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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Do big screen biopics ever work?

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry looks at the new Steve Jobs film and examines big name biopics from the last few years.

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in a scene from 'Jobs'. Photo / AP
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in a scene from 'Jobs'. Photo / AP

Last week I went to a cinema to check out the new Steve Jobs biopic, Jobs. I enjoyed it. But I enjoyed it in the way that I enjoy reading a Wikipedia article. There was nothing lasting or artful about the film, and it failed to make any kind of overall point.

In short, if felt like a TV movie.

My experience with the film speaks to the inherently limiting nature of biopics. More often than note, they feel like a collection of moments, rather than a story. A "greatest hits" of somebody's life that fails to present any kind of grander message.

Which makes a certain amount of sense - after all, how can you boil down a life to two hours of screen time? Fictional biopics, like say, Forrest Gump, can easily access grand metaphorical power, but things get sticky once you attempt to cinematically define an actual person.

The best literary biographies struggle to capture a life in all its complex glory, films have an even tougher time of it.

I love watching Sky's classic movie channel TCM. It nothing else, it demonstrates that Old Hollywood LOVED making biopics. They were usually about songwriters or opera singers, and examples of the latter invariably starred Mario Lanza.

Anyway, as the '60s and '70s gave rise to more emotionally complex movies, biopics became primarily associated with television movies, where there is less of an onus to create something poetic.

But while most of them exist in the domain of the made-for-TV movie, mainstream Hollywood persists in mounting big screen biopics with lofty ambitions.

Even when everything goes right, these films still struggle to justify themselves artistically.

Take 2004's Ray, a biopic of legendary jazz musician Ray Charles. It was a handsome production with a phenomenal cast lead by Jamie Foxx in an Oscar-winnning performance. But it still felt like a TV movie.

2009's Notorious (about rapper Christopher 'Notorious B.I.G. Smalls) had a decent pedigree as well, but again, failed to justify its big-screen presence.

So what big screen biopics actually work?

I think the key factor is to focus on one aspect of the subject's life, as opposed to attempting to present an all-encompassing portrait.

The Queen - one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed biopics in recent years - employed this method, and its success lead directly to subsequent films like The Iron Lady and the upcoming Diana.

2010's The Social Network was ostensibly more about a thing (Facebook) rather than a person, but it also had pertinent and focused observations to make about the people involved.

At the same time, the film never seemed to claim to be offering a definitive portrait of any of its subjects (Mark Zuckerberg; Sean Parker; Eduardo Saverin), who felt more like characters than actual people.

Yet by not presuming to present a complete picture of these real-life people, the film somehow felt more honest, and it definitely felt more artful. Another example of this is the 2004 Hitler film Downfall.

Both films effectively demonstrate how focusing on a specific section or aspect of a subject's life can greatly enhance a biopic's effectiveness as a work of great cinematic art.

The argument also applies to Argo - this film's breaks with reality are well-documented, but the finished product was undeniably entertaining and had a lasting metaphorical power.

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One of the potentially coolest examples of this kind of focus will be seen in an alternative Steve Jobs biopic being planned, this one scripted by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote The Social Network.

Sorkin has revealed that the entire film will take place over three 30 minute scenes presented in real time, each one showing Jobs just prior to Apple's three biggest product launches.

It's an instantly-enticing concept for a biopic that I cannot wait to see play out.

The narrow-focus approach is a strategy that doesn't always work however, like in last year's Hitchock, which examined the director only as he was preparing and making 1960's Psycho. The film explored some very basic psychology that has been much better addressed in various books about Alfred Hitchock, and was yet another biopic that stunk of TV movie-ness.

It should be noted that not all made-for-TV biopics are insignificant - HBO has been doing great work in this area covering people Jack Kevorkian, Sarah Palin and Phil Spector.

HBO's recent Liberace film Behind The Candelabra was accurately deemed worthy enough to gain a cinematic release outside of America, and it could be argued that the film works because it's not attempting to show all of Liberace's life.

It's Liberace as viewed by his lover Scott Thorston (who wrote the book the film was based on), and again, by narrowing the focus, the film feels more complete as a story.

Can you think of any other recent big screen biopics that work as artistically significant films?

Behind The Candelabra director Steven Soderberg addressed the inhibiting nature of a single film by spreading his Che Guevara biopic Che across two movies. But this has made the project seem like a chore to watch, and I haven't yet been able to bring myself to do so.

Anyone seen Oliver Stone's 1995 film Nixon lately? That was an epic film about a legendary figure that focused on one part of his life. Maybe Stone's 2008 film about George W Bush, W, would've benefitted from a tighter focus. It definitely suffers from TV movie-itis.

The problem also afflicted Clint Eastwood's J Edgar Hoover biopic J Edgar. There were all sorts of aspects to Hoover that the film could've focused on, but by trying to include everything, it flattened out the story.

So should Hollywood keep making biopics for the big screen? I think so, as long as there is some creativity employed in the manner in which the subject's life is addressed. Trying to paint an all-encompassing picture generally results in a film that's prosaic at best. Like Jobs.

* Can you think of any biopics that work as great films? Don't say Lincoln. That movie was booooring. Comment below!

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