Normally, I hate biopics. For every I’m Not There (a fascinating, prismatic exploration of the cultural persona of Bob Dylan, rather than the biographical details of his life) there are scores more films like Ray or Walk the Line. These “prestige” biopics that seem to dominate whatever sections of Hollywood remain un-franchised are imprecise, hagiographic, dramatically inert and stylistically dull. But do they have to be?
Half of last year’s Best Picture nominees where biopics. Of those four films, I saw only The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, weary as I am of these films. Both films are about genius, mid-century British scientists. Both even succumb to the simplistic psychological readings that tend to plague biopics. And yet while neither of these films comes close to the originality or artistic ambition of I’m Not There, the relative success of The Imitation Game may illuminate a few ways prestige biopics, if we must live with them, could be improved.
First Rule: “Show Don’t Tell”
Both films are clumsy and reductive, but at least The Imitation Game isn’t offensively condescending to its audience. It attempts to dramatize mathematician Alan Turing’s genius by actually showing the work he does, by making it physical and performative and placing it in contrast to the work of his colleagues struggling to break the Nazi Enigma code during WWII. The giant whirring machine Turing creates serves as a visual reminder of the novelty of his thinking, and is a much more effective characterization of Turing than his prickliness and inability to relate to those around him.
By contrast, The Theory of Everything never once tries to show Stephen Hawking’s work in the field of physics (and no, exaggerated scribbling on a chalkboard doesn’t count). To be the fair, the film is at least equally about Hawking’s wife Jane, but it unsuccessfully tries to convince us that while his body fails, Hawking has a great mind. The closest the film gets is having his thesis committee simply attest to his brilliance. The main problem is even exemplified in the title of the film, also spoken as dialogue. What does a “theory of everything” practically mean? What might that look like? What scientific advancement does such a theory represent? None of these questions are answered, presumably out of an assumption that the audience couldn’t understand the answers. Still, the onus is on the film to show us why Hawking’s work is important to him, his wife, the scientific community, the world at large, to anybody.
Second Rule: “Know Your Genre”
The interest The Imitation Game shows in the details of Turing’s work points to another reason for its relative success among prestige biopics. The film focuses on the hours put in, the achievements made, the setbacks suffered. It even slips nicely into the structure of a procedural thriller at times, which helps pick up the dramatic slack from the personal details of Turing’s life. When the film falters showing Turing’s chaste but intimate relationship with Joan Clarke, it can reliably fall back on the familiar rhythms of the thriller to create tension and intrigue. A truly superior film would know how to appropriate balance these and other tonal elements, but a minimal understanding of genre nonetheless helps lift The Imitation Game.
The Theory of Everything, meanwhile, has no structure to prop itself up, or perhaps it has too many. The film is ostensibly about Stephen Hawking, but it doesn’t dramatize his thinking; it’s also interested in Hawking’s marriage, but it doesn’t have the emotional heft to move us. More successful is its treatment of Hawking’s ALS and the inherent drama of his suffering, but this veers the film irrevocably towards the trap of “the inspirational story.”
Third Rule: “Eschew Sentimentality”
The Theory of Everything ends with the inspirational Stephen Hawking having overcome staggering physical obstacles to advance scientific knowledge. He delivers an inspirational speech to an auditorium filled with loved ones and admiring colleagues who rise, teary-eyed, to applaud his strength and brilliance. This is the kind of cheap sentimentality that makes the prestige biopic so distasteful to me. These are the endings of bad fiction, structured and manipulated, not real life.
The Imitation Game, by contrasts, ends with its protagonist broken, alone and abandoned. He’s had to keep his greatest accomplishments a secret and has been persecuted and chemically castrated by the government he helped to preserve. The tragedy of this ending alone doesn’t necessarily make The Imitation Game a superior work, but the film does achieve something resembling nuance in its closing moments. Even though Turing has routinely shut others out of his life, he finds some strange solace in his mechanical creation. With a loving stare, he bids goodnight to his machine, his roommate and his only friend. With this gesture, the film suggests a believably complicated interior life for its character, one small step closer to making him an actual person.
I’m not saying more films should be like The Imitation Game, far from it. However, if biopics are going to continue to dominate what are perceived to be “award-worthy” films, they can at least follow these rules to come one step closer to palatability.