I recently watched an interesting pair of biopics that make for companion pieces of sorts. The first, Unbroken, a 2014 WWII drama directed by Angelina Jolie and taken from the book by Lauren Hillenbrand, reintroduces the world to Louis “Louie” Zamperini, the Torrance, CA-born long distance runner who made a splash at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 before joining the war effort, crashing into the Pacific, and spending two years in a Japanese POW camp. The second film, 2016’s Race, details the struggles of Ohio State graduate and African American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at those same Berlin Olympics – a new world record that made one Adolf Hitler none too pleased.
The two films complement each other in several ways. First, in Unbroken, we see a brief glance at the face of a black athlete in Berlin, and are supposed to assume that this is Owens. Second, both films depict, in that timeless sports drama tradition, the triumph over adversity and the struggle against impossible odds. Third – and a detriment to both films – they “whitewash” later aspects of their characters’ lives. The takeaway from Hillenbrand’s book was that Zamperini dedicated his post-WWII life to God. This fact earns barely a mention at the end of Jolie’s film. As for Owens, he battled the IRS for much of his post-Olympics life, but that subplot didn’t make the final cut of Race. If that small detail doesn’t make for the most exciting of dramas, it at least grounds the athlete in Everyman reality. Zamperini and Owens were just people, same as the rest of us.
A good sports drama will show us what made its subject such a remarkable athlete. A great sports drama will complement – or at least counter – the character’s physical accomplishments with humanizing (or, in the case of Raging Bull, the best sports biography, dehumanizing) subplots. Only boxing films seem to get it right.
My work was cut out for me last month when I came up with a top ten list of biopics – movies about the lives of real people. How do you depict a life on screen? And who is to say what makes a life worthy of having a movie made about it? Several of the films I came up were larger-than-life epics. Adventure films like Lawrence of Arabia and Patton earned a few places on the list. Others, like Frida and The Imitation Game, revolved around artists and inventors. One, the aforementioned Raging Bull, focused on a truly gifted – but truly monstrous – human being.
But there are more than just ten good stories out there. Here are ten more great screen biopics: