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Thursday, January 8, 2015

On THE IMITATION GAME, SELMA and Capturing the Extraordinary Lives of Two Tragic Heroes

I find it interesting that the two most talked about true-life films this awards season are stories about tragic heroes whose premature deaths go uncaptured in their films. Not because I like the idea of historical omission (I really don't have a dog in that fight), but because I like that the filmmakers averted expectation to give audiences a different ending. A conclusion that still felt dignified and shaped the story the filmmaker was trying to tell.

Take The Imitation Game, for instance. The fascinating story traces the life of Dr. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the British computer scientist, mathematician and cryptanalyst of the WWII-era, whose genius helped end the war two years early. And whose accomplishments were swept under the rug not only because of the highly sensitive nature of his work, but because he was gay at a time in the U.K. when homosexuality was illegal. His suicide at age 41, after being mandated to undergo "hormonal treatment," is not so much overlooked in the film as it is instead honored with the riveting account of Turing's personal and professional journey.

During a recent Q&A with co-producer Teddy Schwarzman, he noted that the decision to end the story before capturing Turing's death was intentional after editing out a previous version of the ending that more closely captured Turing's final days. Schwarzman said it felt "trivial" to include Turing's suicide just for the sake of doing so, especially when it was his life and work that never received the attention they deserved. Instead, the film informs audiences of the circumstances surrounding his death in postscript. The Imitation Game was screenwriter Graham Moore's way of making sure that people know that Turing's contributions could not possibly be reduced to a templated biopic. The film offers a complexity to Turing's story that that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Similarly, Selma director Ava Duvernay chose to end the film before portraying civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr's (David Oyelowo) final moments before he was assassinated at age 39 in Memphis. Focusing the film around King's iconic marches for equal rights in Alabama, we get a more structured look at the era and the series of events that led up to what has become known as one of King's celebrated accomplishments -- his orchestration of initiatives that resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Despite the film's flaws, it stays true to its mission of encapsulating this moment in history and King's influence.

I say this all to say that as we continue to celebrate biopics and movies that are "based/inspired by actual events/stories," we should also honor that not every film has to follow a certain format, that cradle-to-the-grave style that is so widely recycled throughout Hollywood (am I the only one who's getting tired of that?). It's also nice to tell these stories in a new way that shines a fresh light on an well-worn concept. Besides, isn't that the whole point of cinematic storytelling, weaving together new themes and approaches to familiar concepts? I'll take that.

The Imitation Game is now playing, and Selma will open nationwide on Friday, January 9th.


Brittani Burnham said...

I figured Selma wouldn't include Dr. King's death, but I'm surprised to hear The Imitation Game skipped it too. I agree, that's nice that they're focusing on their work and not their tragic deaths. I'm really looking forward to seeing TIG next week.

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