Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a biopic! Or is it? By Eva af Geijerstam
There was a time, not too long ago, when the note “Based on a True Story” could send a shiver down your spine. Yet another parade of superficial look-alikes you’ve thought too many times, if the central theme evolved around well known historic or contemporary figures. Yet another demonstration of fiction striving for authenticity, creating nothing but a vague sensation of vampirism, if about the lesser known, and in both cases eventually losing out to any well carved documentary.
Slowly this has changed. The remark has almost become obsolete, as television docudramas have become more and more sophisticated and the audience readiness, acceptance and capability of discerning facts from fiction have grown.
Even so, it can never relieve the filmmakers from their responsibility to make their own fiction visible.
The Venice Festival proved through at least six films that there are different paths to be followed, different solutions to the problem of making document and fiction meet and cross-fertilise one another. Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, Stephen Frears’ The Queen, Alan Coulter’s Hollywoodland, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (Zwartboek), Douglas McGrath’s Infamous and Cristophe de Ponfilly’s The Soldiers Star (L´Étoile du Soldat). The result varies, of course. Script writers and directors move on dangerous ground in the mixing of facts and fiction. At any time they might lose their foothold and with it, like Paul Verhoeven in Black Book, the very purpose of their stories. He loses it all to an action-loaded and kitschy adventure by melting together facts about anti-Semitism in the Dutch resistance during the last year of WWII, Dutch collaboration with the Germans, and many different Jewish experiences of persecution into one single fictional character, Jewish singer Rachel Steinn who infiltrates the SS under the name Ellis de Vries.
Not only will the Dutch object to the fact that what is supposed to be Amsterdam in some instances clearly is not, but the director’s coquettish references to Soldiers of Orange which brought him international fame 20 years ago.
But the best should come first.
Around forty actors have been playing Senator Robert Kennedy since the fatal shots in the kitchen of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel in 1968. None of them very successfully, as all of them have been struggling in the shadow of didactic scripts, of the part being of marginal or purely illustrational importance, or of the inevitable question of ‘likeness’ in voice, looks and manners.
In Bobby, Emilio Estevez evades this problem very intelligently by letting Bobby Kennedy only appear in documentary footage or with his exact words. Around it he assembles different people staying in the Ambassador on the day of the murder: some of them are real characters, some of them are created out of poetic justice, all done in order to catch the atmosphere and hopes surrounding Kennedy’s road to the White House, which seemed open but ended so brutally.
I could very well argue that Estevez takes too many of these poetic liberties, but at the same time he’s always very clear about what is fiction and what is not, all through the critical point, the actual murder, the reactions to it and the clarifying texts before the credits start running.
It’s also perfectly obvious that Peter Morgan – witty, intelligent, satirical scriptwriter of The Queen – has no idea of what Queen Elisabeth says to Prince Philip in their bedroom, nor of the probability of her complimenting a London stock-broker for killing the most beautiful stag on Balmoral.
But the quality of the script combined with Frears directing skills overshadows every possible complaint about ‘real’ or ‘looking alike’.
Authenticity reigns in this multilayered story, as much about a dysfunctional family, the strange relationship between royalty, politics and media and different concepts of ‘modern’ as it’s about the psychodrama of a nation the week following Diana’s death.
And thanks again: she’s only seen in documentary footage.
Alan Coulters Hollywoodland is a somewhat more conventional biopic, in the sense that it avoids all documentary images. The story of first Superman-actor George Reeves is a tight film-noir about Hollywood in the late fifties: his failed dreams of another kind of stardom, his relationship with MGM boss Eddie Mannix wife Toni and his violent death, still surrounded by question marks.
For someone to die violently is in fact still the only safe road to live on in any kind of biopic.