Everyone has a story worth telling. That said, some stories are more interesting than others. However, "interesting" can mean many things. The story of Al Capone is arguably more interesting than the story of Jimmy Carter. People have a natural tendency to gravitate towards sensationalism, even more than inspiration. Perhaps that helps to explain why we're seeing a specific trend in American biographical filmmaking. People would rather see a car wreck than a car being made.
Here's a quick breakdown of the major 2017 biopics:
All Eyez on Me - The story of Tupac Shakur.
All the Money in the World - The story of J.P. Getty's kidnapping.
American Made - The story of drug smuggler Barry Seal.
Battle of the Sexes - The story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs' famous tennis match.
Darkest Hour - The story of Winston Churchill's political career.
The Disaster Artist - The story of Tommy Wiseau, who made The Room.
Greatest Showman - The story of P.T. Barnum.
I, Tonya - The story of ex-figure skater Tonya Harding.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House - The Story of Mark Felt AKA Deep Throat.
Molly's Game - The story of celebrity poker hostess Molly Bloom.
The Post - The story of The Washington Post's decision to print the Pentagon
War Machine - The fictionalized story of United States Army General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.
Biopics have always been a staple of Hollywood and the film industry in general. The genre goes back to 1906 and The Story of the Kelly Gang which was one of the first westerns and gangster movies as well. Other early biopics included stories about Beethoven, Peter the Great, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Davy Crockett, and about a dozen films about Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln. Biopics were once a place to celebrate some of the greatest names in history. The decades since have been similar.
Those days are seemingly over.
The movie industry still makes biopics about certain worthy subjects. Last year, The Post, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Greatest Showman, and Darkest Hour were all the kinds of biopics we've come to expect — they were worthy of the honor of a film.
Meanwhile there were a number of other biopics made last year that do little honor to their subjects. Instead, they satirize them. I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist, War Machine, Molly's Game, and American Made are all great movies (with the exception of War Machine) led by marquee actors. But they are all completely cynical and that does little service to the public. Satirizing an already brow-beaten person is akin to bullying.
I, Tonya, for instance, is a mockumentary-style visit with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) that flashes to different periods in her life. Harding, who was crucified in the press during the '90s for her alleged involvement in the famous 1994 attack on figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan, was one of the most hated people of the decade. Why are we still talking about her? The over-the-top satire in I, Tonya is exquisite from a critical standpoint, but most people aren't watching films critically. Harding is so clueless she even showed up at the Golden Globes this year.
The Disaster Artist, for all its great performances, is basically one long joke at the expense of Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau, who produced, wrote, directed, and starred in one of the most well-known terrible movies ever made — The Room — comes off like a genuine fool in The Disaster Artist. Played by James Franco, Wiseau is oblivious, stubborn, and completely ignorant of the art form he's attempting. He's the last "filmmaker" who deserves a movie about him. He's an embarrassment to the industry on many levels.
Don't believe me? Look how much respect Franco had for his subject at the Globes a few weeks ago:
The other movies I've mentioned are similar in theme. American Made is a glorification of the drug trade and a redundant one (Blow, American Gangster, every Pablo Escobar movie, to name a few). Molly's Game is the story of an underground celebrity poker game and the woman who ran it. And War Machine is a satire about one of the worst American generals in recent memory. They're all cynical films about questionable antiheroes. We're not exactly dealing with Schindler's List here.
Are these types of biopics simply outliers in a proud genre, or are they indicative of a trend towards the opposite direction? There are still great traditional biopics made that double as history lessons. Darkest Hour and The Post are two of the best 2017 movies. There will always be historically significant biopics made, but who will see them if their competition is the cinematic equivalent of a hot dog eating contest? People love hot dogs!
After a 2016 American election that saw a reality TV star who proudly proclaims he never reads elected over a former Secretary of State and first lady, the trend towards sensational has never been more worrisome. People are rubbernecking their ways into theaters and studios are giving them what they want.
Television is even worse. Obviously there are thousands more TV shows than movies in any given year so it makes sense, but some of the most popular shows of 2017 were about disheartening true subjects no one should want to relive. Manhunt: Unabomber spent eight hours breaking down the murderous work of Ted Kaczynski. And the worst of the worst — Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders — spent another eight hours revisiting one of the most ugly and scandalous Hard Copy stories of 1989. Where's The Jonas Salk Story? Where's the eight-hour investigation into the life of Thomas Edison?
People don't want Salk. They don't want Edison. They want to relive tragedy and soak it in like nostalgia. And don't tell me about Tonya Harding and Tommy Wiseau's "fans." People who claim that distinction are laughing at them, not with them. It's a worrisome, cynical trend in a worrisome, cynical time to be alive in America.