Modern Mythology: Biopics

Author: Dom Rottman

As the month of August comes to a close, the cycle of the film industry ends its phase of summer blockbusters and prepares for its next lucrative phase to close out the rest of the year: Oscar bait season. It will not be long until prestige biopics starring famous actors will be advertised on movie posters and television commercials across the nation, and by the time the holiday season comes you’ll have lost track of them all, all the movies you “need” to see because they’re “important,” and even then they won’t stop coming because the first two weeks of January are stuffed with the wide release of Oscar bait movies that were released in some obscure film festival in California.

While important investigations are made into the relationship of the now-ubiquitous superhero film to modern culture, the typical genre of Oscar bait, the prestige biopic, is a type of film that has a similar level of impact–for better or, more likely, worse. For every comic book figure that is extracted by the culture industry from deep lore to appear on the silver screen, the industry’s other hand finds some real person to refurbish as a historical figure and hook them as Oscar bait. For the culture industry, there is no distinction between “high” and “low” art, they are, as Theodor Adorno wrote in “The Culture Industry Reconsidered,” fused together to the detriment of both. Coincidentally, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has, finally, in 2019, made this fusion plain and clear by nominating Black Panther as the first ever blockbuster superhero movie in the Best Picture category for the 91st Academy Awards, alongside a hearty helping of biopics: Vice, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and BlacKkKlansman.

The biopic, a now formulaic production of well-known actor, well-known director, and mediocre script, signifies the events of history and the life of a person before its audience. The film, in turn, signifies not necessarily historicism, but the enclosure of truth in history, specifically, history as it is given in the film, which can be fictionalized. In sum, prestige biopics reproduce a myth that its thematic truths or claims are necessarily true because history is true.

It is through this myth that the work of the culture industry is done. It extols control and the supposed virtues of the status quo, order in abstracto, as Adorno says, an order that demands conformity to that which already exists anyway without reason or rationale. Indeed, the biopic offers no form of reason but is nevertheless a strong compulsory force because it represents (literally, re-presents) reality; its content has already happened and is thus in a sense historically true. Adorno puts it best when he says the “conventional…categories of order,” recapitulated thematically in the biopic, are “drape[d] over the idea of the good life as if existing reality were the good life, and as if those categories were its true measure.”

Yet the truth value of history does not transmit to the thematic (un)truths of the film itself. The film’s abstract conflict is no less false if it is shown to be experienced by Captain America or Desmond T. Doss. Both the superhero film and the biopic solve conflict for moviegoers “only in appearance, in a way that can hardly be solved in their real lives.” The myth of the prestige biopic, however, says otherwise. It is the words and deeds of these great men–and sometimes women–who can alone determine our values, and who alone can be–indeed, must be–suitable role models to follow.

This creates a few dangers. For one, it links individuals to history in the worst sense. Only single actors, selected single actors, are seen as authors of history. Those dispossessed by history, both individuals made infamous and those below–the poor, the indigent, the reviled, the derelict–are not allowed to be a part of history, and consequently do not have access to the powerful truth force of film. But even if they did, the force is still mechanistically sinister. Remember, the biopic’s power to extol virtues of the existing order lies not in reason but in history as a brute force.

Furthermore, the biopic produces a dangerous resistance to inquiry that must be posed to all films. This resistance is one put up again by the power of history, but it is a thin veil that can be torn by the conscious realization that the truth value of the events on which the film is based has no relation to the truth value of the film itself. Only if the biopic is critiqued in the same way as a superhero film can its unique power be stripped away. Both types of films, indeed all types of films, must be taken quite seriously and critically, and both critics and viewers cannot “cower in the face of its monopolistic character,” as Adorno says, which is doubly true for the biopic which has the illusory force of history behind it.

Consider this an exhortation, then, to not merely watch or consume a movie but view it critically, especially if it is a biopic. The virtues extolled in it ought to be contested as any other, regardless if the subject was an actual person. Benedict Cumberbatch is not Alan Turing any more than he is Doctor Strange. The culture industry always has opportunities, weak points to be penetrated toward its own deconstruction.