How do filmmakers and actors make historical figures--known, unknown, dead, or alive--breathe on screen? It's all open to interpretation.

By Ty Burr
November 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

This movie season, the simple questions will be on the order of How did they get Harry Potter to fly? Answer: computers and blue screens. Now for the hard stuff: How do you boil down the life of Muhammad Ali to two and a half hours? Can you truthfully dramatize the long, fraught marriage of writers Iris Murdoch and John Bayley — or any marriage — on a movie screen? Is it possible for clean-cut Benjamin Bratt to make himself over as the junkie playwright Miguel Pinero? And why does Ron Howard want to direct a film about a troubled, real-life mathematics genius in which entire characters and events are pure fiction?

These days, fantasy is easy and reality is hard. So while the four films mentioned above are each based on the lives of people who have walked — or still walk — the earth, don’t dare call them biopics. ”This is categorically not a biopic,” insists Ali director Michael Mann. ”This is Will Smith and I trying to do something more extreme than that.”

”Ours is not a biopic,” seconds Akiva Goldsman, screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind, the Howard-directed tale of Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe). Admits Tim Williams, coproducer of Pinero, ”In terms of being truthful to the actual things that he did and the people who were in his life, that was sort of secondary for us.” Iris director Richard Eyre simply states, ”One person’s truth is another person’s lie.”

Get past the semantic defensiveness — and, okay, the word biopic does conjure up images of made-for-Lifetime movies and Gary Oldman glowering in a Beethoven fright wig — and you find a group of screenwriters, directors, and actors all wrestling with a profound conundrum: How do you get the truth of a person on screen? Is it even possible?

On one level, of course not. ”Simple selection is a creative process,” laughs Goldsman. ”You say ‘Well, this was a scrupulously accurate biopic.’ Yes, but you left out 98 percent of the person’s life. It’s by definition not accurate, so stop striving for accuracy. Strive for something else.” In the case of his film, that meant striving to see through Nash’s eyes as literally as possible. ”We took the architecture of John’s life that God gave us,” says Goldsman. ”It’s: mathematics genius, mental illness, Nobel Prize. And then we reimagined. We tried to replicate the experiences of those phases of his life in the minds and hearts of the audience. It’s a stab at the truth, but not by way of the facts.”

Not that the filmmakers made everything up: When Ron Howard met with the real Nash, who at 73 still teaches in Princeton, N.J., he had an epiphany that shaped the whole film. ”I realized that Alicia is as much of a hero in this story,” says Howard of his subject’s wife (played by Jennifer Connelly), who divorced Nash yet has continued to care for him — and recently remarried him. ”You see 95 percent of the movie through John’s eyes, but it’s good to pull back and see 5 percent of it through Alicia.”

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