Biopics Need to be Bolder

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In a brief moment of creative boldness in The Theory of Everything, a young Cambridge student Stephen Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, ponders over a theoretical concept while pouring milk into a cup of tea. As the white milk swirls in blackness of the tea, the scene suddenly moves in reverse, the swirling moving backwards until the milk dissolves into nothingness. It’s a scene that not only gives the audience a primer into the advanced scientific concepts the film is working with, but also provides a glimpse into how Hawking perceives the world: a man so enraptured by science that he sees it everywhere, whether it be in a cup of tea or the glowing clothing of dance partners.
It’s a pity that the film doesn’t indulge in these visually creative moments more often, because the rest of The Theory of Everything is as conventional and safe as biopics can be. Whether it be its generic storytelling that drags through Hawking’s life with little interpretation or analysis, refusal to present its subject in any light besides positive hagiography, or moments of bland sentimentality that have the resonance of a Hallmark card, The Theory of Everything takes a figure known for an unconventional life and makes it as conventional as humanly possible. “We’re just a normal family.” Says a barely audible Hawking to his wife Jane, played by Felicity Jones, in the most meta scene of the film. “We’re not a normal family!” She insists. It’s almost as if the entire film is at war with its subject, afraid that presenting a small iota of unconventionality or oddness might defeat its chances at the accolades.
This isn’t to say that The Theory of Everything was the only biopic of the year to suffer from being frustratingly rote. 2014 as a whole has been a year rife with biopics that have subpar. The Imitation Game’s uncomplicated sentimentality and insultingly superficial ending hurt a narrative that is propulsive and interesting. Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper not only was criticized for being blandly directed, but also toned down and flat out misrepresented aspects of Kyle that did not wholly conform to his image as a hero. Even Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken trades in cheap sentimentality (Evident when Jack O’Connell’s Louis Zamperini says, “If I can take it, I can make it.”) for an actual understanding of its subject.
So how exactly should biopics be more creative and bold? Here are some ideas:
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Tell The Story Differently
Most of the biopics this year simply retell their respective narrative, whether it be through having the main character recite their life story from a later part of the narrative, also known as a frame story, or through an extremely standard linear retelling of the entirety of the story. The Imitation Game does attempt to break the trend by telling three stories simultaneously: when he was being bullied at boarding school, when he was attempting to crack the enigma code in WWII, and when he was arrested for homosexuality. That being said, the film doesn’t go far enough. The WWII portion of the film dominates the entire narrative, his arrest essentially being a frame story for the rest of the film, while his time at boarding school is so brief that those scenes essentially become flashbacks. All of this results in a film that feels very ordinary, despite the fractured nature of the narrative.
Contrast this with Get On Up, where Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown suddenly begins addressing the camera. It’s a moment that’s seemingly random and rather jarring the first few times its introduced. However, as time passes one begins to realize how much sense it makes that Brown is talking to the camera. James Brown is a man singularly obsessed with his legacy. Get on Up communicates this by having Brown attempting to present and spin the story in his own film. It’s a wonderful device that shows the extent of Brown’s obsession, narcism, and selfishness. By embracing the unconventional, Get On Up ends up revealing quite a bit about the singer, even if other elements of the film are certainly unwieldy. More biopics would be better served by having their story told in a way that is not only unique, but also reveals more about their subjects through the way they tell their stories.
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Screw Likability 
The most widespread trend is the tendency for biopics to omit or smudge facts for the purposes of keeping the main subject likable. Get on Up may succeed at many things when it comes to capturing the spirit of its subject, but even that tones down some less positive aspects of Brown’s personality for the purposes of keeping him likable, evident in the film’s disinterest in Brown’s abusive and controversial marriages. American Sniper is the most guilty of this, as the film omits aspects of Kyle’s personality and life that might complicate Eastwood’s portrayal of a Kyle as nothing but a humble war hero. Even The Theory of Everything does this by refusing to define Hawking as anything more that an eccentric genius, the film stuck between not saying anything particularly substantive about Hawking and honoring him with a pleasant likability.
By changing or toning down aspects of their subjects, biopics fail to honor them. In fact, by rejecting their complexities or negative attributes, filmmakers show shame in their subjects. Complexity is what makes a person more human. By denying a person complexity, you deny them humanity. The only biopic to really buck this trend is Mr. Turner, a film that portrays the life of J.M.W. Turner. Mr. Turner understands that Timothy Spalling’s Turner is a human being first and a character last, delving into his many complexities and negative attributes to create a full portrait of a human being rather than simply a likable character.
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Stop Trying to Be Inspirational 
The most annoying occurrence in most biopics is the tendency to add an inspirational moment at the end of the film. In The Imitation Game, the film ends with Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke telling the depressed Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing how his abnormalities resulted in a world where WWII was won by the Allies. It’s a moment that seems to provide motivation and solace for Turing, only for the entire moment to be laughably undermined by pre-credits text that informs the audience that he then proceeded to commit suicide two years later. The Theory of Everything similarly attempts to end on a sappy note, Hawking telling his ex-wife, “Look what we did,” while the two look at their growing children. While you can see what the filmmaker’s were aiming for, the moment completely fails due to the fact that the audience knows next to nothing about Hawking’s children due to the very limited role they serve in the entirety of the film.
Biopics can be inspirational, but only if the stories they tell are actually inspirational. Stamping a happy or inspirational ending on stories that are inherently tragic simply results in moments that feel overly sentimental or blatantly dishonest. This isn’t to say that nihilism is necessarily the antidote to this problem. Rather than cynicism or optimism, maybe filmmakers should just try being honest. Filmmaker’s may feel the need to add a moment of inspiration or happiness in order to placate mass audiences, but it certainly does not honor the lives being portrayed.
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When making a picture based on the life of a real life human being, it is understandable that some things would be have to be lost in the pursuit of art: Details are omitted, characters are simplified, and some moments are emphasized over others. That being said, what is unacceptable are the rather boring ways in which today’s filmmakers have decided to adapt these complicated human beings. Instead of embracing the ambiguity and complexity these people represent, filmmakers instead decide to shy away from that in favor of generic narratives of perseverance and inspiration. It’s how Zamperini turns from a man who suffered from crippling alcoholism before finding solace in religion, to merely a generic soldier who suffered during WWII. It’s how Hawking turns from a brilliant man trapped in a useless body, to being an affable science wizard in The Theory of Everything. It’s how Turing, a gay man who served his government faithfully before being tragically prosecuted and driven to suicide by that same government, becomes merely a genius who just doesn’t want to be left alone. It’s the simplistic portraits of these people that really serves to dishonor them.
– Eric Robinson
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