Should the biopic be documentation or celebration?

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Recent Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate raises an interesting question: Do controversial figures warrant movies about their life?

On one hand, Julian Assange’s actions – prior to seeking sanctuary in London’s Ecuadorian embassy – marked a landmark moment in history. WikiLeaks paved the way for whistleblowing, freedom of information, and holding governments accountable for questionable and even illegal practices. One might argue that the existence of such a site can, has, and will change the world.

The act of creating a film about someone is an act of celebration. Should Julian Assange really be the subject of a Hollywood movie?

On the other hand, Julian Assange is a man currently holed up inside an embassy to hide from serious charges of sexual assault. It seems odd that someone so in favour of accountability is refusing to leave the Ecuadorian embassy to take responsibility for his own actions. But whether or not it transpires Assange is guilty, there’s no disputing the fact that he continues to refuse to face the accusations levelled against him. Is this really the kind of person who should be the subject of a high profile Hollywood movie?

It’s unsurprising that Hollywood wanted to capitalise on such a hot, current topic. This is particularly true in the wake of the trial of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, and it’s important for film to reflect the major changes and attitudes of the society it forms part of. Think of a high profile event from history – chances are, someone has made a movie about it. But should Assange himself have been granted such a large role in The Fifth Estate? You could say it’s impossible to make a WikiLeaks movie without him. After all, a film about the website itself would be a much harder sell than a film about the characters behind it. Drama does better than simple documentary. Yet at the same time, you could say that the act itself of creating a film about someone is an act of celebration.

the king's speech

Consider some other recent subjects of biopics. The Runaways celebrated iconic rock and roll heroines Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. The King’s Speech showed King George VI overcoming a stammer to inspire Great Britain with a rousing speech at the beginning of World War Two. 127 Hours depicted a somewhat gruesome but inspiring hero in Aron Ralston.

Perhaps the real point of biopics now is to finally give the viewer the chance to make up their own mind

At the other end of the scale, the 2000 film Quills featured the Marquis de Sade as its subject, someone famous for arguably being the most sadistic man in history – after all, the term ‘sadist’ is derived from his name. He’s an antihero, but his notoriety serves him well. Sade becomes a figure of entertainment in the film, if not celebration. Even the more divisive figures from recent history, such as Margaret Thatcher, the subject of The Iron Lady, whilst hated by many, were still considered heroes to some.

So what does this say about The Fifth Estate? Is it, like many of the successful biopics released over the last few years, a celebration of achievements? Is it turning real crime and real lives into entertainment? Are we reflecting the important impact that WikiLeaks has made, or are we turning Assange into a character rather than a person at the risk of diminishing the ongoing accusations he’s yet to face? Perhaps it’s a sign that Hollywood is cottoning onto the fact that audiences are smarter than it’s previously been giving them credit for. Perhaps the real point of a biopic is to finally give the viewer the chance to make up their own mind.

 

Featured image: Walt Disney Studios

Inset image: Momentum Pictures/The Weinstein Company

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