The recent Ridley Scott Napoleon has very few fans. Those who care about fidelity to facts did not care for the movie. Those who are more interested in narrative than details, also didn’t particularly care for it (as Philip Bunn’s review for Current shows). But the Napoleon movie was up against an obstacle from the start, before it was even written. The trouble with biopics is, they’re just not very good.
People seem to love biopics. They watch them. That is because movie watchers are nearly always fans of someone. There is some athlete or celebrity that they want to know more about or who they miss. So, they will go see the movie, almost no matter what. This seems like a strength of biopics, but it’s a weakness. The films don’t have to work hard enough to generate interest. That means they are not as strong as they should be when they enter the world.
You might have a counterpoint, what about box office and awards? Biopics can seem pretty strong in those categories. Didn’t Jamie Foxx win an Oscar for best actor for Ray? He did. The movie won some awards, too. Didn’t Bohemian Rhapsody do well at the box office in 2018? It did. But biopics tend to be the kind of movies that people get enthusiastic about for a minute, but won’t rewatch later. Would you watch Bohemian Rhapsody half as many times in your life as you have watched your favorite Christmas movie? The appeal of a biopic is too often in the subject, but not in the film itself. That means these films are almost always a flash in the pan.
Some biopics do have good acting, but the focus is often off. Consider Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s film about Leonard Bernstein. The acting is good, the cast is great. But the focus is so much on Bernstein’s love life that it obscures why we know his name. Why is he famous? Music. What does music mean to him? The film never tells us. It doesn’t even ask. How did he get into music? Who knows? This is too often the way of biopics. We don’t get a taste of what draws us to this famous person, we get backstory, we get behind-the-scenes. A biopic would be a Michael Jordan movie entirely off the court. But the truth is, people like on-the-court too, which is why The Last Dance was so successful for ESPN and why people will end up rewatching that for years.
Another issue with biopics is that not only do they often focus on the less known aspects of a famous person, they can end up being all about the actors. Bradley Cooper was a very good Leonard Bernstein. Marion Cotillard was a remarkable Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. But then you are in the realm of films that required dramatic transformations of the leads, like The Machinist or American Hustle (both Christian Bale). Transformation films are always at risk of being discussed in ways that emphasize the excellence of the actor and not the excellence of the film. People are temporarily excited by them, but is Million Dollar Baby anyone’s favorite movie?
All biopics are constrained by the facts. In a film entirely based on fiction, there is no surrounding environment of facts to contend with. A biopic director is constantly being asked to choose how faithful he or she will be to the truth. How rogue will you go? There are also always more facts than can fit into your film. How will you choose among them? How will you filter them? However you do it, some people will be dissatisfied. Some nerd always knows everything about your subject. The safest way to avoid these pitfalls is to focus your biopic on someone who is not actually famous. You lose the automatic box office appeal of a famous name, but you do get Rudy and Catch Me If You Can.
It often seems that biopic-adjacent is the best solution. Citizen Kane was fiction, though it clearly took some inspiration from William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. A composite character or entirely fictional character in a somewhat real setting offers writers and directors the most breathing room. Titanic benefited from the drama of a setting based on reality but the script went wherever it needed to go. Forrest Gump is and was a very popular movie. Avoiding actual people, especially with known stories, helps preserve that temporary suspension of disbelief which is key to the movie experience.
For so many reasons, most biopics are just mediocre. What is a good movie anyway? One metric might be how often someone would rewatch it or how much someone might feel changed by it. Biopics rarely hit these marks. But there are plenty of very good movies that you wouldn’t care to see again and again. And then there are films that might be worthy of study, whether or not they are fan favorites. Some movies might also be more for experts than for audiences. Here, too, biopics typically miss the mark. At best, a biopic is likely to be watched by later audiences for the acting, not for the film itself. A really good film is more than a vehicle for its stars. And if what you are looking for is to know as much as possible about the subject of a biopic, you will always be better off with a book.