There’s a great weight of responsibility involved in telling the story of a real person, whether it’s done in dramatized or documentary form.
Although experimental works such as Amadeus, Shirley and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus have demonstrated that it’s not always necessary to limit biopics to the facts, and the fictionalized biography goes back as far as The Epic of Gilgamesh, it is important to capture the spirit of the person or persons for the story to have value.
This applies even when telling stories of figures for whom there is general disdain. While different styles of storytelling suit different approaches, as far as the medium is concerned, it’s difficult to think of anything more impactful than a movie.
Beyond witnessing events directly, nothing gives them greater emotional resonance than film. Research has demonstrated that most of us find it easy to empathize with characters we see in movies, and this helps both to keep us interested and to help us understand why people make the choices they do.
It makes the film a good medium in which to explore ‘difficult’ characters and controversial decisions, as in Trumbo and Steve Jobs, or intellectual figures whose ways of thinking can be hard to grasp, as in Hannah Arendt and Louise Bourgeois: the Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. Dry subjects can be brought to life this way.
In dramatic presentations, a lot of this comes down to the acting. It’s difficult to imagine the average person taking much interest in reading about a significant but shy and uncertain figure like Kay Graham, but Meryl Streep enabled audiences to relate to her and appreciate the full difficulty of her position in The Post.
Compact, focused and often delivered to a captive audience, movies enable their creators to determine much more precisely what consumers will see than books or television series which are taken in over time and might be skimmed or started or abandoned part way through.
This is important in situations when a full picture of an individual can only emerge from seeing how that person changed over the years, or from comparing different events in life. As Adam McKay playfully suggested in Vice, leaving Dick Cheney’s story part way through would create a very different impression of who he was.
Furthermore, cinema audiences can’t easily look away from what makes them uncomfortable, enabling filmmakers to force them to confront their prejudices and potentially change their perspective, as Katharina Otto-Bernstein does so well in Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.
Expansiveness and intimacy
As Bernstein’s work referenced above demonstrates, movies provide an excellent medium through which to explore small details and big issues.
This flexibility begins with the physical possibilities offered by modern lens technology, which enables us to travel easily from a telling glint in someone’s eye to cityscape and extends into the imaginary as directors unfold stories where little details are pivotal (one thinks of Rosebud, not only in Citizen Kane but also in Mank) and where settings can tell us a lot about character.
Because true stories rarely progress like fictional narratives, with one event leading to another in a satisfying way, these tools become more important to direct attention, creating associations and placing an individual human tale in a larger context.
The immediacy with which film can expand, contract and direct attention means that viewers are less aware of how they are being maneuvered and more receptive to the storyteller’s framing.
There’s nothing like revisiting a place to prompt memories of what one has done there in the past, and when movies allow us to see the real places where events took place, it’s easier for us to imagine ourselves into them. Whether it’s the cloisters of Cambridge in The Theory of Everything or the city streets in Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast, locations add a lot of character to a film and real ones lend authority to movies telling real stories.
Of course, locations change over time – David Fincher famously moved an entire tree to recreate the original appearance of a lakeside area in Zodiac – and time itself can also be an important aspect of the setting.
Movies allow for a feast of visual detail which, when assembled with proper diligence, can help viewers to slide more easily into a period mindset so that, for instance, the slave cabins of Harriet become more than just some huts in a field but provide a more visceral understanding of the squalor which Harriet Tubman grew up with and the danger she faced in escaping.
With all these factors in mind, it’s clear that there are major advantages to choosing a movie as a medium for telling a real person’s story. There are still many ways to go about the telling, depending on the message the filmmaker wishes to put across.