It’s officially Oscar season and with Oscar season comes…BIOPICS.
That’s right, biopics! Stories about real people told by people who are mostly way better looking than real people. I’m on record as a biopic skeptic, often a way to give the least cinematic form of storytelling, relying on the poignancy of real life to avoid selling anything like an actual movie.
But it’s important to always go in open-minded. So, that being said, let’s talk about two prestige-y biopics. Battle of the Sexes, telling the story of the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and Stronger, the story of Jeff Bauman and his recovery after being caught in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.
Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes definitely comes in as the most high-key biopic. A story that seizes on our national conversation and even presents a reversal of one of the more important historical moments where the slovenly clown who’s not taking this seriously actually gets beaten. The kind of thing that seems destined to light up the critical thinkpieces about how gosh-darned important this movie is and get all the Oscar attention based on just how relevant the whole thing is.
In other words, it’s the kind of movie that’s maybe more deserving of a more deft and interesting handling than Battle of the Sexes gets here.
This is not declaring incompetency. On the contrary, there are many competent elements. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy have put together a film that clearly hits its marks, finds its emotional beats, and helps the story understand its context and write its legend.
Its performances are also strong. Emma Stone does a top-notch job as Billie Jean King, though a little more substance or outside perspective of the character (in other words, shooting for a movie that isn’t a crowd pleaser) could have actually made for a more worthy performance (it’s not better than her La La Land performance, are you people insane). Steve Carrell certainly nails what he’s going for and the supporting cast, especially Andrea Riseborough as Billie Jean’s hairdresser and lover Marilyn, are strong and evocative of their period.
There’s even some things it does well. Though coated with a thick layer of biopic gloss and crowd-pleasing primer, the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn is genuinely affecting and well-portrayed and the chemistry between them feels real.
Sadly, real or well-portrayed is not an operating word for the rest of it. Battle of the Sexes creaks under the weight of everything it’s carrying to the screen.
Its biggest issue is, well, half of it. The Billie Jean King stuff generally works to the same degree that the Bobby Riggs stuff generally doesn’t. The movie feels the need to humanize him and understand his perspective, rather than just having him function as the movie’s heel. But Riggs’ story is not anywhere near as interesting or driving as King’s and it leaves the movie bloated. A movie that would be willing to challenge or villainize a real person like Riggs would be more interesting than one that has to have him be a nice guy, deep down.
And beyond that, Dayton and Faris carry that bloat into how they handle the rest of the film. It’s a listless, too shiny, too slick film. You can admire it but it’s not letting you grasp on, there’s no sweat or blood in it. Battle of the Sexes ends up being largely pretty formless, hitting its beats and being unwilling to pull underneath into anything but the biggest emotions. The forward momentum is not there, it just drifts until it’s time for a big moment and then keeps drifting.
It’s a movie that keeps going for the easy hit, with plenty of accurately primitive dialogue. But it never manages to find the point where it can actually peel underneath any of that, find any real insight. It’s unwilling to actually confront anything and instead just lets it all please its audience, nothing more than nice.
If there’s a world record for the biggest gulf between two film handlings of the same event, it must go to Patriots’ Day and Stronger.
For every bit Patriots’ Day is a jingoistic, exploitative, and brutish film, Stronger is thoughtful and weary and tender. An exposed nerve of a movie with a specific experience of Boston that grounds the movie hard, Stronger is a rare sort of biopic that’s willing to elide the easy successes for something rawer and ultimately far more satisfying.
David Gordon Green returns from the wilderness on this one, coming back to his more dramatic and lean and meaningful years. Green has maybe never been more careful and thoughtful, diving deep into his characters willing to show them not as simple heroes, but as people who have dimensions. He chooses not to focus on big moments, but on the moments of pain that come in between.
It’s hard to imagine any other director approaching Stronger with the kind of grace and tact he does. I keep coming back to a scene set early on in Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) recovery. It’s the first changing of his bandages on his amputated legs. The shot is held entirely over his shoulder, his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) at one side and the doctors at the other, with his legs just out of focus. It’s a certain sort of surreality, not quite grasping what’s happening, but giving us just enough tactility of the pain and the hopelessness of imagining the regularity of going through this over and over again.
It’s some of the best direction of this year and Stronger is chock-full of these great little moments, these little shadings that really make the movie work. Even down to the decision to not focus on chasing down the Tsarnevs, to glide through the actual bombing and only return to it in terms of how it affects this person. It’s not about the Bombing as some great unifying moment of Boston, it’s about what treating the event like that does to someone, about becoming an emblem of something that you don’t want to ever think about. It’s how we make ordinary people into heroes who were never ready to be a hero.
In a way, it’s the antithesis of all these sort of biopics, small where others are large, personal where others are archetypal, and grounding where others elevate.
It also helps that Stronger is anchored by two of the finest actors working. Gyllenhaal does simply incredible work here, his Bauman is willing to go dark and selfish places while retaining a completely fundamental sense of decency. Maslany is the movie’s secret weapon though, Maslany digging deep in and managing to create her own very 3-dimensional person in a movie that could have easily not give her that space.
Stronger does drag a little and is willing to get a little too into the biopic weeds towards the latter part of its second act, but there’s so much absolutely good around it that you can’t let it get you down too much. Stronger is a truly one-of-a-kind movie, a biopic willing to actually try and dig down and tell a story about people rather than legends.