Before the panic sets in, I’m not talking about the man himself, but rather his distorted figure as presented on screen. Both Anthony Hopkins and Toby Jones have given skewed appearances as the great man in the last couple of months in Hitchcock and The Girl respectively, though neither were met with great acclaim (the former was particularly criticised).
Biopics are notoriously divisive particularly when it comes to the balancing act of accuracy versus wandering from the facts to heighten the excitement, although a certain amount of creative accounting is expected. To what extent it is permissible is a debate for another day, but for now, let’s look at some of the rightly-lauded biopics, celebrating their capabilities under the right conditions.
There are films which are biopics in the sense that their adaptation – e.g. Argo, 127 Hours, Catch Me If You Can – is indeed of the life and/or events of something remarkable, although it’s these events that have made the person famous. Let’s forget about these, and focus on those great characters throughout history who were cemented into legend even further with a film dedicated to their ‘work’ – as varied as it may be, from serial killers to politicians to sports stars.
The list appears impressive when you consider that the likes of Woody Allen: A Documentary and A Royal Affair – two very different biopics from last year – both just about miss about. So too do mock-biopic Midnight in Paris and Moneyball from the year before, as well as other recent greats such as The Fighter, Frost/Nixon, You Don’t Know Jack, Control, Cinderella Man and Monster.
The five to make it are all focused in different areas, with a further ‘one to watch’ that resembles and compliments it greater as “further/similar viewing”. So, without any further ado, here are the five fictional accounts of five great (in every sense of the word) men:
Alongside recent visceral hits to be exported from Australia including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and, most closely, Animal Kingdom, comes the tale of Australia’s most famous mass murderer, John Bunting. This is a difficult and intense experience with a This is England sense of claustrophobia mixed in with Martha Marcy May Marlene themes and characters, as the influential character begins to influence and expert uncomfortable power over an easily-manipulated young neighbourhood.
Zodiac: David Fincher’s captivtating thriller chronicles obsession through three different characters (played by Gyllenhaal, Ruffalo and Downey Jr.) as they attempt to track down the notorious Zodiac killer. A biopic about a legend which doesn’t take the form of the protagonist, which is a surprising but welcome change.
Hitler is placed front and centre of this epic foreign-language biopic of the leader’s final days. A tense and claustrophobic drama that is most well known for providing the visuals to many YouTube parodies of Hitler reacting to a recent news item – from Xbox to Rebecca Black to Usain Bolt – though the film itself is well worth checking out to revisit a staggering moment in human history.
Milk: Gus Van Sant’s antithesis to Downfall gives us the hopeful (yet similarly bleak) story of Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay man to be elected into office in the USA. Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch star in this moving portrayal of a highly influential political figure, and provides particularly important viewing to those who didn’t grow up with his influence.
#3: Bobby Fischer against the World
A tortured-genius documentary recreated from archive footage and expert interviews, as we’re allowed a fascinating insight into the politics, fame, tactics and talent of Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all time. This story chronicles the rise and fall of Fischer, focusing in particular on his World Championship encounter with Russian Boris Spassky – billed as a Cold War confrontation – as well as the bizarre and intriguing details that surrounded it, and the subsequent disappearance (and controversy) that followed. Ronnie O’Sullivan appears tame in comparison.
Senna: Also recreated from archive footage in its entirety but with interviews used as voiceover not to interrupt the flow and pace of the action, this all-at-once heroic-and-tragic tale (a la Milk) is one of the greatest docs around. Ayrton Senna, like Fischer, is described as perhaps the greatest driver to have lived, and the danger and ambition he exhibits both on-and-off-the-track highlights his reckless pursuit of glory and equality. A dramatic rise and fall account that will leave you in tears, whether an F1 fan or not, as one of Brazil’s best exports leaves you gasping for breath.
#4: Ed Wood
A more upbeat inclusion here with a surprisingly reverential appraisal of legendary director Ed Wood Jr. – often labelled as the worst of all-time – by fellow cult heroes (turned mainstream stars) Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. The insight is a portrayal of a large portion of his career, including the making of some of his most famous films (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda) as he seeks to indulge himself in his passion for creating films.
Capote: Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an excellent performance (as ever) in perhaps his first great role as leading man Truman Capote, researching for his upcoming book, and now literary classic, In Cold Blood. The drama revolves around the core relationship between Capote and one of the killers, as the former’s empathy – and confusion – begins to grow ever stronger.
#5: The Social Network
David Fincher returns! His brilliant adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires has Trent Reznor providing the memorable soundtrack, Aaron Sorkin serving up the razor-sharp and lightening-quick script, and Jesse Eisenberg in his breakout serious role (supported by the excellent Andrew Garfield, and surprisingly good Justin Timberlake). The well-known account of Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook is given ‘true’ accounts by various characters, thus making each as unreliable as the last. A modern Rashomon / Usual Suspects-inspired biopic.
A Beautiful Mind: Russell Crowe gives a career best as awkward and pained mathematical virtuoso John Nash, as he develops Game Theory and descends into mental despair during this drama-cum-thriller. It accompanies The Social Network well, with its own great director in Ron Howard, a beautiful piano score, and – though the story is told in a completely different way – the pay-off is remarkable, and brings tears to the eyes.