Biopics have a special place in our lives
There has been hardly any good news to report in recent months. Much of our energy is being consumed by following the wars and conflicts that are dominating our lives, or by struggling with the ever-increasing cost of living that is biting hard and, in the parts of the world where it is still winter, the cold and scarcity of daylight is affecting our mood.
No surprise, then, that we are looking, even if only for brief moments, to escape all of this. And what is more comforting than a good movie? There is no shortage of offerings. In fact, we are spoiled for choice, whether we make the old-fashioned visit to our local cinema or take the indolent option of turning to one of the online movie platforms, stocking up with plenty of popcorn and soda and immersing ourselves in some drama on the screen, after which we feel more able to face the real world more positively. And nothing captures our imagination more than a movie that is based on a true story, in particular a biopic — a movie based on a real life or lives.
This raises the question, if cinema is some sort of escapism, why does it matter to us whether the movie is based on a true story or is a complete fiction? On movie review websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, biopics tend to score higher than fiction dramas.
Earlier this month, the movie “Oppenheimer” — which follows the life Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb” due to his role in the Manhattan Project — dominated this year’s Golden Globes and is expected to do well at the Oscars, even though the main protagonist spent most of the rest of his life regretting his contribution to modern warfare.
The movie industry is happy to meet the demand and is producing increasing numbers of biopics
One of its likely rivals at the Academy Awards is Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is also based on a true story and focuses on a series of murders of members of the Osage Nation after oil was discovered on their land. Another is “Maestro,” which focuses on the life of the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Should one of these three win in the “Best Movie” category, it would join a long line of successes in this genre, going back to “The Great Ziegfeld” of 1936, which have been not only recognized by the movie makers’ peers but have also done very well at the box office. Moreover, statistically, those who star in biopics are more likely both to be nominated and also to win the “Best Actor” prize not only at the Oscars but in any of the big awards ceremonies. No surprise, then, that the industry itself is happy to meet the demand and is producing increasing numbers of biopics.
One explanation for the success of biopics is down to them serving an emotional need, in the nicest possible sense. People like to identify with the range of emotions and the successes and failures of the featured person and, chiefly, their ability to overcome hardship against the odds. Especially as we know that this is no fantasy, but is something that happened to flesh-and-blood people much like ourselves. And if such people are capable of prevailing despite all obstacles, surely we too can successfully confront our own hardships, big and small. What is more, in fulfilling our need for heroes to inspire us, sometimes both the featured characters and those who play them become our heroes and role models.
There is something else that is unique to biographical movies: they are an interface between art, entertainment and the acquisition of knowledge. Some might even regard them as educational, which supplies an added value. It almost makes it more justifiable to spend two or three hours — and biopics tend to be longer than other movies — quenching our thirst for knowledge, while others have done the research for us.
However, biopics can be easily confused with documentaries, which they are not, because their writers and directors allow themselves the artistic freedom not to distort facts, but to dramatize them. The biopic bears more resemblance to the docudrama, which is based on real events and may include interviews with people who have been part of the story, while not necessarily adhering to all the facts. These genres are sometimes more impressionistic than realistic.
When much of what takes place around us is uninspiring, we as human beings often need inspiration and biopics give us exactly that. They give us the impetus to believe in a world in which everything is possible if we only put our mind to it and stay resolute. Sadly, we are seldom inspired by our political leaders or those in other walks of life, so why not, in a concentrated and focused way, be inspired by those who have made a huge difference even though they were given a very slim chance of reaching such heights?
When much of what takes place around us is uninspiring, we as human beings often need inspiration
Who in our present world could compete in the department of inspiration with the likes of “Lincoln,” “Gandhi” or Nelson Mandela in “Long Walk to Freedom?” We also find it comforting that some of our heroes are less than perfect, as we are. They may be geniuses or trailblazers in their own field, such as music, business or sport, but at the same time might even be controversial and struggle, as so many of us do, with other aspects of life.
So, watch this space, as this year we can expect an influx of biopics, among whose subjects are the lives of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress, singers Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Maria Callas, and many more.
Some in the film industry argue that the plethora of such movies represents a crisis of self-belief in a business that has lost confidence in fiction scripts and movies based on sheer fantasy, and for whom falling back on stories based on real life seems to be a safer bet. While the popcorn and soda sold in cinemas make more money than the tickets themselves — and while technology continues to change the way we consume entertainment — biopics continue to have a special place in our lives. So, bring them on — the good, the bad and the ugly (which, by the way, was not a biopic).
- Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg