Ten More Great Screen Biopics (11-20)


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 2010 book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” 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:

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Top Ten Songs about America

After a year of Tennessee living, I continue to have mixed feelings about America as it is today. That statement isn’t directed at The Volunteer State in particular; it’s just that with defense spending out of control and with an ever-widening partisan divide, I cannot help but feel as if this nation of mine is falling woefully short of its potential for greatness.

Although I wasn’t alive at that time, it seems to me that America’s general fall from grace occurred during the late 1960’s, when we fought in the streets over the color of our skin while politicians escalated an overseas war that didn’t really concern them in the first place. And all of this not long after we lost a president, his brother, and a civil rights leader to assassins’ bullets.

In compiling a list of the ten best songs about “America,” I kept coming across songs that were unflinching in their portraits of America coming apart at the seams. Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” comes to mind, as does “Let’s Get Together,” by the Youngbloods. Other, later songs echo the sentiment but update the anger to reflect the Iraq War and the big bank-orchestrated financial crash of 2008. I am thinking of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” by Bruce Springsteen, or of Neil Young’s damning “Let’s Impeach the President.” Even more songs pay tribute to our hardworking rail splitters and truck drivers. “Driving the Last Spike,” by Genesis, strikes a chord, as does “Cold Shoulder,” by Garth Brooks. Fortunately, there are fun songs about the American experience as well. These tunes, Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” to name just two, are not to be discounted.

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