Oscar bait: why the glossy documentary remake rules this season

From twin towers tightrope walks to the Lance Armstrong story, ‘based on the acclaimed documentary’ is Hollywood’s latest short cut to an Oscar

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk.
Catherine Shoard

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 16.28 EST

Just as the only blockbusters now made in any number are those that form part of a franchise, so too most serious dramas require prior brand identification in order to be greenlit. This means biopics of people the audience have either already heard of, or behind-the-scenes yarns about newsy subjects so familiar they won’t feel out of their comfort zone (three Boston Marathon movies are currently in the pipeline).

For this year’s awards contenders, then, it’s the same old story – which is to say: very few original stories. There are biopics of Steve Jobs and Dalton Trumbo, Hank Williams and Edward Snowden, Whitey Bulger and Miles Davis. Of the first person to undergo gender reassignment (The Danish Girl) and the woman who invented the Miracle Mop (Joy). There are historical yarns like Suffragette and Bridge of Spies and Argo-ish explainers such as Truth (about political interference on the Dan Rather CBS talkshow), Spotlight (journalists under a Catholic paedophile ring) and Everest (people die while hiking). Most are based on biographies or on long-form journalism.

Johnny Depp in Black Mass.
Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

But there’s also a new model in town: the remade documentary. Three major movies this year take their cues, either directly or more discreetly, from recent non-fiction films. The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’s movie about Philippe Petit’s illegal tightrope walk between the twin towers in 1974, owes its brand identification to the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, made by James Marsh. The Program, Stephen Frears’s rise and fall of Lance Armstrong film necessarily follows the same events detailed in 2013’s The Armstrong Lie – a high-profile documentary by Alex Gibney (although Frears’s film is technically adapted from an exposé about the case). And Our Brand Is Crisis, a Sandra Bullock-starring public-relations satire about advising the Bolivian government, takes as its template a 2005 documentary called … Our Brand Is Crisis.

That was a little-seen movie, so the logic of a direct reworking seems perfectly sound. But with the others, it’s more curious: do such stories really need fictionalisation? And if they do, quite so soon?

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program.
Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program. Photograph: Allstar/StudioCanal

The answer is probably yes. It’s not just studios who now like their stories picked apart and psychologised as fast as possible. In an age in which almost all of us have immediate access to the facts, it’s those places Google can’t reach we long to travel to. We want an insight into that which non-fiction can’t show us, to decode the thought processes and to examine (or infer) the backstage soap. Putting ourselves in Petit’s shoes as he tried not to look down is an irresistible sell (Zemeckis shot the film in 3D). We don’t just want to study Lance Armstrong’s eyes as he semi-fessed-up in real life on Oprah. We want to see what was hidden for so long: the manipulation and the monster. The self-denial and the switched blood bags.

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