There’s something charming and thrilling about biographical film: the voyeuristic peek into a notable life, the sense of having been at least a little productive as we learn from a biopic’s drama-and-personality-driven history lesson. But there is also something very strange about the recent and prolonged burst of biographical films over the course of the last two years: not strange as in revolutionary in format or adventurous or shocking in content. Each film appears precisely in its own time. This year’s customary bio-epic emerged in the form of Jobs, with all the grandiose self-confidence and with similarly auteurish flare as Lincoln. The Danish Girl is a soft, self-conscious title that arrives just in time to not strike audiences as too progressive, too audacious. Trumbo, a smaller newcomer, circles the subject of the arts and their social context, but with a warm-hearted American work ethic and the promise of a happy ending. Black Mass cropped up intending to deliver thrills and shocks and genuine creepiness with the same tone—but far from the same standards—as its predecessor, The Departed. The End of the Tour and Amy frame insights into the artistic soul with varying degrees of heart and conviction. Pawn Sacrifice gives us a tortured genius. So the year goes by. The usual narrative breeds rear their heads and make a minimal tremor.
Selma, though, made a hiccup in the trend at the head of the year, with its genuinely sharp, daring, and relentlessly timely approach to its subject. Like The Queen, Ava DuVernay’s Selma disrupted the familiar time-arch conventions of a biopic and pinpointed its attention, with great skill, on Martin Luther King Jr. in the context of the historic Selma march. Straight Outta Compton caused a brief upset as well, a biopic that didn’t bend straight to formula, its distinctive music-video-like cinematography adding a stylistic twist. Similarly The Walk made a claim to fame not for the aptitude of its delivery (or the accuracy of its French accents) but by the dizzying altitude of its vertigo-inducing visuals.
Month by month, the year has been rife with biographical films, but these films were for the most part not too sharply exceptional within each of their niches—tortured artist, crime docu-drama, daredevil high-wire thrills. Each trades on the mythology of its subject, as bio films are wont to do. It’s in their nature: the fascination of the subject character and their hero’s journey give the undertow to a biographic film, pulling the audience into the theater and then giving them the solid ground along which to approach the subject matter.
This year can only boast a slightly larger, though not necessarily richer, batch than last year. Selma was in point of fact the tale end—a Christmas release—of 2014’s impressive crop, which included massive and award-nabbing titles like American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, and The Theory of Everything. More modest but successful films, like Big Eyes, Get on Up, and Love & Mercy presented modestly in theaters. At awards shows and in theaters, 2014 was the year of the biopic. It’s easy to draw more direct and slightly painful parallels between the years’ features: Imitation Game’s broad success could be said to have been conveniently reinvented as the troubled-genius Jobs. Eddie Redmayne (not a disabled actor) plays a disabled character in 2014 and in 2015 Eddie Redmayne (not a trans actress) plays a trans woman.
It would be a simple thing to see this year’s batch of underachievers—compared to last year’s Oscar-laden hard-hitters—as the tail end of a fuse burning down unspectacularly from its recent peak. While speaking in hyperboles may help sell or burn films, they wouldn’t do justice to 2015’s (and 2014’s) genuine strangeness.
If these movies are trying to deliver us lessons from monumental lives, significant personalities plunging past the mundane unhistorical moments of our own private everyday lives, they’re aiming for obvious targets. Thrills, crime, genius, war—they’re broader bulls-eyes than they pretend to be. If biographical films are defining the top-tier Oscar candidates of the last two years, they also define a brand—as a brand: made-to-order, big-budget dramas of import, focused on very intelligent and slender white men. But aiming for obvious targets is not condemnable in itself; it is, in fact, a sound marketing maneuver in a please-all industry.
The troublesome strangeness comes in at the edges, or maybe through the bedrock, when we try to link our moment to those of this massive blockbuster biopic tide, we come up empty-handed. That’s not the immediate reaction, of course: these broad themes play well with audiences. American Sniper is one thing, a contemporary war story coming on the heels of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, whatever its questionable portrayals; The Danish Girl too is obviously reaching for the current-events thread of gender fluidity. Selma and Big Eyes, for starters, are films that connect with self-aware intentionality to ongoing issues (read: racism, sexism, police brutality). But the weirdly specific, personality-based genius genre is running rampant through the heart of the biopic trend, and it plucks at none of the same chords as Sniper or Girl, Selma or Eyes.
As a broad trend, these genius biopics feel as if they happen inside a one-of-a-kind bubble. They teach their audiences consistently not to reach and question and rebel and overturn, but that one gifted man, our hero, in confidently confronting the situation presented to him and rallying his side characters, can overcome it or at least gallantly confront it. That breed of hero—Jobs, Pawn Sacrifice, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, The Walk—is slim, white, male, and boasts a towering intellect (or, in The Walk, daring athletic ability). He is unique in his period-costume moment.
There’s something to be said for drawing out the drama of your subject, reveling in the conviction of a story. Repeatedly we’re drawn back to easy answers, to crises overcome: crises are personal or historical, but Jobs and The Imitation Game and Trumbo, they all feel so remarkably self-contained. Although we can understand their opponents, their struggle, their up-against-the-world moment is not our moment and their gifts are not our gifts. A little more Aristotle in the hero definition here, a little less Arthur Miller.
These are towering and distinctly self-contained stories about unique individuals, and while universal theme may be a rallying cry, these based-in-life heartstring-tuggers are by and large far more escapist than enlightening. Their escapist value as a genre may have more to do with the immergence of the bio pic fad as much as their serious films status. Broad, escapist films are usually a label reserved for movies featuring star-spangled superheroes or starships; but in my eyes, our serious culture films and their rampaging popularity aren’t serving us much better.