100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Biopics, 10-6

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.


10) Hacksaw Ridge (2016), directed by Mel Gibson – featuring Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss

It’s Gibson-simple for much of the movie, I’ll grant (willingly! very willingly!). From Andrew Garfield going full hayseed to the way too simplistic binary the movie presents about his choice, from the unnecessary slow-motion to the incessant heartbeats in our ears, it’s a lot of that man to take in. See that Prelude to War reference up there? Mel Gibson appears to have snorted the Know Your Enemy: Japan episode; for heaven’s sake, Clint Eastwood has a more nuanced film about the Japanese during the invasion of their country. I have never cared for Gibson the director, and I’m not sure how anyone could respect Gibson the man. As anything but a biopic, there is little to love. But Garfield saves this movie, seems to pull us away from the most excessive inclinations of his director and refocuses us on a person who really means what he says. Every now and then there will be someone who is meant to be provocative, who sneers at Doss’ faith. It’s Garfield’s reaction which matters more, I think; Doss is pushed by these contradictions but by and large unperturbed by them. At his court-martial, he responds to the charges honestly and without much emphasis. It’s only when he begins to express his counterintuitive reasons for joining the military in the first place that he becomes more emotional, and although some of it is cliched, much of it is surprisingly powerful. Garfield gives us a Doss in that scene who is, in fact, very susceptible to influence. All the other young men had joined up, he says, and I could not bear to stay home in safety while others like me died abroad. To him, there’s an easy solution: as a combat medic, he won’t have to kill anybody. (Why he still insists on going to war is left up to something like “patriotism,” I guess, and the movie never does talk about how much culpability he bears for the killing that other men do, over and over again, in order to protect him.) It’s a position which is given a greater urgency by his manic Seventh-Day Adventism, which is among the most literal forms of Christianity and which forces him to interpret the Bible with the same sort of literalism. When his brother comes home in a uniform without having told his parents first, his mother’s second words to him are, “What about His commandment?” It is a simple enough question, but it strikes like a brick across the forehead, and we see that Desmond, having made previous commitments to non-violence, is particularly moved. The irony of the movie is attractive. You can almost hear the 30 for 30 music playing in the background (“What if I told you that a conscientious objector…”). But the irony works because there is nothing ironic about Doss’ faith. He believes more than these other people around him who confess to believing the same thing, who have rationalized God’s commandments when they appear perfectly clear without the messy interpretations.

9) Big Eyes (2014), directed by Tim Burton – featuring Amy Adams as Margaret Keane

The most surprising thing about Big Eyes is how little it goes full weird. Knowing that this is a Tim Burton, having seen the paintings of Margaret Keane (or, heck, the posters and promotional art for the movie), you sort of wait for the strange, the unusual to happen. It doesn’t even need to be Nightmare Before Christmas-weird; Edward Scissorhands-weird would do. But only once, in a moment of weakness, does Margaret see other people with the big eyes that she has painted so many times. She’s in the grocery store, and all of a sudden a world of kitschy reflections peer back at her in that simpering sympathetic way. Other than that, which gives the movie a jolt where, frankly, it could use one, this picture is played straight. There’s enough cavorting and carnival-barking on the part of Christolph Waltz’s Walter that we don’t need the more apparent idiosyncrasies of Burton. Against it all, Amy Adams as Margaret is, despite the cloud of blonde hair, as understated as they come. If she were not the center of the picture, we might regard her as the rainbow on the arc of a soap bubble; as it is, she is occasionally ethereal without ever being fragile. The soap bubble may appear to suit her for some time, perhaps even while she quietly fumes and paints in a series of little prisons. (Big Eyes has a horror movie’s intelligence about how even charming places, like an attic with a window or a modern house surrounding a swimming pool, can be deathtraps. Few scenes have frightened me more in the theater than Walter’s helter-skelter act with the lit matches while his wife and daughter are stuck in a locked room.) Yet in time the soap bubble hardens into something more sturdy, more akin to a marble with a colorful twist inside. Adams is adept at both ends, but the film is certainly most satisfying when she finally begins to speak for herself. If the Big Eyes and Walter’s madcap routines are One and Two in terms of weirdness, then certainly Margaret’s rapid affection for the take-no-prisoners truthtelling of some Hawaiian Jehovah’s Witnesses is Three with a bullet. It’s the same Margaret as ever—the film does not reinvent her by any stretch—but she has different purposes. Watching her paint her way to the truth, and from truth to real freedom, in an otherwise dour courtroom is this liberating, wonderful moment; being able to finally put her own name on a painting rather than forging her husband’s is legitimate feelgood cinema.

8) The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch – featuring John Hurt as Joseph Merrick

I really thought that we wouldn’t see Merrick face-to-face in this movie for quite a long time, and that’s because David Lynch hides him from our eyes, and then again within the shadows, for so much of the early going. Eventually, of course, we do see him—through the eyes of a nurse who doesn’t know what to expect and gives both of them quite a fright—and the film restarts. (One could argue that this is the second time the movie has restarted, given the visions of literal elephants which pop up in the beginning.) The man who had enough pity and was in the right situation to care for him, a Dr. Frederick Treves, tries to understand this grunting, squealing human being through small conversation. All this time he is on the edge of being returned to his underground freak show by a hospital administrator who argues reasonably that the hospital is not for residents without hope for cure. If there is such a thing as a soul, then Merrick waits until the last moment before he proves he has one. He recites Psalm 23 from memory, and the movie restarts again. This is frequently held up as Lynch’s most accessible feature, which I don’t think I disagree with, but I also don’t think this movie is a straightforward one in the least. There is too much recursivity in the film, too many spirals backward to really allow for a classic “Point A to Point B” film. Merrick’s life is a series of self-reclamations, scaffolded by the gentlefolk who invite him over to prove their liberalism and held up by Treves’ best intentions. (Undoubtedly Treves has improved the quality of Merrick’s life, but he knows that he is no innocent, either; in tearful, frustrated moments he recognizes that his campaign to integrate Merrick into society has much the same effect as exhibiting him to an ogling public.) On a technical level, John Hurt’s performance is one of the most impressive maybe ever. He is the glue of a difficult movie, absolutely buried underneath some of the most oppressive makeup ever put on film, and all the while playing a distinctive character. The more we know of Merrick, the more we come to know his appreciation for delicacy, for gentleness. How gentle Merrick is, and how cruel are those moments when he is subjected to, really, anyone but Treves. Some of them stand out more than others, such as when a mob is allowed into his chambers by an enterprising employee of the hospital, or when he is briefly returned to the “care” of his former “employer.” The Elephant Man has a reputation for being a little too sweet, but in the context of Lynch’s other work, I don’t find that to be a problem. There is some dialogue which would fit in better in a B-movie copy of late Sirk (“I am a man!”), but when spoken by Merrick one can see the Lynchian tendency to be so direct and so unassuming that it’s uncomfortable.

7) Jackie (2016), directed by Pablo Larrain – featuring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy

Hypnopaedia would be real even if Aldous Huxley had never written Brave New World. How else can we explain the instant reaction of old folks whenever they hear a young person saying that they don’t really understand the hype about [insert event from thirty years ago]. “You just had to be there,” they all say, eyes glazing over. Even though I consider myself an avid if recreational student of history, I don’t get the fascination with the Kennedy family. (I can hear some of you now…) What makes Jackie a really strong movie and a fairly insightful biopic, even to my cynical eyes, is the way that it discusses the deflections which played a significant role in her public persona. The movie is framed by a conversation between Kennedy and a nameless reporter who’s come to her home to do an interview with her. At virtually every corner, Jackie will reveal something and then take it back again, telling the reporter that he certainly can’t print that. Compared to Natalie Portman’s dented iron performance everyone else is a little less interesting, but Billy Crudup’s reporter, with his ironic detachment and his sense that he’s beneath himself interviewing the president’s widow, is an essential counterpoint. He wants the story; Jackie is torn by a need for an almost Freudian talking cure and her gut-level understanding that there’s no real way she can ever let that happen. Larrain keeps so close to Portman’s face for much of the movie, forcing us to take in every expression and every sob and every long drag of a cigarette or long gulp of wine with the kind of intimacy which we claim to want with our celebrities. The overall effect is stunning, especially in contrast with the recollection of her televised White House tour. The film gives us the extreme planning of the tour as well as the coaching that she receives whether she wants it or not. When we see her, head-on, hair a little disheveled, hands a little trembly, she may as well be screaming “Are you not entertained?” Far more than most biopics, which tend to flirt with the idea of celebrity and what it means to be well-known, Jackie has the opportunity to really squelch in that mud, and it does not shy away from that uncomfortable chance.

6) The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), directed by George Stevens – featuring Millie Perkins as Anne Frank

One of the things that comes across loud and clear in Anne Frank’s diary is that even by the standards of early teenage girlhood, she was a pain in the butt. She knew it, especially in her final years, but there can be no doubt that she was kind of a noodge. There can also be no doubt that by the time she was fifteen she had matured into a truly thoughtful person in the way that few fifteen-year-olds are thoughtful.  Even though Millie Perkins was twenty-one at the time of the film’s release, that’s not a weakness in the picture. If she looks a little old, or if her eyelashes are twice as long as everyone else’s, then that’s the price one pays for seeing the maturity necessary to do Frank justice. The Diary of Anne Frank respects both sides of her with the kind of adroitness one associates with George Stevens. (Perhaps more than any other American-born director, George Stevens knew the Holocaust firsthand; his documentation of the liberation of Dachau was used at Nuremberg.) We don’t brush over, for example, the klutzy girl who carelessly spills a drink on a fur coat belonging to the Secret Annex’s touchiest resident, Mrs. Van Daan. Nor is her jealousy of Margot’s class and courtesy elided, or even her screaming nightmares that she seems unable to control but which would be suicidal if they were overheard. These are balanced with a girl who takes the highest room in the building for more sunlight, tending plants, sitting in the snow—an obsession with movie stars which is a common fault for many of us—a warm, generous relationship with her father, who empathizes with her—an inclination to brighten spirits as far as she is able in the prison which safeguarded her for two years. In other words, this is one of those rare biopics which aims to balance the scales rather than promote any single interpretation of its protagonist. Certainly she is sympathetic, but Anne Frank would have been sympathetic, I think, in virtually any context. Some of her flatmates might have been less fun to know in real life—the movie does not make, say, Albert Dussell’s prescient pessimism precisely a virtue—but they too benefit Stevens’ generous vision. As we’ll see later in this series, biopics with large casts are potentially troublesome, but The Diary of Anne Frank coolly manages to see the entire tapestry at once while highlighting the brilliant thread who gives the movie its name.

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