As a child, I loved seeing movies about famous historical people. Films like "Pride of the Yankees" and "Brian's Song" had a way of showing these men as mythical figures. Sorry, but my innocence left a long time ago, and so did the appeal of biographical motion pictures.
The first problem I have with these films is how can you show someone's entire life in a 2 hour time frame? Sure you can demonstrate some of their characteristics and even a few major events that happened to them, but it is bound to fail compared to any decent biographical book on the same subject.
Even one of the best biopics ever made, "Malcolm X" falls short, because how can you condense such a man in a little more than 3 hours and get the real truth? Author Alex Haley's 2 greatest works were the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" and "Roots". The latter was presented in a long TV mini-series, which allowed for enough time to give a true essence of Haley's book. While Spike Lee did a great job of hitting the bullet points of Malcolm X's life by basing the screenplay on X's auto-biography as told to Haley, the lack of time Lee has causes the film to fail versus the book.
Another problem I have with the genre is that it's hard to focus on the story. I say this because no matter how good a job someone does portraying the actor, it's hard to watch the film without thinking "hey, Jaime Foxx is doing a good job impersonating Ray Charles." This problem keeps me from staying truly connected to the film.
I have been friends for a long time with Frank Caliendo, who I believe is the pre-eminent impressionist in the world. I name drop here to establish that I'm not a snob about people who mimic the famous. I love to watch people impersonate others in a comedy sketch or on a talk show panel, but even I am not about to spend 10 bucks at my local cineplex to watch "Boom! The John Madden Story".
When I finish watching a well-done biopic, I can acknowledge that the people involved with the film did a nice job, but I also feel kind of empty from the experience. There is something about seeing a big Hollywood film covering the life of a famous person which leaves me with that "made for TV movie" feeling.
The one way a biopic can still connect with me is by showing the life of someone I know little or nothing about. The best of the genre are "Raging Bull" and "The Elephant Man", which both follows this formula. Jake LaMotta and Joseph Merrick were not household names and their lives didn't exist in your high school history textbook. By not knowing much background about the protagonist, these extraordinary films are able to engross their audience much like a great fictional screenplay does.
The one director who has managed to make consistently interesting, if not flawed biopics is Oliver Stone. Stone plays loose with the facts to the point where his films are more docudramas than true historically-accurate recreations. "Nixon" and "The Doors" do a great job of displaying the essence of character (or lack thereof) from the famous men they focus on. Similar to the historical fiction of a Gore Vidal, Stone tries to make a broader point than "here is where Nixon's and Morrison's boyhood homes were", taking on more the social significance their lives had in impacting the times that they lived in.
Historical movies which cover short periods are a whole different matter, as the good ones never have a "paint by the numbers" feel. "Schlindler's List", "Hoosiers", "Rob Roy", and "Braveheart" are some of the best films I've ever seen, as by covering a short period of time, they have a more authentic sensibility to them. While technically considered biopics, I think of them as being in a different category, as these films are focused more on a specific event, not just covering one famous person.
I'm done with movies like "Walk the Line", "Ray", and "Ali". If I want to learn about Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, or Muhammad Ali, I will pick up a book or watch a documentary. I think most biopics are great for kids who want to learn more about a famous historical figure, but besides a few exceptions, I feel they are vanity exercises for the participants involved in making the film. Please Explain why I'm off on Biopics.