Judging by the Best Picture Oscar nominees 2014 was the year of the biography. Both real and fictional. Sometimes a bit of both. Of course, every year is the year of the biography at the Oscars, it’s something Academy voters have always had a hard-on for. It’s just unusually pronounced this year – with three very traditional biopics and two films that could best be described as fictional biopics.
Of course we are primarily talking biopics about white Anglo-Saxon men – with only one notable exception this year. The question remains how much this is the Academy’s problems and how much it is Hollywood’s (and of course, the two are to a large degree the same) – because while I did see some stunning female leads this year those women spoke Persian or Albanian – hard-to-see films that are never likely to trouble anything but the Foreign Language Film category at best.
That’s certainly food for another article – but this one is about the eight films nominated as Best Picture – Birdman, Boyhood, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma, Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Ironically perhaps the least biographical of all those films is actually inspired by an autobiography. The World of Yesterday – and other works by Stefan Zweig – are cited as the inspiration behind The Grand Budapest Hotel, although director Wes Anderson certainly runs away with the themes of Zweig’s works and makes them very much his own.
What really is left from the books is the world – given the unmistakeable Anderson touch. Anderson is very much a creator of worlds – and the challenge is often for the actors to manage to truly inhabit that world. Which they are halfway successful with here. But while it’s not his best film it’s probably his most fun one – a rollicking caper, the joyous Tintin film Spielberg failed to make.
It’s a film about our (largely false) collective memory and although there are other historical films on this year’s roster this is probably the only one that will not be pinpointed in future decades as very much a product of our particular era.
While those eight films duke it out for the Oscars two of those films are really about a duel between two men. Who in both cases should be fighting on the same side – but instead spend their time hitting each other’s weak spots. One has obvious social relevance – that relevance is much more unclear with the other, yet perhaps no less important.
On the surface Whiplash may seem to be about music – but the subject matter could just as well be knitting – as long as we’d get those two main characters sparring off each other. It’s the eternal teacher and apprentice story – talented drummer and the legendary drum teacher who turns his protégés into maestros. What sets it apart (and what has real social relevance, although few people may spot it) are the questions it asks about education.
J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher is the ultimate drill sergeant of a teacher – the sort of drill sergeant that will either drive a man to suicide or greatness in the movies. Because usually movies show us good or bad teachers, they show us teaching methods that work or those who don’t work – and by the end we always know if they do. But here we are always guessing. Is Fletcher the devil incarnate, destroying the lives of young students, or the man who drives them to greatness? We never know – I still don’t know. His methods are certainly inhumane – but the viewer is always shifting in his position – might they work or not? Will Miles Teller’s Andrew ultimately triumph? And if he does, will it be because of or in spite of Fletcher’s methods?
Actual human beings respond very differently to different methods, which is the eternal challenge in educating a room full of different human beings. The movie constantly keeps us asking questions, constantly second-guessing our assumptions – and to be honest, that’s probably not a bad way of teaching. The lesson Whiplash debut director Damien Chazelle should take away though is not to give his lead a very interesting girlfriend and then let her drift out of the movie, mostly without consequence.
The other duel is a lot less clear-cut. Selma is about the famous march in Selma and it’s about Martin Luther King battling the white man and his own demons – but perhaps the most successful and interesting aspect of the movie is the duel that takes place between King and President Johnson (in yet another great performance by Tom Wilkinson, one of modern cinema’s very best character actors). For a while we are actually led to believe that Lyndon B. Johnson was the ultimate villain, putting villainous screen presidents such as Nixon and Bush in the shade. But the movie depicts King as the radical versus Johnson’s politician – with the considerably more radical Malcolm X hovering on the fringes and appearing in a single scene.
This is an analysis of what is sometimes termed the wild, wild left – those leftist who can never agree on anything while the right-wingers always march in artificial harmony. The King of the movie is certainly not the harmless pacifist to Malcolm X’s radical, which has sometimes been the simplified tale of King – he’s very much a radical himself. Does the movie take his side in that particular debate or simply focus on King rather than Malcolm (who already had his defining biopic)? It’s hard to tell, and it’s not really its main theme – but it certainly takes a stand with King versus the ultra-careful President Johnson.
Recent racial hate crimes in the US echo loudly but there is also a more subtle echo of a president that seems to lose his conviction the minute he comes to power. A president that may be better than the alternative but far from the president people hoped for and voted for.
The Questionable Biography Awards
Biographies are tricky things. How do you cram a man’s essence into two hours? A biography film will never tell the whole truth – unless it’s actually a person who only led a two-hour life – but it must choose its truths carefully and not betray what that person was all about. Either that or focus on a single moment in their life. The three classical biographies on this Oscar roster all fail to some degree in that regard.
The weakest of the bunch is The Theory of Everything – a great shame considering how great a documentarian James Marsh proved with Man on Wire. The real essence of Stephen W. Hawking is his theories and his thirst for knowledge and understanding, from which the film takes its title, but judging by the film his essence seems to be his illness, his paralysis and his love life. Easier things to dramatise some might say, but in fact is they are not dramatised particularly well. Everybody seems a bit too saint-like in difficult situations and while Eddie Redmayne portrays a man in a wheelchair well he doesn’t quite capture the essence of that particular man, wheelchair or not. There are certainly moments when the movie truly soars – but there are many more where it really drags.
Perhaps the better Hawkins’ movie this year was Interstellar – a movie that at least got you interested all over again in his theories. The reason Interstellar isn’t among the lucky eight is probably because the Academy likes its movies flawless – and Interstellar is a deeply flawed movie in many respects. Yet its perhaps the year’s best example of how a movie can be great despite its many flaws – through mad ambition and amazing scenes.
The strongest of the biopics is probably The Imitation Game. Just like The Theory of Everything it features an oddball master scientist that truly revolutionized our way of life and thinking in the face of enormous personal difficulties.Yet unlike the previous film it actually focuses on that very aspect: his theories and how they came about (although it does it in an action movie way that was perhaps not quite historically accurate). It also does a good job in linking his strengths as a scientists to his struggles with a suspected Asperger syndrome (he was never diagnosed, which may have been a sign of the times, but the movie certainly suggests he had it) – making it an unusually rich year for asperger in the movies – following in footsteps of the over-literal alien warrior Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy, the summer’s biggest blockbuster.
It’s biggest failing; however, is the opposite to The Theory of Everything. While that film got way too preoccupied by sacchary romance, romance is exactly what’s missing here. Alan Turing was gay and it drove him to death. The film addresses this but hesitantly so – while it condemns the act of homophobic governments past it seems equally ill at ease with the realities of homosexuality. Perhaps exemplified by the fact Turing’s most interesting relationship is with a woman. A fantastic Keira Knightley, mind you, she had a hell of a year and is fast becoming the most unlikely great actress of our times. But focusing on that relationship just feels a bit off, considering the sexual leanings that eventually killed Turing.
The most interesting biography however has to be American Sniper. This year’s biggest and most surprising hit and also its biggest controversy – leading one to consider that this year Americans will really like right-wing flag-waving and questionable bondage sex. Until you actually see the movie, that is. There are flag-waving elements in it, to be sure – but it could just as well be described as the diary of a madman.
Some claim that Chris Kyle, the sniper of the title, was considerably more of a bastard. That may be – but wouldn’t it really be too easy for those questioning the war to paint him as a monster? Kyle is a highly problematic figure – a die-hard right-wing, a charming man before the war (during which he becomes a bit of a walking dead) with very questionable morals. His complete lack of empathy for the Iraqis they are supposedly liberating is telling, showing us yet again how this war was fuelled by blind vengeance (over an act of terror Iraq really had nothing to do with) and the small but prominent visual cue of The Punisher, the comic book hero that one soldier is reading and whose image decorates all their cars.
For those unfamiliar with that particular Marvel anti-hero the Punisher is a vigilante that is described thus by Wikipedia: “The Punisher is a vigilante who employs murder, kidnapping, extortion, coercion, threats of violence, and torture in his war on crime.“ Try replacing “The Punisher” with “America” and “war on crime” with “war on terror.” That’s one illuminating metaphor – particularly if you add the fact that the Punisher follows a very right-wing doctrine, he’s the wolf hunting the sheep that Kyle’s dad spoke of – he’s taking action when the government is too afraid to do so. But this also reveals the essential hypocrisy of the American right: many of those opposing state interference in health care, the educational system and the arts seem to like nothing more than to take part in a state-sponsored war –marching in tune while idolizing heroes who most certainly didn’t.
When Kyle finally kills his arch-nemesis, Iraqi sniper Mustafa – that’s also when he truly unleashes the gates of hell – a hell so terrifying he breaks down and calls his wife, sobbing, telling her he’s coming home. Now try replacing Mustafa with Saddam and Kyle with America.
Making Up a Life
The weaknesses all those three biographies share is simple: truth gets in the way. Not only does it tie the hands of the filmmakers, it also colours audience perceptions. On every film the director makes choices – but when it comes to biographies (and book adaptations) everyone will second-guess the filmmaker for what he left out. Which may go to explain why the year’s two finest films are fictional biographies.
An example of how truth got in the way is the actual death of Chris Kyle. That happened when American Sniper was still being developed and apparently altered the whole tone of the movie. Understandably so, every journalists knows obituaries are written differently to other newspaper portraits and that’s true of film as well – when reality turned Kyle into a martyr the film changed too. Resulting in its worst piece of flag-waving over the credit scenes, very literal flag-waving in fact. Which was nevertheless probably very true to life. Furthermore it has strong echoes of the film’s most grotesque scene – where a soldier who opposed the war is buried and his funeral is hijacked and turned into a grotesque army commercial while the grieving mother looks helplessly on while Uncle Sam takes her son away from her all over again.
We also see Kyle and his dad – and later Kyle and his son, shooting deer in the woods. That’s one of many lessons in the film on how to raise an American conservative – ready to kill straight from childhood. Learning to idolize the gun and despise the weak. Kyle is a man who has been steeped in the most unsavory teachings of modern masculinity from his very birth, which made him a great killing machine but a lousy human being.
This bible-thumping gun culture also gets its due in the one truly revolutionary films to come out this century, let alone this year, Boyhood. The guns there are so much a part of everyday American life that even liberal kids with liberal parents handle them as the most ordinary harmless things in existence. Boyhood does this strand well – illuminating how it is to grow up in 21st century America. Yet its biggest strength is simply it’s uncanny universality.
Its few critics mostly misguidedly point to the lack of actual plot, which not only is wrong, given that really prominent plot strands that develop along the way, but is also missing the point. Because the point of the film – and it’s magic – is the realization that the driving force of film is not plot, acting or any of the things we usually assume – no, the driving force of film is time and how it plays with it. And its masterstroke is exquisitely simple: dealing with time in film in a way nobody has truly dared before – by taking the time needed. And by that, actually managing to show time passing. To show years go by, to show a kid grow up – in slow-motion but still fast enough for the eye to notice the differences.
Most films try to capture moments in time – for the simple recent their scope doesn’t allow for more. If you want to capture more than moments you must manufacture them with make-up or special effect or great acting – or do what Boyhood does so brilliantly, simply take the time to capture them. And in doing so it captures our shared childhoods, the childhood we’ll always struggle to grasp because we didn’t give thought to documenting it as we lived through the eternity of it.
Boyhood is a film about the unbearable lightness of existence, about time and how we age too fast and forget and try to remember and about all those moments which are amazing just before they disappear from memory. It’s also a film about being a father as your children learn about life and about being a mom and managing to grow up yourself while helping those miniature humans doing the same. Trying to make life blossom despite the hardness of being a single mom with constant debts and bad boyfriends and suddenly being middle aged and alone when the kids move away from home and the empty house stares at you, telling you one day you are going to die. But it’s a film of beauty, of the hard-earned beauty of simply trying your best to be a decent human being.
In a way Birdman does the polar opposite to Boyhood. It really captures a moment in time but through stunning alchemy it also captures the past life of its leading character. It’s a love child of films such as Being John Malkovich and JCVD – featuring a well-known Hollywood actor playing himself. Although here Michael Keaton does play an actor called Riggan Thomson and the former Batman is here a former Birdman – but we all know who he’s really playing.
That is not to say the film is a disguised autobiography of Keaton’s own life – it is not. But the echoes of his real career are so loud that just by learning of the concept itself you enter the cinema with the back-story already formed in your head. And Keaton inhabits the character so well it would be a travesty if he doesn’t win the best actor prize (particularly since his two equals this year, Nightcrawler’s utterly transformed Jake Gyllenhaal and Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane, are not even nominated – in Coltrane’s case perhaps because he played the ultimate magic trick and let everyone in the audience just assume he was playing himself).
Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is filled with the sheer exuberance and simple pleasures of making a film, coming from a masterful director who had perhaps been taking himself a touch too seriously in the past. It is a film about the stage as well as the screen – and is very successful on both fronts, perhaps since it focuses on one of the thing both have in common: neurotic actors.
The actors in question are exaggerated human beings. Their worries about aging and being loved and receiving praise and fame is something most of us share – but most people are not thinking about those things all the time. It certainly plays with clichés but an actor is also a very good vehicle for those emotions – they must constantly question their own selves and their characters selves and why or why not the audience is cheering or not cheering or buying tickets or staying away.
But it’s really, most of all, about fantasies. It’s about our fantasy life where everything is painted in vivid colours, where our fall from grace are intercepted by images of an actual falling star (or maybe just Birdman himself flying really fast) – and, most importantly, it’s a film about flying. The fantasy of flight from everyday realities that lead us into a dark cinema hall to begin with.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson