Diminished Lives (Editorial)
by The Editors

The biopic is in critical condition. Not at the Oscars, or among other awards organizations, where voters routinely swoon over ostentatious displays of accents, wigs, costumes, prosthetics, and disabilities. Beneath the surface trappings, however, life is undervalued.

Part of it is the dumbing down of complicated individuals for unchallenging movies. The Imitation Game portrays the homosexuality of Alan Turing with extraordinary timidity, as if it were a Best Picture candidate of 1964 rather than 2014. In The Theory of Everything, why Stephen Hawking leaves his first wife for his second is exceedingly hazy, perhaps to ensure the cooperation of the living participants. A certain pressure to keep the tone upbeat (and the science basic) sacrifices clarity and robs it of some very human drama. And so multifaceted figures whose stories warrant bolder presentations end up entombed by dubious good taste.

The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything rolled off the biopic assembly line to respectful, if muted, acclaim, decent business, and the nominations for which they were machine-tooled. The system worked. As a vehicle for turning people into saints, suitable for monuments, the biopic is impeccable. But it fails on other levels.

Selma (2014)

Selma isn’t a cradle-to-grave treatment of Martin Luther King Jr. The film observes King and other civil rights figures through the prism of a tumultuous period fifty years ago, and, admirably, looks at them at ground level, with their doubts and foibles intact. Director Ava DuVernay explained her aim “to show the strategy, the tactics, the arguments. That’s how history is made, not by consensus, but by people freakin’ battling it out.” This runs counter to the accepted biopic notion of “great men” and extends to the film’s portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson. While Tom Wilkinson’s blustery performance as LBJ isn’t the focus of Selma, it became the focus of its critics, mainly political pundits and keepers of the flame for the late president, who rebuked it for its perceived disparagement of the president’s character and policies.

Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, while acknowledging that the film “got much right,” criticized Selma for its portrayal of a contentious relationship between King and LBJ and the latter’s lack of principled commitment to the Voting Rights Act. Not to be outdone, Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s domestic affairs chief, contended in a Washington Post op-ed that the Selma march was his boss’s idea (a claim DuVernay called “jaw-dropping and offensive”) and that the filmmakers “couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.”

Selma (2014)

Wrong. Without embellishment, a biopic, or any retelling of history on screen, would be excruciatingly dull. As it is, the mediocre versions, which settle for slavishly re-created heritage tours of bygone eras and a few tears at the end for characters drawn from life, are stifling enough. With a respectful use of dramatic license to sharpen the issues, ideas, and conflicts, the genre can illuminate the past in ways that engage us emotionally and intellectually. By correcting the unhealthy distortions of, say, Mississippi Burning, Selma is such a film, one that movingly links present to past. But what New York film critic Bilge Ebiri calls the “historical accuracy hit squads” blew up a matter of interpretation into an awards-season controversy and for many viewers Selma got lost in the trumped-up firestorm.      

The Selma contretemps provided cover for American Sniper, which stretches the “great man” paradigm of the biopic to its breaking point. The self-celebratory memoir by Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, is a morass of racism and knee-jerk Christian conservatism. To turn such a flawed personality, if storied soldier, into a “great man,” Oscar-nominated adapter Jason Hall sanitized the book, eliminating Kyle’s braggadocio and repeated expressions of bloodlust and claims of “enjoying” war—which he rationalizes by arguing that he killed only “evil” people (“They all deserved to die”)— and, to make him more sympathetic, heavily playing up the theme of post-traumatic stress disorder, which Kyle shrugged off in his memoir. The Iraq War is depoliticized into just another conflict, no more than a testing ground for potential heroes. The Nation film critic Stuart Klawans’s wry comment—“People want American Sniper to come from the Clint Eastwood who directed Unforgiven, but it’s made by the guy who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention”—perfectly captures the disappointment of many with this thoroughly conventional film. 

Rewarded for its vagueness with record-breaking success, American Sniper now stands as a monument to the war. Like Zero Dark Thirty before it, American Sniper serves as an act of cultural recuperation for the latest of America’s misguided imperial adventures. The film ends with a reverential newsreel farewell to Kyle, who was slain just as it entered production; one wonders if its reception would have been different had he been around to answer a few probing questions. Then again, it’s part of a genre that’s become resistant to complexity, with deep thinking replaced by clichés, homilies, and platitudes. Life isn’t simple, but biopics too often are.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015