Hollywood has always had a strong appetite for fact yet a curiously lax attitude in adhering to it. The typical biopic, for example, focused on celebrated figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Cole Porter, and tended to be sloppy and selective, riddled with crowd-pleasing clichés and stereotypes that said more about the myths than the men. After 1934 the Motion Picture Production Code, the industry’s self-censorship regime (first put into place under public pressure in 1930), rendered whole subjects off-limits. Documentaries—going back to those of Robert Flaherty in the 1920s—also tended to manipulate details in ways more suited to fiction than to reportage. The studio look of so many movies of the golden age, right down to their reliance on rear projection and saturated Technicolor, highlighted an almost dreamlike artifice rather than literal veracity.
This would begin to change only in the 1960s, with advances in technology and the easing of censorship. A growing suspicion of imaginary lives and invented stories led to a convergence of fact and fiction, a felt need to anchor both films and novels in stories about people who had actually lived. This was reflected in the rise of both New Journalism and True Crime writing, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979).
As the use of special effects exploded and location shooting gradually became the norm, movies inexorably began to look more real even as their stories could remain far-fetched. Social problems once unmentionable became fodder for both serious filmmaking and cheap exploitation. Recent civil rights issues, for example, inspired films as different as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), with an exceptional script by Tony Kushner and a sterling performance in the title role by Daniel Day-Lewis, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), buoyed by David Oyelowo’s uncanny impersonation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both films brought to life legendary moments in American history while underlining their contemporary relevance. But filmmakers have also been irresistibly attracted to depicting a galaxy of figures from the entertainment industry itself, ranging from indelible Hollywood stars to cultish jazz icons. Both history and celebrity offered an abundance of enthralling characters that American viewers already partly knew, and about whom they remained endlessly curious.
A striking proportion of films featured in last year’s New York Film Festival dealt with the lives and foibles of real people, all of them from the recent past yet not entirely familiar. The opening-night film was The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’s 3D recreation of Philippe Petit’s sensational walk on a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Others included Danny Boyle’s disappointing biopic Steve Jobs, with Michael Fassbender playing Apple’s late computer guru, and Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s partly fictionalized take on the troubled life of jazz great Miles Davis. The main slate also offered Steven Spielberg’s real-life drama, Bridge of Spies, which deals with the 1962 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel for the captured American U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. The swap is negotiated by a canny lawyer named James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, whose plain-man persona served as a foil for the darkly inscrutable Mark Rylance, playing Abel. A more daring choice was an indie film by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter. Here the gifted Peter Sarsgaard appears as Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale in 1961, who undertook a series of controversial studies that explored ordinary people’s “obedience to authority,” as demonstrated by their willingness, under orders, to administer electric shocks to people posing as “learners” in laboratory trials. Different as they were, these films represented a heavy dose of “reality” at a festival better known for wilder flights of art and imagination.
The three leading Oscar nominees for Best Picture in 2016 were films of exactly the same fact-oriented bent. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which proved the unexpected winner, depicts the Boston Globe’s investigation into allegations of child abuse, long covered up by the Catholic church. In a parallel ensemble work, The Big Short, based on a nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis, Adam McKay recreates the near collapse of the U.S. economy when the housing bubble burst in 2008.
Finally, out of a different world and different century came The Revenant, the almost unbelievable, barely endurable story of Hugh Glass. As punishingly reenacted by Leonardo DiCaprio, Glass is a grizzly mountain man and fur trapper who, in 1823, survives a gruesome bear attack and then crawls back to civilization to wreak revenge on those who left him behind to die. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and filmed by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant is at once a marvelous portrayal of the old West, especially the breathtaking natural world, and an ordeal, almost as trying for the actors and audience as it must have been for the characters. Are these films simply a case of realism run amuck? Or do they signify a novel turn in American filmmaking?
In this new crop of films, the line between fiction and fact, between invention and documentation, is blurry, at times disappearing entirely. In Experimenter Dr. Milgram has the strange experience of serving as a “consultant” for a (very bad) movie made about his life, with actors playing him and his coworkers; we in turn, in a dizzying regress, observe actors playing the original actors.
Several of the lives dramatized in this year’s movies have also been the subject of straightforward documentaries or earlier fictional treatments. Danny Boyle’s fictional Steve Jobs, for example, was preceded by Alex Gibney’s superior documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015); the portrayal of Philippe Petit in The Walk comes after James Marsh’s widely acclaimed 2008 documentary Man on Wire (some of which was shot with an actor standing in for Petit in 1974). One of 2015’s better biopics, Trumbo, in which Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous blacklisted screenwriter, was anticipated in 2007 by a first-rate documentary inspired by the subject’s own piquant letters and personality. In his bracing book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), David Shields argues that the line between fiction and nonfiction has always been hard to pinpoint, especially because any form of storytelling, even memory itself, is highly selective, shaping material rather than just reporting it. “An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined.” It turns out that the very words “fiction” and “nonfiction” do not exist in many languages, even in the categories that separate bookstore shelves.
In focusing so much on real people, this kind of hybrid film explores the no-man’s-land between fact and fiction. Though only a few of these films are political, the heightened attention they bring to the real world is a refreshing new twist on the gritty social problem movie of the 1930s and 1940s. The impetus for this kind of film can be traced to the audience’s suspicion of fabricated lives, our preference for a supposedly true story, like a brand name, even when we know it’s not to be trusted. But this genre is also a response to the unexpected challenge from cable TV, which has carved out space for timely, topical stories too hot for Hollywood (or the networks) to handle. In the way it takes advantage of freedom from censorship as well as the far wider scope of a multi-part series, it’s hard to imagine a feature film anything like Showtime’s superb Masters of Sex, which was based initially on a biography of the pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson, but grew increasingly fictional with each new season.
Aside from the timeliness, the ready-made drama, and the huge impact of their subjects, the appeal of movies based on true stories comes from the promise of a more intimate look behind the screaming headlines and endlessly replayed news images. The riveting two-part dramatization of the Bernie Madoff story, with a sensational performance by Richard Dreyfuss in the title role, came with an on-screen warning that it was “inspired by true events” but “some characters, businesses, scenes, and chronologies have been invented, altered, or consolidated for dramatic purposes.” But thanks to Dreyfuss’s high-octane performance, we can’t help but sympathize with the bedeviled Madoff as his Ponzi scheme collapses, the law closes in, and his family disintegrates. We see the story from his point of view, itself a piece of fictional invention, since no reporter has been privy to it. Madoff’s victims—apart from his own luckless family—aren’t personalized in the same way; they come off as greedy, foolish, or naively trusting, just as his chief accuser comes off as nerdy and obsessive.
In some basic way these movies have really been performance pieces, lit up either by individual actors like Dreyfuss, Hanks, or Rylance, or by the impressive ensemble work on view in Spotlight or The Big Short. Such gifted acting can suggest authenticity to an audience leery of fiction, eager for the inside story about real people. Each of these movies helps fill in significant gaps in what we know, using real events and personal stories to reshape our political understanding. Thanks to postmodernism we’ve come to distrust or dismiss claims of objectivity, to be skeptical about gaining access to what is real and true, if indeed there is such a thing. Instead we’ve come to believe that all representations are constructed, contingent, provisional. Yet, when such films are so well-made, this merely relative truth does little to dilute their visceral impact.
It makes a difference whether the characters in question are current or familiar to us, like Madoff, or remote, like the mountain man Hugh Glass, who belongs more to folklore and oral legend than to history. The people in Experimenter, Spotlight, or The Big Short have lived real lives but what most of us know about them, if anything, is negligible. The prime subject of the best of these movies is the issues they raise, not the characters they portray. The fundamental plot of each of these last three films is an investigation, scientific, journalistic, or financial.
Milgram, for instance, casts his inquiry as a means to understand how Nazi atrocities were perpetrated by ordinary people, yet he himself has stood accused of deceiving and manipulating his subjects. Peter Sarsgaard’s muted but steely performance is meant to show us that he’s no sadist but a dogged and resourceful scientific inquirer, genuinely surprised by the willingness of his subjects to follow orders and inflict pain. Like the protagonists of several of these movies, he often turns from the story to address the audience, a Brechtian device lifted directly from documentaries. Breaking the “fourth wall” is a form of authentication, as if to say these events really happened, and they are food for serious reflection. But the movie also has a tinge of the surreal; an elephant sometimes follows Milgram through the corridors as he speaks to us directly, narrating some of his own story.
The social problem movies of the Depression, such as Wild Boys of the Road (1933) or The Grapes of Wrath (1940), not only boasted that they were “ripped from the headlines” but demanded identification with the victims, an empathy for the exploited and the forgotten. “You Have Seen their Faces,” proclaimed the title of Margaret Bourke-White’s collection of photographs. Today this approach seems square and old-fashioned.
In The Big Short we do meet one Florida family that will lose its home—the whole housing scene looks like a wasteland—but it has little of the pathos and solemnity of the Depression-era films. The director and co-screenwriter’s previous movies have mainly been broad comedies, such as the Anchorman films with Will Ferrell. In The Big Short McKay turns the financial crisis into a riotous farce, an outrageous carnival of con men and suckers, edited in the quick-cutting, anything-goes style of an MTV music video. Without turning didactic or preachy, at least until near the end, he manages to explain arcane financial instruments while exposing how fraudulent they were and how cynically they’ve been peddled to the greedy and the unwary. Our identification, such as it is, is with the handful of men who gradually, incredulously, see through the con and bet daringly on the collapse of the American economy. Even more than in J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011), the protagonists become sharply etched characters, each with a different personality (under a differently weird hair-piece): we witness Christian Bale’s Asperger’s-like detachment, Steve Carell’s perpetually short fuse, the almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt’s Zen-like concentration, Ryan Gosling’s self-satisfied sarcasm, and the puppy-dog enthusiasm of two younger traders who apprentice themselves to Pitt.
There’s a similar orchestration of acting styles in the portrayal of the Boston Globe’s investigating team in Spotlight, with a bravura, Brando-like turn by Mark Ruffalo and a master class in acting by veterans like Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James. Backing them up is an understated performance by Liev Schreiber as their soft-spoken editor, an outsider to Boston-area politics who propels the investigation forward. This is rounded off by great supporting work by Len Cariou as the insidiously charming Cardinal Law, and Stanley Tucci as the exasperated advocate for some of the victims. No comedy here, only mounting indignation at the scope of the abuse and the insidious cover-up—an improbable attempt, set in motion by Schreiber, to hold the church accountable as an institution instead of dismissing the abusive priests as simply a handful of bad apples. Institutional corruption is at the heart of both The Big Short and Spotlight, against the grain of Hollywood’s usual, often sentimental focus on individual stories.
Just as films have taken to fictionalizing real life events, documentaries have grown more entertaining. Michael Moore’s most shamelessly appealing documentary, Where to Invade Next, is a brightly utopian set of forays into nations that handle social welfare and education very differently from the United States, though some of their methods actually originated here. “Why can’t we do some of that,” he keeps asking. In early films like Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002) Moore intrusively elbowed his way into the story, badgering his subjects as a way of shaming or exposing their misdeeds. Here he pulls back, playing the wry, faux-naif narrator and tour guide who makes complex issues seem disarmingly simple. The result is delightful, with nothing of the goading insistency of his earlier works.
In the end, many of these films fit into existing types. Bridge of Spies, a spy movie, is reminiscent of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The Big Short, a serious farce, reveals the absurd side of an awesome, catastrophic scam. Spotlight, a pedantically slow procedural investigation, gradually morphs into a thriller in the vein of All the President’s Men, powered by our contemporary nostalgia for the working press in its finest hours. Experimenter, a dramatized documentary with surreal touches, raises questions about cruelty, obedience, and moral agency that still haunt us. But together these films represent facets of a new kind of mainstream movie, not biopic, not history or journalism, not original drama or strict documentary, but something that merges these forms into a potent, provocative genre of its own.
Morris Dickstein is a distinguished professor emeritus at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author, most recently, of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009) and Why Not Say What Happened (Liveright, 2015), a memoir.