'Nyad,' 'American Splendor,' and the Brechtian Biopic
What happens when the filmmakers want you to know their "true story" isn't the whole truth?
“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” -Pablo Picasso
There are a lot of tricky elements to turning an actual historical event into a non-documentary feature film, not least the of which is the way audiences will inevitably compare and contrast the true story with the story as presented by the filmmakers. We’re seeing this happen right now with Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, which takes ample liberties with the life of its subject, but earlier this year, similar water cooler conversations swirled around Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, BlackBerry, and Priscilla, and we can expect more of them in the coming weeks when Ferrari, Freud’s Last Session, and The Iron Claw are all released. In fact, there’s an entire website, History vs. Hollywood, devoted to this very subject.
Thing is, while facts are often interesting, they are necessarily a secondary priority when trying to tell an engaging story. Putting aside that life is subjective and any account of any “true story” will almost certainly be disputed by someone who was involved in that event… and putting aside that the moment a storyteller begins to convey information, their point of view and personality will be present with the narrative (consciously or unconsciously), because even the very words we choose to articulate a story betray the storyteller’s biases and philosophical beliefs… stories need things like theme and structure to hold one’s interest, and with regards to drama, that structure requires a certain economy of narrative. And life simply doesn’t unfold that way. So events have to be streamlined, participants amalgamated, dialogue embellished, and outcomes adjusted. Just ask William Shakespeare. Or Steven Spielberg. Or Martin Scorsese. Or Don Siegel. Or Aaron Sorkin. Or John Singleton. Or even plenty of other great storytellers whose surname does not begin with the letter S.
It’s understandable that some people don’t see things this way, especially given how a) for marketing purposes, there’s often a lot of stress placed on how a film is “inspired by a true story,” and b) directors, production designers, and costume designers frequently love to gloat about the amount of accurate detail they’ve utilized: they’ll say “These are authentic military uniforms from the conflict portrayed,” or “These are the actual plates from the dining room of the ship that went down,” or “This was the subject’s personal backscratcher,” or whatever. But while that stuff might add an important feeling of verisimilitude to the proceedings, they don’t mean the story is factually correct.
Even if every filmmaker knows this, most of the time, the movie doesn’t call attention to the myriad ways it has unpreventably had to rewrite history.
And then there’s Nyad, the excellent Diana Nyad biopic which premiered on Netflix earlier this month.
Nyad’s official plot synopsis, via the streamer itself, is as follows:
“The remarkable true story of athlete Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.”
There’s that marketing department at work again: “The remarkable true story.” And Nyad does recount an actual event, and that event was most certainly remarkable, but again: the movie really has no choice but to fudge at least some of the details (which it does - everyone involved in the project freely concedes that screenwriter Julia Cox added at least one major fictional conflict to the story in order to “keep the plot taut.”)
Co-directors (and spouses) Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi obviously know this. Nyad is the pair’s first narrative feature film after years of directing documentaries - most notably, 2018’s Free Solo, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. There can be no doubt that these two are acutely aware of how even documentaries, let alone biopics, ultimately need to craft a narrative, which means they’re rarely the objective documents of unfettered truth they appear to be. The directors recognize that even if they’re going to reenact a “remarkable true story,” their movie will not convey - can never convey - the indisputable truth of what happened (to whatever degree that “indisputable truth” even exists: Nyad’s accomplishment is the subject of some controversy, and Nyad herself has admitted to embellishing some of her career highlights.)
What makes Chin and Vasarhelyi different from so many other filmmakers who have tackled historical events, however, is that they have gone out of their way to call attention to their movie being a portrayal of reality, rather than reality itself.
This is done partially via the use of flashbacks and surrealistic hallucinations, both of which make it clear we’re seeing these events through Diana Nyad’s eyes.
But it is done primarily through the use of authentic footage of the real Diana Nyad.
Many filmmakers making fictionalized accounts of real events will include footage or photos of the actual people portrayed at the end of their film, once it’s safe to break the spell they’ve cast over the audience. But Chin and Vasarhelyi include intermittent documentary footage of Nyad and her swim attempts throughout the entire movie, often right next to shots of Annette Bening. And while Bening is, physically speaking, a reasonable-enough facsimile of Diana Nyad, the moment you put her beside the real Diana Nyad, any illusion of the two being one and the same evaporates. This is especially true when we see images of Nyad as a younger woman, because Annette Bening’s career took off when she was in her early thirties, and she has now been famous for more than three decades. We all know and remember what Annette Bening looked like as a younger woman, and that is patently not her in the vintage footage.
In fact, not only does seeing these two women side-by-side regularly remind the viewer that they’re not the same person, but the documentary footage often differs from the onscreen recreation in other obvious ways. At one point, for example, they cut from Bening, swimming in a blue bathing suit, to Nyad, swimming in a red bathing suit; at another point, they footage of the real Nyad swimming with the protection of an anti-shark contraption, and then cut to Bening swimming without it. It could not be any more obvious a reminder that this is a fictionalized account of a real event if the words “THIS IS A FICTIONAL ACCOUNT OF A REAL EVENT!!!” periodically flashed on the screen.
This, of course, begs the question: why do Chin and Vasarhelyi do this? What do they hope to achieve by constantly reminding you that you’re watching a recreation?
In 1936, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote an essay, entitled Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting, in which he detailed a dramatic theory known as Verfremdungseffekt. This translates to ‘alienation effect’ or ‘distancing effect.’ As the name suggests, it is a method of creating theater that abandons naturalism, and, by extension, escapism, with the specific purpose of giving the audience intellectual space from the emotions conveyed in the story:
“[T]he audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.”
Chin and Vasarhelyi employ Verfremdungseffekt so as not to make Nyad a simple underdog sports movie in which the audience is swept away (pardon the pun) by empathy for the protagonist. They will not settle for making emotional pornography, which substitutes sentimentality and the exploitation of innate human sympathy in place of actual craft. And, perhaps above all else, they want you to know that no matter what Netflix’s marketing department tells you, this is not a “remarkable true story” - it is a subjective account of a remarkable true story. Which is all any film ever can be.
The approach Chin and Vasarhelyi take to Nyad is unusual, but not revolutionary. The Big Short, Adam McKay’s 2015 account of the 2008 financial crisis, frequently breaks the fourth wall, sometimes to explain complex Wall Street concepts, sometimes to acknowledge the ways it bends (or even breaks) the truth.
Still, you have to go back twenty years to find a mainstream biopic that employs Verfremdungseffekt so brazenly. That film is American Splendor, which is both the life story of the comic book writer Harvey Pekar and an adaptation of Pekar’s long-running autobiographical comic.
Like Nyad, American Splendor mixes footage of the real Pekar with the actor who portrays him, Paul Giamatti. But it’s actually even more barefaced than Nyad: Pekar narrates the movie, commenting early on that Giamatti doesn’t look like him… and there’s footage of Pekar recording that narration… and there are interviews with Pekar, in which he admits he hasn’t actually read the screenplay for American Splendor… and there’s footage of various artist portrayals of Pekar in the American Splendor comics… and part of the story involves a stage adaptation of American Splendor starring Donal Logue as Pekar, so that you basically have the real Pekar watching and criticizing Giamatti’s Pekar while Giamatti’s Pekar watches and criticizes Logue’s Pekar.
What’s notable about American Splendor with regards to Nyad is that, like the latter film, the married directing duo that made American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, were also previously documentarians. It’s worth considering why filmmakers so well versed in non-fiction should be the most enthusiastic about acknowledging the ways biopics must resort to fiction as a matter of course. Even the fact that both partnerships are creative and personal seems relevant to me - for what are conflicts between romantic partners if not two people struggling to help each other understand how they experience the world?
Maybe these directors grasp, even better than most, that life is one big Rashomon scenario; where the Spike Lees and Ron Howards of the world feel pressure to persuade the viewer of their story’s veracity, the Chin and Vasarhelyis and Berman and Pulcinis comprehend that stories are not, cannot be, reality. That shouldn’t detract from the value of a story as a means of exploring the human condition, even if it may detract from the value of a story as a means of documenting history.