Best films try to steer clear of pop hagiography

Is the biopic getting a makeover?

It used to be that the lives of political luminaries ran along a straight highlight reel from struggle to fame and redemption, with a few stumbles along the way to make the trip more interesting. But postmodernism’s oily parsings (“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) and the explosiveness of new media — the carpet-bombing of news, punditry and celebrity gossip, the gaseous eruption of the blogosphere — have upended old-school fact-gathering and objective reportage.

At a time when few consider reality TV an oxymoron, heroes and villains are selected less by act than by media appointment. It’s no wonder, then, that in dramatizing the lives and times of political figures, some of our most astute and challenging filmmakers are not only breaking free of the well-trod, fact-moored pop hagiography, but are also rebelling against information-age sensationalism.

“Films have become much more international now,” says Peter Buchman, who co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” “Clint Eastwood did his movie ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ entirely in Japanese. If you want something to feel authentic, you have to get closer to the source. Once that bar has been set by enough people, you can’t go back to the old Hollywood movie.”

Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter and executive producer of “Milk” — Gus Van Sant’s film about San Francisco’s gay activist Harvey Milk — says he “didn’t want to do a cradle-to-grave biopic” but also didn’t want to get too nonlinear either.

“Growing up in San Antonio,” he adds, “I saw a lot of patriotic biopic movies in class: Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Lincoln. These were traditional biographies that led us to assume everything in them was accurate, including everything their characters did and said. But they’re not true historical documents. I think a lot of the current biopics are more candid about the fact that biography is fiction.

Black spent years researching Harvey Milk. “I wanted to get it right,” he says. “At the same time, I didn’t want to do it until I met (gay rights activist) Cleve Jones, who brought out all these boxes of memorabilia that were able to (shed light on) the real Harvey Milk, who was a failure in many ways. … His relationship with George Moscone, for example, was deeper than we were able to portray. But by going narrower, we were able to go deeper.

“I think the more recent biopics, like ‘Frost/Nixon,’ are a hunt for truth rather than an assumption of absolute truth. They’re artist’s opinions of what history was.”

Few figures have been more enveloped in the ether of myth than Ernesto “Che” Guevara, best known for his part in Fidel Castro’s campaign to overthrow the Cuban government in 1959. Che came to a horrible, ignominious end fighting in Bolivia in 1967 and has become an icon of revolution since, a secular saint whose face is silkscreened on T-shirts around the world.

An epic figure invites ambitious biography. But director Soderbergh and the makers of “Che” wanted to avoid the orchestral sweep into the celestial pantheon of history. Their Che is doctrinaire without much in the way of psychological motivation. The result is more political procedural than dramatic history.

“Early in the conversation, Steven emphasized that he didn’t want to make a typical biopic,” says Buchman. “He wanted to make a movie where you didn’t feel that you were in a movie. When instances came up that seemed too much like what he called ‘movie moments,’ we took them out. It was very challenging.

“Che was an Argentinian doctor who met Fidel Castro in Mexico City to plan the Cuban revolution. We needed to show what they were up against, starting with 30 men, then 80, then gathering volunteers. His politics later changed, but not his beliefs. He thought he could duplicate in Bolivia what he’d done in Cuba. But the conditions were different. Nobody there was politicized.”

About de-coupling Che from cinematic piety, Buchman says: “Wherever possible, we stuck to the actual history. We cut out the on-the-nose lines. I had to pare back on the romance. Every screenplay uses a certain amount of convention and formula, but we were trying to find a different way of describing character. You don’t always see cause-and-effect. There aren’t a lot of close-ups. Benicio Del Toro wanted to give an invisible performance. It’s done in Spanish. We did everything we could to strip away cliches.”

Michael J. Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, says the verdict is still out on whether the biopic has undergone a transformation.

“Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’ whoops it up cinematically,” Phillips says. “The technique overwhelms the subject. ‘W.’ has a more clear-minded script. The fantasy scenes are limited. It delivers a portrait of a tragically mediocre figure. I think it came out five years ahead of its time. We’ve had eight years of a bad double-feature no one wants to sit through if they can help it.

“In ‘Milk,’ there’s nothing unusual about the form,” he adds. “The writing is functional. But with Van Sant there’s a sense of character development. I don’t like a film with studio finish. With ‘Milk’ there’s just enough style to make you recognize a real director at work.”

With “Frost/Nixon,” director Ron Howard and scenarist Peter Morgan stage a battle of wits between a disgraced president and a talkshow host grappling for journalistic credibility. Morgan, whose credits include two films about Tony Blair (the teleplay “The Deal” and film “The Queen” plus the upcoming “The Special Relationship”) and the Idi Amin biopic “The Last King of Scotland,” insists these are artistic choices instead of rewrites of history.

“I’m not a biopic writer,” he says. “The heart of what I do is relationships. My scripts just happen to be about people (who) actually exist. They ask, ‘What happens to a person who assumes power? What’s the difference between person and office?’

“Writers and artists need to make sense of real events. It’s their way of taking control.”

Phillips credits Morgan for bringing surprising uniqueness to the biopic. ” ‘Frost/Nixon’ has an underlying sense of humor,” he says. “He doesn’t try to inflate his subjects. It’s a great comic battle of personalities, a very well-crafted slice of history. He’s learned how to put characters and history over in a way that connects with audiences.”

As the newsman said in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Now it appears that a number of filmmakers are re-reading the print.

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