Point/Counterpoint: Should biopics emphasize artistry or accuracy?
Two DI columnists discuss biopics and where the line between art and accuracy should be.
February 7, 2019
Biopics without artistry should be documentaries
Biopics are an interesting form of entertainment. Taking the events from people’s lives and turning them into movies is a unique way of informing the public about who the people were and how they lived.
Rather than an informative documentary, biopics tend to focus on the drama and the artistry of the film rather than the accuracy of the events and information presented. Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, was an artistically impressive movie but a rather inaccurate retelling of Freddie Mercury’s life.
When looking at biopics, it’s hard to tell when to say it’s a “good” versus a “bad” biopic. Are we looking at the artistry and creativity of the movie, or are we focused on the accuracy of it? Or maybe a strange blend of the two? My answer to that question is that we should have both.
Biopics are different from documentaries. Documentaries are purely educational and informative and they’re not primarily focused on the aspect of art. Rather, they’re focused on the accuracy of the information presented. This is why I believe people shouldn’t look to biopics for entirely accurate information, because that’s the purpose that documentaries serve.
Biopics are meant to be an artistic retelling, meaning there might be some drama added to the storyline to make it more compelling and interesting. There is a line where creative liberty turns into blatant inaccuracy and lying, but one should turn to documentaries if looking for completely factual information.
Too much creative liberty with biopics could result in spreading lies about subject in real life. It might present either a romanticized or completely inaccurate version of who the subject was.
“Good” biopics should be considered those that blend artistry and historical accuracy. Too much creativity can result in blatant and sometimes distasteful inaccuracy, but too much accuracy can make the film too much like a documentary.
Biopics have merit if they create new discussion
Over the years, biopics have largely remained one of the steadiest film genres, with major 2018 releases such as Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, and On the Basis of Sex. But whether they remain actually pertinent to any degree of discourse is questionable. Having a Dick Cheney biopic that fails to address any of the most important questions concerning his time in office seems pointless, as do many contemporary biopics that refrain from truly reaching any level of either artistic or social merit.
However, I would not say that the biopic is inherently flawed. Rather, we’re looking at the wrong subjects. The majority of popular biopics that came out last year failed in that they offered nothing new to the discussion on their subjects. But there were some standout biopics that brought interesting and dynamic angles to their subjects.
For example, Julian Schnabel’s more experimental At Eternity’s Gate, which screened briefly at FilmScene in December, brought a unique and interesting view to Vincent Van Gogh’s story by using an interesting subjective camera and narrative. In a more traditional scope, Damien Chazelle’s First Man took on the illustrious story of Neil Armstrong in a deeply emotional and surprisingly grounded manner. The issue is not with the biopic itself but rather how we approach it.
Biopics can serve as powerful insights into the human mind and allow us to better understand some of the most important people in our histories. But, they should not amount to stylized recounts of Wikipedia pages; I should be able to learn something fundamentally true about me, or the person, or, ideally, both after watching a biopic. Thankfully, with talented directors, writers, and actors, that is entirely possible to create.