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What Makes a Good Biopic?

By Vivian Kane | Think Pieces | November 15, 2016 |

By Vivian Kane | Think Pieces | November 15, 2016 |

It’s been almost a week since I saw Loving, and I haven’t stopped mulling the movie over. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how it succeeded where so many other biopics fail. (No spoilers, I promise.) Year after year, every Oscar season, studios keep putting out these overly ambitious movies based on true events. I would wonder why they keep making these movies, but, well, they do keep making a ton of money and winning all the awards, so I guess that’s not a question that needs answering.

But box office returns and Oscars doesn’t mean they don’t leave us consistently unsatisfied. How many times have you been excited to see a movie about a time or a historical figure you admire, only to leave disappointed by the Cliff’s Notes version of a story whose Wikipedia page is more engrossing than the bland adaptation? It’s hard enough to do justice to a great person in a biopic, but so many of these films also tackle an important or revolutionary era.

It’s one thing to make The Theory of Everything— that was a movie that ended up doing pretty solid justice to Stephen Hawking’s legacy and humanity. But a movie like Trumbo? That not only has to tell the story of a man as a historical figure and a relatable character, but also has to cover McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the changing movie industry, all spanning the course of a decade. The Imitation Game had to tell the story of Alan Turing, but it also had to tell the story of a war, gay rights, and misogyny. That’s a lot for a movie. Too much.

Is this why so many of these wide-scope, far-reaching historical biopics turn to the white savior narrative? It’s easier to tackle the Civil Rights movement as a giant whole if your protagonists are Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. But then how can you expect to do real justice, worthy of all those awards and praise, to the era you’re depicting. When you’re tackling a large and important swath of history and trying to tell the story of a compelling character, one of those almost always comes up short.

Loving, though, didn’t. And that’s what I can’t stop marveling at. The Civil Rights movement was in the background, yes, but it wasn’t a backdrop. It was the essence of the story. And even if the whole thing had been fiction, it would have worked, would have stood on its own as a great movie with a solid flow and compelling characters, which is what so many biopics simply do not do.

A new trailer for Natalie Portman’s Jackie was released this week, and it’s become tied in my mind to these thoughts on Loving and other, less successful biopics. I will apparently never stop getting my hopes up for these movies, no matter how many times I’ve been let down, but if the movie can capture the energy and tone of this trailer, it may do what so few can.

Jackie has been getting great early festival reviews (and Portman is already on the campaign trail for those awards), and from the sound of it, what works about this movie is how unconventional it is. It— and again, this is just from other people’s blurbs, but those blurbs are what we see in this trailer— is a story about legacy, and about facade and fiction, about maintaining ideals. I’m sure it will tell the story of the Kennedys and about the turmoil of the era, but it promises to focus more on Jackie’s mind than her entire biography. From the official synopsis:

Jackie places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband’s assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a psychological portrait of the First Lady as she struggles to maintain her husband’s legacy and the world of “Camelot” that they created and loved so well.

What are your thoughts? What are the biopics or movies “based on true events” that work for you? Which have left you disappointed?

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