In the last calendar year and in this year so far, the political biopic, i.e., biographical movie, has been a constant movie occurrence. Or is it eternal? It seems we will always wonder about the lives of people who shape history.
In this essay I cover some of the political biopics that caught my eye and moved me one way or another. Though there are others, the recent depiction of Winston Churchill comes to mind, that don’t make the cut here.
But let’s take these: L and D’s top film of 2018, The Death of Stalin, Chappaquiddick, The Front Runner, The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots, Vice and On the Basis of Sex.
One of the foundational rules of filmmaking is to show, don’t tell. Just keep that in your back pocket as you read this. Another rule of thumb is that in a short film, having one strong protagonist is the best way to keep an audience involved in the story. And you can extrapolate that to features. It’s easier to keep the audience if your film isn’t meandering or involving many points of view. There are exceptions of course. The most recent Murder on the Orient Express had a fantastic cast and even though I deduced who the murderer was in the first 5 minutes it didn’t fail to captivate me as a story. A film can also cover many years and still be powerful, it’s just more of a challenge. Citizen Cane does a good job of it. As I said, there are exceptions. Now if it were just a case of dramatizing a given situation, some kind of winning formula, I wouldn’t have had one of my greatest movie going disappointments, Sully. Moments after take off a plane crashes into the Hudson River. The pilot is able to land the plane without loss of life. Sounds like an incredible movie but really, it’s just an incredible moment. There is no formula for a hit movie, just some guidelines.
I won’t rehash our review of The Death of Stalin here. Suffice it to say, you get to know Stalin in the exposition. You witness his death. There is a mad power vacuum that ensues. Society, which was absurd and unjust during Stalin’s lifetime, threatens to absolutely unwind in the time shortly after his death. The performances are outrageously good. It’s a true masterpiece of dark humor and grim reality. It gracefully paints a portrait of one dramatic moment in time. It trusts that you understand something of the workings of the Bolshevik revolution and something of what happens after the time in question.
Chappaquiddick and The Front Runner are films that needed to come out around the time of the incidents they portray. They are past relevancy, poignancy. They, Like Mary Queen of Scots, would have you support protagonists who are well past complicated and simply obstinate. I would say that the Mary Jo Kopechne drowning scene in Chappaquiddick is so powerful that you could never argue that the filmmakers are Ted Kennedy apologists but they are not far from it. And though that film does concentrate on a specific moment in time, the drama gets completely bogged down in rooms and meetings. It fails to show as it falls back on telling, on merely depicting people talking into phones and scheming. “But that’s what happened” you could argue. Well, it’s not cinematic.
The Front Runner also gives us a clueless presidential candidate who seems totally out of touch with the times. But it does smack of apology for bad behavior. I will never get over how the defining moment for presidential hopeful Gary Hart was a trip on the boat Monkey Business but it is somehow not even the title of the film. In the film there is a scathing one minute monologue by Johnny Carson via a TV set Hart is watching. The entire film is summed up by Carson. Like Chappaquiddick, Front Runner tries to milk this one defining moment and devolves into representations of phone calls with his wife and spin meetings with his staff. Talking not showing.
Mary Queen of Scots certainly does a fine job of depicting action. There are plenty of horse rides, a battle, a stabbing and even a decent explosion. But if you have a political character that’s not likable, whose motives aren’t honorable or who feels entitled and again, out of touch with the people, all the action in the world will not save that story. There is also plenty of staring into space by the protagonist, the movie seemingly falling in love with its very existence. There is also no backstory whatsoever besides titles. I’m not sure if titles are even worse a sin than talking vs showing in film. Again, there are always exceptions, like the opening titles of Star Wars. One of the more interesting aspects of another film I will get to, Vice, is the depiction of the early, more formative years of Dick Cheney. You may never agree with him but you understand where he is coming from and his drive for power. This never happens with Mary Queen of Scots. The audience never gets invested in her story.
Which brings me to the aptly titled, The Favourite. The audience here is instantly invested in the fortunes of a former lady as she attempts to regain her status in proper society. As the intrigue at Kensington Palace thickens the feeling of suspense only grows. There is plenty of blood and guts, scars and plain ol’ wild outbursts in this film. You understand exactly the perils which the protagonist must endure, the indignities she has to suffer and the level of cunning needed to ascend. It’s a startlingly good performance by all of the main players and easily a top L & D 2018 pick had it been released sooner. But to go over what works, it focuses on a main protagonist, during a specific time period with well established obstacles and goals. As each scene should have obstacles and goals for the players so should each film for its story. It’s completely cinematic at every opportunity and lets the audience sympathize with the plight of the protagonist and share in her plots, schemes, victories and defeats. There are moments when the star of this film stares off into thought, but those are moments of gravitas that are not overused and therefore dulled or self-serving.
I had high hopes for Vice. It starts off strong enough, as we discover the ne’er-do-well Dick Cheney. The man is a simple mess, looking at life through the bottom of a beer bottle. This really sets the story up nicely. However, it goes off the rails, at once blaming Cheney for every ill in society since 1974 and trying to excuse his politics. The side splitting laughter of then secretary of defense Rumsfeld when asked by Cheney, “What do we believe in?” is all you need to know. It’s tough for an audience to get behind a character whose own moral compass blows with the wind. And perhaps to answer why he did what he did in a word would be — power. Because he could. The yin to the yang of Alex Honnold free solo climbing El Cap is Cheney being the puppet master behind the 2003 Iraq war.
Vice’s meandering is quite unlike On the Basis of Sex, which is a beautiful and elegant movie that surprised me with a succinct narrative. Cinematically told with great period shots of Harvard, Denver and New York City. Focusing on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s days at college, starting out as a professor and eventually arguing a case before a federal appeals court. It didn’t try to cover all of her cases and therefore the story never gets muddled. It stays specific to one early case, complicated enough to be interesting yet simple enough to be enjoyable. And obviously we follow the one main point of view, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s, as it evolves into the voice of a generation who fight to set a new legal landscape for women in America.
So power can be represented in many ways. There is no formula for a successful political biopic film. But there are things that work. Letting the audience get to know the characters, their early lives and motivations. Remaining cinematic throughout the film and not getting bogged down in conversations and static shots of one actor on a phone in a small room. Understanding that one event alone does not make a film. Not trying to cover too much historical ground but creating a story around specific defining moments. Establishing a few simple obstacles and goals that the audience can be involved in as the protagonist strives and achieves. Is it easy to make a great film? It’s not easy. But it’s fair to say that of this most recent slew of biopics only a few filmmakers have been able to surpass this high bar.