Stranger than fiction
From Tolkien to The Favourite, and from Bohemian Rhapsody to VICE, the global love affair with fact-based drama shows no signs of slowing. Be it the deranged energy of 18th-century gothic or the pitch-black satire of VICE, a tale of lust for power centred on the forbidding figure of George W. Bush's all-powerful vice president Dick Cheney, fact-based films are lapping up awards. The Favourite was nominated for a record 10 Oscars this year, and VICE for eight.
Whether the subject matter is lost in the depths of time, as with The Favourite, whose core lesbian love triangle remains a matter for debate, or open to all-comers, as in VICE, where three of four Cheney family members have written memoirs, fictionalising fact is a fine art. And that's especially the case when the protagonist is still around to object.
The Challenge of the Subject
Filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon has produced and directed both dramas and documentaries. Her latest release, Hero, dramatises the life of Caribbean war hero turned pan-African activist Ulric Cross.
Just as no laws govern who can write a biography, any filmmaker is free to turn their attention to a person's life, Solomon confirms, even if that portrayal is far from flattering. VICE, for example, depicts Cheney cynically seeking excuses to invade Iraq, engaging in pre-war planning meetings with Big Oil and enabling the business he recently headed, Halliburton, to make untold millions on war contracts.
Further, while every professional production performs due diligence and secures insurance against copyright breach and defamation, audiences expect filmmakers to be creative. "Drama is dependent on building scenes of character," Solomon says. "And we don't always know what people say in conversations with each other, what specific actions led to a specific event. Recreating that dramatically inevitably involves a certain amount of poetic license."
In VICE, some scenes, such as the one where Cheney's teenage daughter comes out as lesbian to her parents after a car crash, cling closely to the truth. Yet a myriad of devices signal the film is fiction. The unreliable narrator breaks the fourth wall with blithe abandon; the Cheneys, Macbeth-style, shift into Shakespearean verse as Dick contemplates returning to government; and credits begin to roll just half an hour into the film, only to be tricksily snatched away.
Art and Artifice
For VICE, in which his role spans four decades, Christian Bale underwent perhaps his most dramatic transformation since he lost 28kg for The Machinist: he's utterly unrecognisable as the portly 60-something veep. But it's ominous stillness that shapes Bale's presence – not the impressive prosthetics. "For audiences, it's fun seeing somebody change themselves to look exactly like a person that they have seen in the public plane," Solomon observes. "But really it's the strength of the performance that makes it."
Solomon cites Game Change, another fact-based political drama, as an example of capturing the essence of a character through performance. "Julianne Moore doesn't look particularly like Sarah Palin, but she managed to embody the spirit of Sarah," Solomon says. "She got her mannerisms down and she got her facial expressions. And that's how she overcame the visuals so you thought you were looking at Sarah Palin."
Shaping the Narrative
For many filmmakers, the journey to biographical drama begins with a timeline of the subject's life. A documentary might take a cradle-to-grave approach, touching on a wealth of plot points along the way, but drama requires a tighter focus. "What drives the drama is the arc of the central character," Solomon says. "You have to decide on a storyline. That might be a section of something that happened in this man's life or could be a fictionalised piece."
Outside the broad sweep of Cheney's rise from stumbling drunk – he had been arrested for drink driving twice by the age of 22 – to one of the world's most powerful men, VICE draws on his biography to create recurring motifs. The image of fly fishing, a Cheney hobby, becomes a metaphor for politics as he lures a naïve George W. Bush into surrendering the levers of power. Cheney's five heart attacks, and the pulse of that calcified organ, underpin the tragic subplot between his daughters.
Any creative endeavour is informed by the era that produced it, and biographical dramas are no exception. "You're inspired by the zeitgeist at the time and hopefully then the events and themes line up with the trends of the day, and that's where you have something that captures an audience," Solomon says.
That perspective, while driving relevance, can create its own challenges – especially if the inspiration is contemporaneously developing events. VICE convincingly places Cheney and colleagues behind catastrophes from ISIS to climate change to Abu Ghraib, but the through-line to Donald Trump may feel a reach in years to come.
Yet the world's love affair with fictionalised true stories shows no sign of dissipating. Official Secrets, released in August, sees Keira Knightley reincarnate a British whistleblower, while Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland on the big screen come September and Taron Egerton transforms into a fantastical Elton John in the recently released Rocketman. And while an enigmatic bureaucrat such as Cheney might seem an odd choice for a comedy, noughties politics will undoubtedly inspire its own dramatisations in years to come.
Buy or rent VICE today
From Academy Award winning writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short) comes the subversively comedic VICE, an unconventional look at former Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise from Congressional intern to the most powerful man on the planet.