Biopics made about historical icons and pop culture celebrities make sense as these people usually have very interesting lives, and are perfect for melodrama even if it’s usually partially fictionalized.

But then every once in a while we see a report or trailer on a new movie coming out based on a real incident that makes us go “huh?” That’s how I felt when I heard about Janicza Bravo’s new movie Zola when it was first announced a couple years ago.

A whole film based on an epic Twitter thread that recounted a bunch of ridiculous incidents later proven to be exaggerated? Sounds like a recipe for a hot disaster.

But shockingly, the completed product is actually not half bad, and featured some good acting from the leads Taylour Paige and Riley Keough. Similarly, I had my reservations about Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers (2019), yet was pleasantly surprised when the end result was fully entertaining and fascinating.

But biopics and “based-on-a-true-story” films can bring out both the best and worst in filmmaking. The best are obviously classics like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and GoodFellas (1990). The worst would include Sidney J. Furie’s Gable and Lombard (1976) or Larry Peerce’s Wired (1989).

It all depends on how much you rely on cliché tropes and don’t play it safe. The more famous the subject, the harder it will be to make a quality picture. That’s why when the stories aren’t familiar globally, it can work in the movie’s favor, such as in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988) or Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011).

David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) is a perfect blend of historical fiction that’s mostly true, but has some relatively believable fabricated elements to make up for holes in the real-life story. For a while Steve Jobs and Apple-related biopics were near inescapable, with Danny Boyle’s modestly decent Steve Jobs (2015) and Joshua Michael Stern’s flop Jobs (2013). Yet the fan favorite still remains Martyn Burke’s Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999).

Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) both lean into the traditional biopic structure, yet still soar from the stellar acting and direction. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020) and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019) are in a way the perfect “based-on-true-events” pieces as they are about protagonists who are only famous if you look up their original stories. This makes it easier for the viewer to enjoy the adapted tale without considering how much is altered.

Whatever the true-story subject may be, filmmakers would be best served to make it unique or intriguing on screen.

Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.

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