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In the last few weeks, the entertainment press (if that’s a thing) has been debating movies that are historical fiction, more specifically the appropriate proportions of “historical” and “fiction.” Lurking behind this debate is another issue: how much does, or should, a biopic glorify its central subjects? If you choose to make a movie about, say, Mark David Chapman, the assassin of John Lennon (as Jared Leto and Lindsey Lohan did), does the basic three-act, protagonist-following structure of filmmaking dictate that audiences will necessarily feel some sympathy for Chapman? Welllll…

We’d like to introduce an idea here and see how well it flies: the Hagio-Warts Metric for Biopics. On the Hagio-Warts Metric, films are rated from 1 to 10, a “1” meaning that the film presents the most hagiographic, loving, lawsuit-avoiding possible view of its subjects. A “10” would be the most “warts-and-all,” demeaning, lawsuit-inviting possible view of its subjects. Let’s note two conceptual problems up front. One: many films denigrate some characters more than others. Probably a more thorough Hagio-Warts Metric would rank characters from 1 to 10, but this is merely an opening salvo. Most characters in most films aren’t onscreen long enough to be unsympathetic; we can only take seriously characters who had enough screen time to be problematized. Two: this ranking is based purely on the portraits painted by the film, assuming the audience knows nothing else about the real-life subjects. Perhaps that’s naïve, or perhaps critics naïvely assume that audiences actually read all the same media that they do. In other words, from Argo to Moneyball to Wild, we try to take the perspective of someone who had never before heard of (or much about) Tony Mendez, Billy Beane, or Cheryl Strayed. Perhaps another Hagio-Warts Metric might do more with the “truth” compared to “lies” – more like a factcheck.org. This Hagio-Warts Metric is meant only to judge the film’s implied perspective on its leads. How does it ask us to see them?

For the sake of a contained piece, we will simply rank a few films from the current decade and then leave it open to debate. As it happens, we rank no film higher than a 9, leading to the question: could any biopic be so insulting of its subjects as to score a 10? Sure, probably Downfall, the 2004 German film about Adolf Hitler. Perhaps The Last King of Scotland, the 2006 film about Idi Amin. 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans, though a documentary, is probably worth a good 9 ½. If Citizen Kane is considered a biopic (and it sometimes is), that’s another film that might get close to 10; you certainly don’t feel much sympathy for Kane or Susan by the film’s end.

So as a thought experiment, here we go with the Hagio-Warts Metric:

127 Hours: Aron Ralston seems like a nice enough guy in a bad situation. He doesn’t really freak, hate his prior life, or even jerk off as much as you’d figure. No idea what he’s really like, but other than swearing, he could hardly be much more saintly than this. Score: 2

The King’s Speech: This is one of those movies that pretends to be a lot more “warts-and-all” than it really is. George is repressed, a little snippy with people, and has a stutter? His coach is a bit insouciant, and his wife is occasionally less than fawning? Ooooooooo. Maybe one or two scenes go beyond what royalty would have directly authorized. Score: 3

The Fighter: This is more like it, because the people feel genuinely unsentimentalized, real and passionate working-class assholes from South Boston. Makes the people in Good Will Hunting and even Gone Baby Gone look like choir boys. Still, the Mark Wahlberg character keeps a halo around him, keeping this score from the 8-9 range. Score: 7

The Social Network: One of the best “warts-and-all”-ers from the last ten years, thanks to Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s ruthless lack of pulling punches. No lead really comes off well here, except perhaps Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), who was probably too naïve. But Zuckerberg, Parker, and the Winklevii show that you can create compelling drama without begging for the audience’s love. Might have been a 9 but for the final scene. Score: 8

The Iron Lady: My take-aways included a very old, frail woman struggling with her tea, refusing to apologize for anything. Of course, she was also somewhat heroic and root-for-able in all those Falklands scenes. Split decision, but it didn’t feel very subject-approved. Score: 6

My Week With Marilyn: Would have been right at home if made when it was set, in the 50s. It’s hard to imagine Colin Clark (who provides the “My” in the title) or Marilyn Monroe could possibly object to anything in the film; it’s not like any of them hurt anyone or confess any impure thoughts. Slight points for humanizing Marilyn. Score: 2

Moneyball: Okay, right, Moneyball. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his Jonah-Hill-like assistant are neither choirboys nor the sort of rapacious, cruel managers we know from films like Any Given Sunday. The film gets “warts” credit for hating on Art Howe. Score: 5

Hugo: A fairytale of real-life film pioneer Georges Melies, and it’s meant to be a fairytale. Early grumpy scenes don’t count as warts; this man is beatified. Score: 1

The Impossible: Based-on-real-life story of Henry and Maria Belon, who, even in the pre-tsunami scenes, are perfect parents – I saw more flaws in Cliff and Claire Huxtable. What’s impossible is that the real-life people could object to even one frame of this film. Score: 1

Zero Dark Thirty: BIG asterisk here; it insists that it’s based on “true events” even while the characters are said to be amalgamations. Using the Bourne tone for the Bin Laden hunt is weird; it’s wart-showing but also oddly forgiving of “whatever it takes.” Maya (an amalgam) is barely flawed – other than the smoking, she’s close to a superhero. So this is a split, leaning toward beatitude. Score: 4

Saving Mr. Banks: Did anyone at Disney (who made this film) feel this was the warts-and-all version of P.L. Travers and the Disney employees that made Mary Poppins? Did anyone think that Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney was a daring deconstruction of the legend? Only Emma Thompson’s great acting suggests pathos; still, hard to see what Travers wouldn’t have liked. By modern standards, this was no medicine, all spoonfuls of sugar. Score: 1

Lincoln: Clearly meant to rip away some of the History Channel, Henry Fonda-ish sentimentalization of the man and his times, and sometimes does, especially regarding Mary Todd, Robert, and a few Senators. The central character, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, still comes off a little too well, but you also sense that he wasn’t entirely exceptional for his era. Score: 6

Argo: Any movie where Hollywood producers look like daring rebels isn’t going to score higher than 5. This film had its detractors, but it’s hard to imagine any of them were played by any of the film’s leads, particularly Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, who’s as white a knight as we could imagine in any telling of the Iran hostage crisis. Score: 3

Dallas Buyers Club: This is where you really notice the difference between the Hagio-Warts Metric and one that compared and contrasted the supposed “truth.” Lots of people have complained about how the film portrays Ron Woodroof, but if you know nothing of that, Ron seems like a real asshole who only barely comes around at the end. Rayon plays like tragedy. Whatever may have really happened, this feels like a very anti-sentimental journey. Score: 7

Philomena: Surprisingly rough. Steve Coogan, not unlike Ricky Gervais, has made a career out of daring people not to like him, and his authentically unlikable persona carries over here; one would not expect the real-life Martin Sixsmith to enjoy his film version. As for Philomena herself, sure, we do like her, but Judi Dench offers a master’s class in plainness, making Philomena as unlovable as possible. She and Coogan keep this from sweetness. Score: 6

Captain Phillips: Even the Somali pirates come off pretty well here, human after all. It’s hard to imagine the real-life Captain Phillips having any problems being portrayed with another Tom Hanks tour-de-force, except maybe at the end. How to read that final scene? For some, it’s rip-away-the-façade vulnerability, for others, mawkish. Split decision. Score: 4

American Hustle: Credit is due for one of the greatest opening title cards: “Some of this actually happened.” You can’t imagine that any of the real-life people featured in this film would have wanted to appear as they do. Sure, there’s some redemption, but come on, this was almost Coen-esque, and about as deconstructive as a true-story-comedy could be. Score: 8

The Wolf of Wall Street: Now we’re talking. It’s almost like director Martin Scorsese subliminally understood a list like this, realized that Goodfellas would have been around 4 or 5, and set out to make up for that by scoring as high as he could. Somehow DiCaprio’s natural charm keeps this film from scoring a 10, but you have to say: all the leads are about as bad as Bravo reality-TV stars. Score: 9

Lone Survivor: What are we dinging them for, swearing? Racism? Maybe a little. But really, when do you ever have any problems with any of Mark Wahlberg’s battalion? I mean, sure, wave the flag, just don’t pretend this is a nuanced portrayal of SEALs. Score: 2

12 Years a Slave: This would be a 1 except for Michael Fassbender’s and Paul Dano’s portraits of entirely unsympathetic evil. They’re horrible. Everyone else with a lot of screen time is a saint. If Solomon Northup was ever lousy to anyone, we don’t see it here. Score: 3

Foxcatcher: Now you’re talking. People may not like this as much as director Bennett Miller’s previous films, Capote and Moneyball, but if Miller did anything right, he certainly went more warts-and-all. His two leads are so unsympathetic you almost lose interest. A little mitigated by a general generosity to the Schultz family, but impressively un-rah-rah. Score: 8

Wild: You don’t see women like Cheryl Strayed carrying films very often, and that’s partly because lead women aren’t supposed to sleep around and make bad choices. The film does feel a little first-world-problems-y, and Cheryl’s mother is presented almost as a saint, but what’s refreshing is that what makes Cheryl interesting is also what makes her disreputable. Score: 6

The Theory of Everything: Oh, come on. Jane and Stephen Hawking make most of the Downton Abbey Granthams look like demons by comparison…until the last third of the film, sort of, as they learn that they want something more than each other. Far more halo than hard-low. Score: 3

The Imitation Game: Not bad. Alan Turing is eventually somewhat sentimentalized, but only after he spends at least an hour of the film treating everyone else like crap and himself like a genius. The others look bad just for putting up with him. Score: 6

Selma: Again, if we were giving separate scores for separate characters, MLK and LBJ might sharply differ, but as a whole, this is a bit of a split: we hear about MLK’s affair(s) and LBJ’s recalcitrance, but we don’t delve deep into flaws (see: Social Network or Wolf of Wall Street), and by the end, everyone we care about has come around to the right thing. Score: 5

American Sniper: Again, there’s the noise around the film, and then there’s the film. If you don’t know Chris Kyle from Adam, this hardly seems like a jingoistic John Wayner; instead, the film presents Kyle as increasingly delusional (“Mark’s letter killed him”) and estranged from who he was. The enemy isn’t given a spotlight one way or the other, which feels a bit wrong. The closing funeral backtracks; before that, though, Chris and Taya seem rather unperfect, and far more problematized than the people in Lone Survivor. Score: 6

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