For those interested in the high-profile-biopic genre, the past summer at the movies would have been the place for you. Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Jack O’Connell each play a talented mathematician/physicist/athlete, who face tremendous challenges in the form of The Nazi Enigma code/Motor Neurone disease/Japanese POW guards, but ultimately beat the odds and survive to become a persecuted homosexual/genius/ war hero.
If you have seen The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything or Unbroken, you may have noticed the formulaic similarities between the three. Each character begins as an adolescent introvert. They either don’t have many friends or they have trouble making friends (often coming off as “weird” due to their eccentric qualities/overwhelming intelligence/Italian heritage). Zamperini and Hawking then progress to adulthood where they experience success in their chosen field (running/physics), before the tables are devastatingly turned (Zamperini’s fighter plane crashes in the middle of the ocean and Hawking is diagnosed with Motor Neuron disease). All three characters then experience mental and physical challenges before overcoming their adverse conditions to save the war/not die/write a really famous and confusing book. Despite the large budget, A-List stars and extensive resources of each of these films, they all falter (at various extents) due to the poor storyline (amongst other reasons) caused by the need for the biopic to be actually true.
Looking at the Unbroken plotline- It can’t go wrong. An Olympian soldier’s plane crashes, he floats in a raft for 47 days with meagre rations and is then captured and tormented at a Japanese POW camp until the conclusion of WWII. What could go wrong in this stirring made-for-an-oscar film about the power of the human spirit? Well several things it seems. Firstly, The film’s structure basically went like this:
1. 60 minutes of Childhood/Army/Olympics/Plane crash/Floating on a raft
2. 20 minutes of O’Connell getting abused at a POW camp (Necessary screentime that got the point across)
3. ANOTHER 60 MINUTES of O’Connell getting abused at a POW camp
Now the film was nicely made. However director Jolie seems to be attempting to bribe the audience’s sympathy with flashy effects and elaborate set (aided, of course, by her $65 million dollar budget). In the same way Gravity slapped you in the face with emotion and symbolism, Unbroken attempts to drown you in the horrors of war. Despite the film supposedly being about resilience and strength, all we get is scene after scene of brutality and abuse (Imagine every brutal scene from every war movie ever and you have yourself Unbroken). Despite the emphasis on the inspirational qualities of this story, Zamperini’s major achievement in this film seems to be the fact that he didn’t die.
Unlike The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, Unbroken doesn’t attempt to chronicle one mans life, but about 3 years of it. However this comparatively short time span doesn’t alter it’s substantially longer running time. The only good thing I have to say about this film was that Jack O’Connell’s leading performance was incredible. Apart from that, Unbroken is basically 2 hours in a cinema watching a guy getting beaten up, filled with Hallmark-worthy-motivational quotes.
The Theory of Everything showed more promise, but ultimately let me down. The trouble with a biopics is that there is little creative license in plot because the main character actually exists. The Imitation Game was lucky as their protagonist was essentially unknown, therefore writer Graham Moore, had more freedom of expression when writing the screenplay.Unfortunately for director James Marsh, Stephen Hawking is one of the most famous physicists of all time and altering the facts is not possible (particularly considering he’s still alive). For this reason, the film lacks any interesting plot developments except for Redmayne’s slow descent into complete disability (with a bit of romance thrown in).
Redmayne’s acting is phenomenal, deserving of his Oscar. And the film does make some beautiful points about the importance of carers which I can appreciate personally, as a carer to my disabled brother. However this film also meshes into the wider (award winning) genre of “disability films”, which allows viewers to appreciate their own lives and feel “inspired” by the feats of the disabled. Ultimately, The Theory of Everything is a soppy, inspirational, disability biopic. The following quote pretty much sums up the mood of the film.
“There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”
The final film, The Imitation Game, was my favourite of the three, probably because it was the least factual and most dramatic. The writer used his creative license to change key aspects of Turing’s personality and create tension and drama where it did not exist. Although these facts diminish its legitimacy as a biopic, it is still a highly entertaining movie with exceptional lead performances and a beautiful musical score. I did like how the director alternated between Turing’s schooldays, his time at Bletchley, and his final days. It kept me interested, which was something the other two failed to do, frankly. My final conclusion on biopics seem to be the less factual, the more interesting, as the need for accuracy tends to ruin all other chances at a plotline. Because no matter how smart, strong or resilient someone is, their lives will never be as good as the movie.