American history, but also had to follow up on the then-recently released and straightforward “This was the life of Fred Rogers” documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Her solution was ingenious: don’t make Fred Rogers the main character, and don’t make it a factual account. The result is what amounts to a semi-supernatural, haunting, feature-length episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for grownups. Grownups who, despite careers and marriages and children of their own, still need to be reminded that it’s okay to feel sad and it’s okay to feel angry, and it’s never too late to mend things that have been broken.
These avant-garde presentations of historical figures don’t have to be heavy, either. Just ask Sofia Coppola, who had to have known that the iconic last queen of France has already been the subject of dozens of straightforward historical dramas already, and so decided to make her Marie Antoinette a deliriously anachronistic pop art romp through what her life might have looked like with modern day sensibilities. It received mixed reviews at the time, but has thankfully been reevaluated and recognized as one of her best movies.
But why stay within the medium of live action? Hayao Miyazaki certainly didn’t when he wrote and directed The Wind Rises, a magical realist reimagining of the controversial life and career of wartime aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi. In fact, why stay within the confines of narrative convention at all? Pablo Larraín didn’t when he decided the protagonist of Neruda wouldn’t just not be its eponymous poet, he heavily implies that the main POV character is himself a self-aware fictional construct who doesn’t actually exist as he doggedly pursues Pablo Neruda during the year he had to go on the run.
That is another thing Neruda succeeds at: focusing on one specific part of a real person’s life instead of trying to capture their entire lives. Which brings me to the other successful biopic formula I respond well to…
The Focused Slice of a Key Part of Their Life
Longtime readers already know my deep affection for Lincoln and Selma, and while both films succeed for a myriad of reasons, they also both commit to focusing on just one critical moment of the lives of their historical titans. The bulk of Lincoln takes place over the course of a single month, January 1865, while the entirety of the movie concludes (somewhat ill-advisedly) on the President’s assassination just three months later. Selma’s perspective is slightly wider, beginning with his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize on December 1964 and ending on his triumphant speech at the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama upon the conclusion of his Selma to Montgomery demonstration in March 1965. Two movies about two of the most important champions for racial equality and human rights in American history: a little over three months each. No wasting time on their childhoods or needless flashbacks touching on every significant event they experienced.
Ava DuVernay and Steven Spielberg are hardly the only filmmakers to understand the importance of focusing their biographies on a key event in their subject’s lives. Consider Bennett Miller’s debut feature Capote, which is not about everything that ever happened to Truman Capote. The movie instead is solely about his fateful decision – after achieving some measure of mainstream success, after Breakfast at Tiffany’s has already been published – to investigate and document the Clutter family murders after hearing about them in November 1959… a decision that made him the most famous writer in America and ruined his life.
My favorite Tim Burton movie, by a pretty wide margin, is still Ed Wood; a movie that does not waste our time with some childhood set up “solving” why its titular filmmaker likes to wear women’s clothes. Nor does it even take what would seem to be a tantalizing storytelling road for any filmmaker with dreams of Oscars dancing in their heads by depicting his descent into depression and alcoholism later in life. John Keats had one of the most eventful and interesting lives of any English-language poet, but Jane Campion knew that trying to capture all of it in a single feature film would dilute the power of the romance she wanted to recreate between him and Fanny Brawne during the final three years of his tragically short life in Bright Star.
That’s the thing about cinematic treatments of real life figures: most of them have had interesting lives. That’s what makes them so interesting. But movies are different from a full life. The lives of real people are usually not conducive to effective dramaturgy. A lot of filmmakers forget this, and become so enamored with trying to wrap a neat little bow on the entirety of their subject’s full life that they usually end up with…
The Cradle-to-the-Grave Tedium
A lot of Academy voters used to go ga-ga for the one type of biopic that usually results in me breaking out in hives: the biopic that attempts to touch on all of the significant events experienced by this one person in an attempt to make some Grand Statement™ about them. A Beautiful Mind remains one of the most dispiriting Best Picture winners of my lifetime; not painfully awful like Green Book, but a thuddingly mediocre recipient of the film industry’s highest honor to a degree that’s still kind of gob-smacking in hindsight. We leap from John Forbes Nash, Jr. entering Princeton in 1947 to his development of the “Nash equilibrium” to his brief work for the Pentagon and then his diagnosis of Hollywood-style schizophrenia and hospitalization before curing himself of it with the Power of Love and ending in 1994 with his treacly speech accepting the Nobel Memorial Prize in
Overwrought Old Age Makeup Economic Sciences. Forty-seven years. Covered in 135 minutes. All while trying and failing to convincingly present this as The Love Story That Overcame All because Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman were too busy drawing us away from that core to hit all of the Wikipedia bullet points of his life and career. Another problem with trying to depict every single major event in a historical figure’s life is that what you omit becomes way more suspicious. This was one of the many problems with Taylor Hackford’s Ray, which sprints through so many highlights and lowlights of Ray Charles’ entire life story that when it ends on the epilogue “Ray Charles kept his promise. He never touched heroin again,” it only feels inspirational until you later learn that he spent the remainder of his life after that triumphant conclusion of the film becoming a raging alcoholic who fathered so many children out of wedlock he admitted he lost count. In a more focused narrative, abstaining from telling the audience about that would come off less… gross, than what we actually got.
I have no idea how Christopher Nolan decided to portray the world’s most infamous physicist (I’m pretty sure he didn’t go the I’m Not There route, but that’s about the extent of my predictive powers). I’m hoping he understood the import of narrative focus even when applied to the fascinating lives of major historical figures. I hope he didn’t try to make the definitive chronicle of all of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Because even with three hours, it’s just not feasible to make a dramatically satisfying movie capturing the entirety of a real person’s life…