[Essay] Based on a True Story: The Biopic Today — Lucas Hill-Paul

Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest (2015) follows the true story of a 1996 expedition to the peak of Mount Everest, led by New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) that goes horribly wrong following the arrival of an unbearable storm. Marketed as a 3D disaster movie, the film in fact diverts from the thrills to offer a touching look at the lives of those involved in the climb, as well as a tribute to those who lost their lives on the mountain.

It is with the meshing of these two elements that Everest can be said to be at fault, however. Combining a disaster movie with a biopic—intended as both a tribute and cautionary tale—is troublesome given that the story is already known to you in which case one spends the movie simply waiting for certain events to occur. Alternately it is not, but the heavy foreshadowing tips you off anyway, especially in the case of Everest.

It is made obvious which characters are not going to make it off the mountain alive in two ways. Firstly, the character is portrayed by a big name actor, and secondly, their time on the screen is artificially increased, often to the detriment of the other characters. Large portions of the first act are devoted to discussing the motives for scaling Mount Everest. One particular reason for the climb is especially syrupy—Kormákur wishing to garner sympathy from the audience for this character before he falls victim to the mountain—rather than portray each member of the expedition as fleshed out, and equal individuals.

Although it occasionally works, this favouring of certain characters for drama is a prevalent issue in many biopics. Based on the London gangsters the Kray twins, Legend (2015) was released at a similar time as Everest this year, and features a stellar performance by Tom Hardy in both roles. This performance is undercut, however, with the film’s skimming through the work of the London police force and the activities of rival gangs to favour an insight into Ronnie Kray’s relationship with his wife, Frances. What was promised as a sprawling narrative of the lives and crimes of the twins was vastly different to what was delivered; an unconventional romantic story, with the performances of Paul Bettany as the leader of the Torture Gang Charlie Richardson and Christopher Eccleston as Detective Nipper Read all but forgotten. It’s okay, but I could tell everyone was waiting for it to be great. It’s lucky Tom Hardy was around to perform so magnificently.

Love and Mercy (2014), a smaller film based on the life of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, which features Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilson respectively, favours certain events over others too, though much more effectively. Rather than focusing on the Beach Boys as a whole, the film instead sheds light on the friction between the band caused by Wilson’s mental health problems as a younger man, and the conflict between the older Wilson and his exploitative therapist.

Despite not being a wholly realised biopic of a musician’s entire life, it still offers a more poignant and effective narrative than Legend, which seems to neglect events and characters in order to fast forward to the “best bits”. Although Everest doesn’t have this problem quite to the effect that Legend does—Emily Watson and Keira Knightley have their fair share of compelling scenes despite their role as supporting characters—it is still an apt comparison, with actors Sam Worthington and Jake Gyllenhaal feeling somewhat shafted by Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin by the time the film reaches its third act.

Though a superior film to both Legend and Everest, Straight Outta Compton (2015), a biopic of the influential rap group N.W.A., is somewhat guilty too. Members MC Ren and DJ Yeller are featured as background figures, like an afterthought in certain scenes. It would have been preferable to explore their lives a little more over a couple of scenes that poke some fun at Ice Cube’s film career, for example. However, when compared to Everest, a film that dares not portray anything negative about the people involved in the disaster, Straight Outta Compton is a brutally honest account of the rappers’ lives. Their flaws are apparent—Ice Cube destroys his manager’s office when he doesn’t receive his money, Eazy-E exclaims that “[he isn’t] a faggot” when he’s told he has HIV, and the film reflects the violence surrounding the group’s lives much more effectively than Legend does.

This violence is key to biopics of this nature, with Everest and Straight Outta Compton portraying the brutality of the events in blunt and honest fashion. This is important, as the director gains a responsibility when adapting these stories to screen, to portray them as true to life as possible.

For the most part, Everest is an exciting and well-made disaster movie. It may seem unclear whether Kormákur wishes to portray thrills or heartbreak at certain points, but it is nevertheless affecting. The issues it has with favouring certain characters over the other are never overbearing enough to detract from its enjoyability, as is occasionally the case with Legend.

It does appear, however, that certain biopics this year are neglecting aspects of the stories they’re telling for want of drama. In the case of Love and Mercy it works, but I can’t help but wonder how much more enjoyable Everest and Legend would have been had there been equal screen time and development for each character.

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