Biopics and reality

Biopics bear an uneasy relationship to the truth. On the one hand, they are based on real people, who actually lived. On the other hand, their primary goal is to entertain.

Because they are based on truth, biopics will inevitably give an impression of their subject which people will conflate with the real things. Yet because they are a intended as entertainment, they will invariably present a picture that is false in numerous ways.

So where does the creator’s responsibility lie here? Should truth be respected, or ignored, and to what degree?

I would argue that the most responsible course of action, given the inherent contradiction here, is to veer ostentatiously away from reality. Creating the illusion of being “faithful to truth” in a biopic is a recipe for ethical disaster.

For example, the 2014 biopic some years back of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, seriously betrayed its subject. None of the science is accurate, and Turing’s contribution to the war effort, as well as the contributions of others, are grossly misrepresented.

For the most part I can live with the incredible number of historical inaccuracies in that film. It is, after all, a work of fiction. Caveat emptor.

But one fictional insertion drives me crazy. The filmmakers added a subplot in which Turing was blackmailed by a Russian agent, who threatened to expose Turing’s homosexuality, should he reveal the agent’s existence. In the movie, Turing does not report the agent.

That never happened, and nothing like it ever happened. Whatever the intention, the effect was to turn a real life hero into a traitor, and to continue, into our modern era, the ugly smear of “homosexuals are security risks”.

The veneer of “authenticity” of the presentation leads the viewer to think that care was taken to get the facts right. The net effect is a serious betrayal of an important historical figure.

On the other hand, the recent series Dickinson got it right, by making it obvious that the title character could not possibly be a faithful representation of the great poet.

By inserting completely impossible modern flourishes into the telling, the creators are cluing us in that we need to take everything with a grain of salt. Biopics are not reality, they are reminding us, but they can serve as inspiration, and can lead us to learn more, on our own, about the real thing.

That seems a lot more responsible to me.

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