Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Brief History of Time-Spanning Biopics

The Oscar race this year is unusually heavy on biopics, with special attention being lavished on the most crushingly mediocre. It's worth unpacking, then, what exactly makes a good biopic, since there do seem to be so precious few of them.

To try to fit an entire life into a feature-length movie is impossible, so the question of how to deal with figures whose life stories are so well known becomes a matter of focus. There are, generally speaking, two extremes:

1. Focus on a single goal or event, to illustrate the essence of the figure in question, at least during the time depicted.

2. Try to get as many incidents and anecdotes in as possible, the better to illustrate the events that shaped the person into who she became.

The first approach is generally the more successful, as it is the approach taken to most non-biopic films: introduce the character, give him a goal, and make him work for it. All of the normal storytelling principles of character creation, cause-and-effect narrative, tension and release, are here observed. Selma sticks to this approach and is the better of most of its fellow contenders for it. By focusing on the events in its titular city over the course of a single summer, it allows us to see the nuts and bolts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s doctrine of non-violence: the background of the city and the country's racial conflict, the stakes involved, the planning and arguments and doubts, the setbacks, the eventual triumph. Through this we see many sides of King--brilliant orator, shrewd strategist, shamed adulterer--that are obscured in the popular imagination. They would certainly be obscured in a survey of his 'greatest hits' that the conventional biopic form would dictate.

The second method is more perilous, but also more often deployed. The fact of the characters being real, and real famous, tends to overwhelm the needs of the script, and so too often these movies become a bland series of Big Events that often bear little relation to each other. This happens, then that happens, for two hours or more. Development of characters tends to be thin, because their circumstances are changing so quickly that we don't have time to get a sense of who they are and what they are dealing with in any given moment. It's ultimately self-defeating--in an attempt to show us everything about a person's life, we learn little about who they are.

This is the damning problem with the wildly over-hyped The Theory of Everything: the movie crams into two hours Stephen Hawking's rise as a celebrated physicist; the deterioration of his motor facilities; and the beginning and end of the relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde, across several decades. None of these three subjects are explored in any real depth, nor are the characters: Stephen Hawking becomes a standard suffering genius, and Jane is flattened into a saintly doting wife (except when historical necessity requires she begin to have doubts and frustrations). The Imitation Game too subscribes to this model, with predictably disastrous results. Besides its condescending treatment of its subject's sexuality, one of its worst narrative sins is splitting the difference on the story it's trying to tell: World War II code-breaking on the hand, post-war persecution by the British government on the other, with a tragic boyhood romance thrown in for bad measure. None of it sticks, except for a sequence near the end that deals with the actual procedural details of cracking the Germans' code, and having to grapple with the cost in lives of not being able to reveal their discovery. More is less.

On a script level it's difficult-to-impossible to mitigate the drawbacks of the kitchen-sink approach, but it is possible for the direction of the movie to do so. A director can use the movie's mise en scene to depict the world as seen through the eyes of its famous subject. This is the tack taken by the criminally under-appreciated Mr. Turner, which marshals its gorgeous cinematography toward recreating the awesome English vistas that J.M.W. Turner painted. It also widely sidesteps the trap of trying to create a Lifelong Arc by both confining itself to the artist's later years, and also drifting through the years ala Boyhood. This allows us to see the man naturally, in a variety of often mundane everyday moments, rather than lashing together a number of plot points in service of a forcedly tidy narrative.

Selma has some formal audacity, albeit of a very different kind. It reinvigorates the tired device of superimposed titles used to tell the audience the when and where of a scene, by styling them as FBI surveillance notes. In doing so it illustrates the extent to which King was monitored, and also occasionally creates a dissonant note between what is presented and how it is described--the use of a term like "Negro agitator" speaks volumes about how the Civil Rights Movement was viewed. The movie also makes smart use of its music, juxtaposing cathartic African-American spirituals with the brutality of the police crackdowns depicted onscreen, and featuring an end credits song, "Glory," that draws explicit lines between the events of the film and the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri during its production.

Whichever the approach taken, the question of accuracy will always hang over a biopic. Strict fidelity to the facts is ultimately a straightjacket: life is messy and redundant and full of too many peripheral figures to count; narratives, especially in a medium that with a fixed length like cinema, demand an economy not found in real life. Questions of absolute accuracy should come second to dramatic needs.

The key is to remain true to the spirit of the figure in question--portray them as the kind of person they were, in the kinds of situations they faced. One of Selma's weakest aspects is its one-dimensional portrayal of George Wallace as an unremarkably hissable old racist when he was in fact a cynical strategist, summoning the demon of Southern racism in a Faustian bid for votes. A less pernicious lie has Correta Scott King confronting her husband with an audio tape of him having sex with another woman, a tape furnished by the FBI. This never happened, but it is forgivable because of the broader truths it is illustrating: the FBI's invasive and illegal surveillance of King, and the marital strains, of his own making, which he faced. As the old maxim goes, never let facts get in the way of the truth.

Of all the prestige biopics to ignore this guideline, American Sniper is the most egregious. It portrays Chris Kyle as ambivalent about his 'Deadliest Sniper' reputation, not necessarily proud of what he does but grimly determined to see his work through to the end. The real Kyle was in fact proud of his distinction, going so far as to rack up a few extra kills in order to keep ahead of any would-be challengers. He was also wildly boastful, to the point that he invented stories about punching out Jesse Ventura and sniping looters from the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. American Sniper is solid if mostly unexceptional as a film, but by completely ignoring these fundamental aspects of his character--the contradictions of which would make for a fascinating story in themselves--it fails utterly as a biopic. For Clint Eastwood, the truth was an obstacle to his fiction.

The Academy attention showered on The Theory of EverythingThe Imitation Game, and American Sniper, and the snubbing of Selma and Mr. Turner, bespeaks not just a political and social conservatism, but aesthetic conservatism. The filmmaking of the former is reliable at best, tired and dull and misleading at worst; the two latter films are not perfect (Selma is occasionally hobbled by punch-you-on-the-nose dialogue, and Mr. Turner does run awfully long), but they, in their own ways, are doing pushing the medium in exciting directions and doing good by their subjects. For biopics that have aspirations beyond Oscar-bait they serve as excellent models.

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