From Gandhi to Selma, Chaplin to The Wolf of Wall Street and Catch Me If You Can to Wild, biographical films, or biopics, have experienced a surge of interest in cinema over the last few decades. Expanding our printed Scrapbook on heroism in biopics featured in our 235th issue, our writers journey through a selection of notable biographical pictures over this period in a special online edition.
The Killing Fields (1984)
For the lives of some individuals and their subsequent cinematic adaptation, one key event can become a definitive summary of what makes them who they are. In the case of journalists and colleagues Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg, the event in question was the horrific Khmer Rouge regime and the eponymous mass graves that continue to serve as a reminder of their brutality.
The Killing Fields does not shy away from the extent of the killings, including an iconic shot of Pran falling into a cesspool of corpses. Yet the minutiae of human interaction is not forgotten either. Actor Haing S. Ngor, a survivor of the regime himself, sells the story of Pran with every desperate move, while Sam Waterston’s portrayal of Schanberg reminds us of the complexities of journalistic integrity and influence.
Hauntingly beautiful in its imagery, The Killing Fields is both a remarkable and importantly biographical work of art.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is not only a powerful biopic, but a key landmark in holocaust cinema. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, leads a taskforce to save over a thousand Jewish refugees from the Nazis by employing them in his factories. Whilst his initial exploits are anything but heroic, his acts to make the prisoners’ lives better slowly drive him into one of history’s most remembered heroes thanks to the scale of Spielberg’s celebrated film, which many Jewish authors and figures have expressed gratitude for.
Neeson’s emotional and gradual performance resonates with the audience successfully over the film’s necessarily long running-time, leaving many feeling touched and struck with awe. If Neeson’s performance was not enough, Spielberg incorporates a framing device around the film to hit feelings of realism into the immersive, nonfictional storytelling. The denouement displays the actors accompanied by their real life counterparts (The Schindlerjuden) to demonstrate the impact Schindler had on screen, and on history.
Schindler, a member of the Nazi party himself, is an unlikely hero, but the choices he made turn him into a figure audiences truly root for.
Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s ode to the titular auteur of awful is a fine example of a biopic done right. Ed Wood’s films, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, are infamous to lovers of cult cinema across the globe. Yet despite this, very little is known of the man himself. Here Burton sheds a light on this enigmatic, eccentric character in a way that is both insightful and sincere.
Grounding this is a wonderful leading performance from Burton’s best buddy Johnny Depp. His signature weirdness is well-suited to the titular director, who was by all accounts an odd man. However, the performance is layered, with Depp respectfully examining Wood’s conflicted psyche. The cross-dressing is never played for laughs, and as bad as his movies ultimately ended up being, we never once doubt the unadulterated passion Ed Wood had for the movies.
A stellar supporting cast and a beautifully retro black and white aesthetic further complement the biopic. In a somewhat ironic twist, Ed Wood’s story makes for a truly great film.
Men of Honor (2000)
Men of Honor tells the story of Carl Brashear, here played respectfully and well by Cuba Gooding Jr., who fought against deeply engrained racial prejudice to qualify as the first ever African American Master Diver in the US Navy.
The film traces Brashear’s inspirational journey from a chef on board a warship to becoming an actual ‘sailor’ before finally enlisting in diving school. The school is led by Robert De Niro’s composite character Leslie Sunday who convincingly transitions from a racist bigot to Brashear’s greatest supporter, as the latter’s training (and subsequently his career) involves the overcoming of innumerable barriers.
Director George Tillman Jr. admirably draws together all of Brashear’s heroism: the initial passing out of training but also sacrifice, loss and rebirth involved in his naval service. The final act is solely focused on Brashear’s re-commissioning in the service following a tragic accident and serves as a fine finish to a remarkable story.
Before he became an international rhythm and blues phenomenon, often referred to as “The Genius”, Ray Charles was simply a kid with an ear for music. In the title role that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, Jamie Foxx superbly portrays the vulnerability and strength of the man who would not let disability or hardship stop him from achieving his dreams and becoming a household name.
Ray frequently flits between scenes of Charles’ childhood and adulthood to show how his mother’s strength of character shaped him later in life. Her guidance was instrumental to Charles, as she helped him adapt to a life of blindness at the age of seven shortly after the traumatic death of his younger brother. Her loving support instilled a fierce work ethic and sense of independence into her son that inspired him to pursue a career as a musician during a time of segregation and adversity.
As soon as Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his partner Scotty (James Franco) open up a camera shop in the “progressive” city of 1970 San Francisco, they are subjected to homophobic abuse. This incident, and threats to their business, motivates Milk to begin a life of political activism. He attempts to get rights granted for homosexuals, or in some cases, to prevent pre-existing rights from being repealed, across the United States.
The key to making a great biopic film is to have a biography, a life story worth telling. Sean Penn shows Harvey Milk’s life as one of importance and one which was worth living. The audience is forced to care about the man and his campaign, his personal life and political campaign. Gay rights and attitudes towards the LGBT community have progressed a lot since the 1970s, but Milk shows that the campaign was not just for the right to have sex with who you want, but the right to love whoever you want.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
Nowhere Boy depicts John Lennon, portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, during his teen life in the late 1950s. Lennon, a cool, rebellious Teddy boy with banter and bravado, attempts to re-establish a relationship with his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie-Duff), founded on their mutual love for music, when she unexpectedly renters his life.
Though some hazy film footage and photographic stills exist, the characteristics of Lennon’s early life are relatively unknown, and this certainly entitled the cast and crew to exploit creative freedoms. Nonetheless, there’s a charming humility created by the stellar performances (Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a young Paul McCartney is beautifully depicted) as well as the production design, seamless cinematography and of course, great soundtrack. Ultimately and accurately, “It’s about a boy” as Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays John’s Aunt Mimi, puts it.
A coming of age biopic that humanises one of the most legendary and idolised rock stars of all time, bringing him back to first name basis. Imagine that.
The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network is one of the finest films that fall into the biopic category, not for its triumphant subject, structural closure, or even its [disputed level of] authenticity, but for its relevance to the changes in contemporary communication culture.
Questioned as a legitimate biography for the entrepreneurial success of its main subject Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network may serve more broadly as a somewhat biographical insight into millennial cyberculture which infiltrates and shapes the lives of millions around the world today.
The timing of the film and its awareness are what make it particularly noteworthy. It could have been made at any time, and reflected upon the culture of that specific period, but it was made for 2010, and stands as a biography for the development and change in how people interacted with one another then despite its 2003 setting. The scene in which Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) parallels fashion trends with that of defining what The Facebook even is with its co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), is microcosmic of The Social Network‘s function to tell a story about the malleability of our lifestyles which are now largely located online.
A biopic about the highest ranked President requires an excellent portrayal by an equally brilliant actor, and in the case of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis rises to the challenge to give his most complete performance. His immersion into the role brings the film to life, with his depiction of “Honest Abe’s” sheer determination during a time of extreme difficulty for the United States resonates clearly with the viewer.
His decision to prioritise the signing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and subsequently free the slaves, instead of focusing on ending the Civil War takes great resolve, especially when the vast majority of his government saw it to be the wrong move. It’s these actions that caused Lincoln to be remembered as one of the greatest Presidents in US history, with Spielberg’s direction of these events being some of the best of an esteemed career.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in which Idris Elba delivers a dignified, plaudit-worthy performance as the titular figure, chronicles the extraordinary life of the man who challenged Apartheid and unified South Africa.
From his initial support of non-violent action and his brief, desperate flirtation with violence, up to his prison years and eventual embrace of peaceful negotiation, we experience Mandela’s regrets, his pain and his triumphs in unflinching detail, and see his wisdom increase with age. The film’s admirable decision to show Mandela as a flawed hero only makes you feel closer to a man who has suffered so much, and induces euphoria when everything comes to fruition.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom gradually becomes a very human triumph, and a moving tribute to a man who, despite many hardships, walked tall and fought tirelessly for his beliefs. It’s a long journey, grand in scope, but one worth taking.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Taken from his early years, to his role in breaking the Enigma code, to his final days of maltreatment for his sexual orientation, The Imitation Game tells the life of Alan Turing, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, and is a rare war-orientated film that explores a completely intellectual battle rather than one fought with weapons.
Turing is presented as a socially detached individual. He is hard to work with, hard to understand, and arrogant. This creates a challenging resistance and seclusion from his colleagues, providing an incredible struggle for Turing to fight against. The patient build-up of Cumberbatch’s performance enables an empathy to emerge around Turing, as his heroic contributions to the war effort are not forgotten, and nor is his difficulty in dealing with unjust persecution.
Turing’s life is worth telling on screen via the biographical form because it allows the progression of his personality to develop and evolve amidst a backdrop of oppressive forces, ideas explored sensitively by director Morten Tyldum across a two-hour runtime in a meticulously crafted, emotional journey attainable only through film.