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Historical Footage in Biopics? Let ‘Em Finish the Job

Article by Paul Preston

Years ago I watched Gene Siskel review What’s Love Got To Do With It, the story of Tina’s Turner’s tumultuous relationship with bwhaand mate and husband Ike Turner. Siskel and Ebert both rightfully praised the film as a risky biopic with two great lead performances in Angela Bassett & Laurence Fishburne. But Siskel added that when the real Tina Turner shows up in the end credits, “you kinda miss Angela Bassett”.

What's Love Got To Do With It

I got behind that.

There are thousands and thousands of biopics out there, and the decision to jump cut from a scripted narrative to reality right at the film’s end shouldn’t be taken lightly. Too often than not it just brings up questions like – just how far from the looks of the real-life subject did Hollywood stray when casting that incredibly beautiful person? Or worse, comments like – wow, that movie was really OFF in presenting so-and-so.

After investing two hours in an actor’s tireless work to portray a real-life character, I want to ride with them until the end. Showing me that the person in the script was actually a real-life individual rarely does anything new. Most of the time that fact is spelled out on the poster or at the beginning of the film with the words “based on a true story”.

Raging BullAfter Robert DeNiro twisted his body and persona in a hundred different directions in Raging Bull, I didn’t need the real Jake LaMotta to show up on screen for me to be impressed. And seeing him wouldn’t have brought any extra weight or gravitas to a movie that generated plenty on its own with controlled, quality filmmaking and great performances. Director Martin Scorsese wisely avoided putting LaMotta in the film’s finale, and he’s never cut to reality in other biopics like Goodfellas, The Aviator, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

I can’t speak for Scorsese, but his movies feel confident, as if they know they’ve got this, that they can create a world you’ll get lost in without reality having to back them up. But as with everything, there are exceptions (and perhaps some 20+ year old spoilers ahead):

Malcolm X


One of the best biopics of all time ends with extensive footage of the actual Malcolm, portrayed otherwise in the film by Denzel Washington. But quickly the footage’s purpose is revealed, as it couples with audio of Ossie Davis’ eulogy for the slain black leader, and bridges the gap between the black struggle for justice in Malcolm’s time with the black societal struggles of modern day.

Schindler’s List


There are solid dramatics to be had presenting the actual Schindler Jews at the end of this movie. Getting real-life faces paying their respects to the man whose small gestures saved their lives was very powerful. I think it’s apparent in the cast accompanying the survivors to Schindler’s grave that everyone, cast and crew, knew their involvement in this film served a higher purpose.


For some films, the move backfires in ways never expected. I feel, and many do who I’ve spoken to about the film, that the events that take place in the real-life footage at the end of Unbroken would be a better movie than the two hours Angelina Jolie spent working her ass off to perfect. The story of Louis Zamperini’s survival against natural and wartime odds came off as routine to many critics who have seen a host of war movies, but right before the end credits, the film delivers real-life footage of Zamperini and talks about how he FORGAVE the Japanese soldiers who inflicted horrible torture upon him in a P.O.W. camp and eventually carried the Olympic torch when the Olympics were in JAPAN. That’s a story! And delivering up those fascinating facts that will go unexplored was a disservice to the film.



Some actors luck out and the project won’t have real-life footage that could even be cut to. For example, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Sure, that’s how he sounded, why not? Can’t exactly pull out that VHS of The Gettysburg Address and go Zapruder on it, scoping for inconsistencies.


Speaking of Scorsese, Willem Dafoe did his best Jesus for the Last Temptation of Christ. Accurate? Probably not. Can you imagine the heart-strings that could be pulled by the hack move of cutting from the end of that film to ACTUAL FOOTAGE OF CHRIST ON THE CROSS.

Well, Scorsese, of course, still wouldn’t do it.


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