Like last year, many of this year’s batch of award-baiting movies are based on real people or stories. I’m not a big fan of this genre because unless you know very little about the subjects, it’s hard to be surprised by what’s on screen. Plus, many biopics come across like a checklist: in this year, this event occurred, and then in another year, this other thing happened, etc.
That’s not to say the results are always boring, hence my varying thoughts on the biopics I saw recently.
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, the novelist and screenwriter who was blacklisted and imprisoned for refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but nevertheless managed to win two Oscars—for Roman Holiday and The Brave One—under an assumed name.
This is standard biopic fare, with nothing to qualify it as exceptional. Cranston is solid, Helen Mirren doesn’t do anything as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper we haven’t seen from her, and the ever luminous Diane Lane is wasted as Trumbo’s patient wife, Cleo.
Memorable performances come from Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, torn by loyalty to his friend Trumbo and his need to preserve his career, and Dean O’Gorman, whose resemblance to the young Kirk Douglas is so startling, I thought Mr. Douglas had Benjamin Buttoned to be in this movie.
Reasons for seeing it: To be reminded of how mass hysteria and government-dictated imprisonment of US citizens for their political views is a very bad idea.
Based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of the Apple cofounder, boosted by Aaron Sorkin’s script and Michael Fassbender’s mesmerizing performance in the title role, Steve Jobs is a surprisingly riveting portrait of the complicated man behind the popular computers and mobile devices.
As with all Sorkin-written movies, this is very talky, but the dialogue is sharp, often cutting straight to blunt truths, and nimbly delivered by the cast. When Jobs is asked why he never approached his biological father despite knowing the man’s identity, he replies, “Because he’d probably find some reason to sue me.”
Fassbender is a sure best-actor contender for simultaneously displaying the brilliance and vulnerability, arrogance and fear, triumphs and frustrations, confidence and regret that shaped the mercurial Jobs. Even when Jobs is being a jerk, I oddly found myself rooting for him because he’s simply more dynamic than anyone else on screen.
Kate Winslet supports Fassbender well as Apple’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman, the only person who seemingly had the balls to stand up to Jobs. Michael Stuhlbarg shows up here, too, once again doing subtly effective work as another real-life person—original Apple team member Andy Herztfeld—struggling with conflicting loyalties.
Reasons for seeing it: Fassbender’s commanding performance, strong writing from Sorkin, learning about the development of iconic Apple products.
The Danish Girl
Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander can count on Oscar nominations for their work as married artists Einar and Gerda Wegener. With Gerda’s support, Eina became the first person to undergo gender-reassignment operations, transitioning into Lili Elbe.
I don’t think Redmayne will win again this year, though. Like he did as Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything, the actor fully immerses himself in the dual role of Einar/Lili, but he’s less effective here. Whereas with Hawking, the actor manages to show the man’s internal life while remaining mostly immobile, Redmayne’s Lili employs a lot of feminine mannerisms and hand gestures that make his performance seem more about the external than internal. Vikander, on the other hand, is raw and hearttbreaking as a woman who can’t stop loving her husband, even after Einar kills him off so Lili can live.
Reasons for seeing it: Vikander’s star-making performance, to better understand the internal and external struggles of a transgendered person.