Plenty of recent biopics have triumphed in the box office and undoubtedly, they make a permanent impression. A whole generation grew up with an idea of who Gandhi was purely based on Sir Ben Kingsley’s riveting performance of the Indian freedom fighter in the 1982 biopic. Similarly, it is Daniel Day-Lewis whose image pops up when young Americans think of their 16th President, Abraham Lincoln after Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln.
Despite these captivating award-worthy movies, some misrepresent to sell. For this reason, the question of biopics or documentaries arose. While biopics were made for entertainment, documentaries were made to inform. Therefore, biopics incorporate more stunts, visual effects and dramatic dialogues that would otherwise not seem realistic.
In fact, it is the ‘based on a true story’ sentence that appears at the start of every biopic that gives film-makers the license to be creative with the real story while still maintaining an air of suspension and disbelief. That said, if you want to learn about a person’s life, it is best to watch a documentary.
Documentaries incorporate interviews, where the person in question is seen speaking directly before a camera on their experiences as opposed to a rehearsed script told by actors. As one simply cannot cover the entire birth-to-death of an individual over two hours, documentaries also have a greater focus, allowing their subject to spend more time on what the focus is. For instance, in RBG, a documentary on US Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directors chose to focus purely on her life defending women’s rights, including supporting scenes from her childhood through interviews on how that led to her advocating for equal gender rights.
Furthermore, as the aim of a documentary is to give an accurate portrayal of the individual, conflicting information is not presented, only the truth. Unlike in biopics where we often question where one’s motives lie, documentaries make it clear from the start that the movie will only tell so much as the person does, all the while ensuring that one does not degrade or glorify someone. This balance is immensely important when discussing anyone from successful public figures, to serial murderers.
Additionally, biopics are fuelled to deliver to a fanbase of an individual, and directors as well as script-writers are often faced with incredible pressure to deliver to please this group of people, often through muddying up the truth with the idea of the truth. Jean-Marc Vallee, director of ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ a biopic of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, stated that in his film, his primary goal was to create a compelling narrative: “We are serving a piece of entertainment,” he said. “We are not trying to depict Ron’s life meticulously.”
Finally, documentaries are informative, true and well-made without the need for props, scenes or highly-skilled actors, all of which add up to why documentaries may just be better than biopics. Had it not been for Eddie Redmayne’s excellent performance in Stephen Hawking’s biopic, ‘The Theory of Everything’, one could say that the movie would have been incoherent. I wonder how many would say the same if they tuned in to watch Dr. Hawking speak himself.