The Unfettered Critic – February 2015

The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens with this line on the screen: “Most of what follows is true.” While the main characters actually existed, their story’s timeframe has been truncated for convenience, and, some characters, for dramatic convenience, are consolidations of several actual people. Such is the nature of a “biopic”—or biographical motion picture. Fitting a person’s lifetime into 120 minutes takes a bit of shapeshifting.

When the holiday movie season kicked off last fall, the studios could have headlined their upcoming releases with that line from Butch and Sundance; a surprising number of their big releases are biopics.

Among them: Selma (biographical subject: the Reverend Martin Luther King); Unbroken (Louis Zamperini, Olympian and Japanese prisoner of war camp survivor); Wild (Cheryl Strayed, messed up drug-user who takes an 1,100 mile hike to find herself); American Sniper (Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history); Mr. Turner (the brusque and eccentric English landscape artist J. M. W. Turner); and three more that we’ll discuss here.

Why these three? We liked them. And each focuses on a fascinating man who is supported, by degrees, by a fascinating woman.

The Imitation Game introduces us to brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (played superbly by Benedict Cumberbatch). During World War II, Turing was hired by the British government to lead a secret project to crack Germany’s “unbreakable” Enigma code. Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a member of Turing’s team, was a Cambridge graduate who was denied a full degree in mathematics because, at the time, the university granted degrees only to men. Clarke became friends with Turing, an unsocial, closeted homosexual in an era when gay men were jailed for indecency. Their relationship is at the heart of this tale of how Turing’s project helped win the war for the Allied forces. In the process, Turing laid the groundwork for the computer that we’re now writing this column on.

Big Eyes shows us the ways of huckster Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the super salesman behind those phenomenally successful—but artistically dreadful—portraits of big-eyed waifs that glutted the art market during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The waifs gave Keane worldwide name recognition and made him a millionaire—yet he never laid a brush on any of “his” paintings. They were the work of his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams). Why she allowed herself to be robbed of the fame that she deserved makes this a story worth seeing. Big Eyes is colorful and the paintings are a hoot; plus, this is director Tim Burton’s most straightforward movie.

The Theory of Everything invites audiences into the life of physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), who envisioned a single, all-encompassing, coherent framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe. Whew. We can barely say that, let alone understand it. Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at the age of 21, Hawking—whose mind remains unimpaired—was encouraged to continue his pursuit of infinity’s secrets by his devoted wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Jane bravely took on the increasingly difficult task of tending to his physical needs while caring for their three young children. Redmayne delivers an amazing performance as he gradually transforms into the twisted figure of the man we’ve all seen in photographs and television appearances. Hawking is worthy of all the admiration you can muster, yet in the end you may feel that Jane, too, is a hero.

Thanks to these biopics, the world is now aware of the contributions of these women behind the men. But remember—only most of each movie is true.