By strange coincidence, Nelson Mandela’s death was announced during the London premiere of upcoming biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Is this just a case of bad – or possibly good – timing?
Biopics are hot property right now, with everyone from Paul Potts to Pol Pot getting the cinematic treatment. But with this trend comes an increasing disregard for historical distance. The Fifth Estate gave us the Julian Assange story whilst it’s still very much ongoing, trying to make history out of current affairs. The Iron Lady treated Thatcher as if she was already dead, in a bleary-eyed hagiography. And now Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is set for release less than a month after the man’s death.
Aside from anything else, these tend to make disappointing movies. A good biopic provides some insight into the subject’s life, which we simply can’t get without a certain amount of historical context. Time provides perspective, and that’s vital for appropriately studying someone’s life works. The best biopics, whether it’s Lenny, Hunger or The Elephant Man, are made with the historical distance to say something interesting about their fascinating subjects. In the case of The Fifth Estate or The Iron Lady, there’s the feeling that we’re simply too close to the events at hand.
If I were feeling cynical I’d even wonder if the filmmakers were slightly hoping that their subjects would die around the appropriate release dates. Thatcher and Mandela were certainly both seriously ill when production began on their respective biopics, lending the whole thing something of a vulture vibe. Either way, the filmmakers are clearly cashing in on current events which are still affecting real people, which feels slightly uncomfortable, no matter how reverential these movies.
Films such as The Social Network and The Fifth Estate again appear to treat current events as history. Whether films about Facebook and WikiLeaks will be of interest to people in the future who aren’t familiar with them is debatable. As for Mandela, are the studios just worried that if they leave it any later than a month we’ll have forgotten about him?