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This year’s “great man” biopics have a couple of things in common

What Oppenheimer, Napoleon, Maestro, and Ferrari have to say about the men at their centers.

A man in old-age makeup smoking a cigarette and clasping his hands, seated at a table.
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro.
Esther Zuckerman is a culture writer who has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, and Vanity Fair. She is the author of two books, A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends and Beyond the Best Dressed, with a third on the way.

This has been a banner year for movies about Great Men.

Now first let me clarify what I mean by the term Great Men. I don’t mean “men who are good,” for instance. This is not a moral judgment. Great Men can be bad men as well — bad for society, bad to their loved ones, etc. I mean, rather, movies about towering male figures whose names convey a certain amount of awe. Men like father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer, composer Leonard Bernstein, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and carmaker Enzo Ferrari. These are men who have made an impact on the world, sometimes for ill. They are men history has deemed worthy of studying and that filmmakers with big budgets behind them have deemed worthy of exploring.

But the Great Man movie presents an interesting challenge: The directors don’t need to prove that their subjects are interesting — decades of media coverage have done that — they need to prove why they can tell their stories in an engaging way that doesn’t feel like a Wikipedia entry and actually captures the essential mystique of these guys.

With Oppenheimer, Maestro, Napoleon, and Ferrari, Christopher Nolan, Bradley Cooper, Ridley Scott, and Michael Mann, respectively, have all seemingly taken on a challenge to reinvent the biopic formula as they pursue their passion projects about these icons. While their films differ in tone and execution, they’ve all attempted in similar ways to subvert typical biopic conventions.

Getting inside their heads

With Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan makes his intentions plain on the first page of his screenplay. “Peer into my soul,” he writes. “J. Robert Oppenheimer, aged fifty, close-cropped greying hair.”

Nolan wrote his script for the blockbuster film in the first person, essentially taking on the persona of the man behind the invention of the most destructive weapon the world has ever seen. You can see this as an act of hubris on the part of the director, but it is also a mission statement: Nolan wants to crack open Oppenheimer’s brain. His goal is not just to unpack his brilliance but also the guilt that arises after the US government takes his discovery and uses it to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A man in a wide brimmed hat and suit smokes a pipe in a desert with phone lines behind him.
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

With his understanding of theoretical physics, Oppenheimer can envision the cosmos. Nolan uses those visions as both a demonstration of his intelligence and his capacity for harm. What at first seem like interludes to demonstrate Oppenheimer’s scientific imagination — shots of contextless explosions — morph into the horrors that plague his mind once the bomb has been deployed. Nolan uses Oppenheimer’s own tools to explain him, and to a certain extent, so do Cooper, Scott, and Mann.

As Cooper tackles Leonard Bernstein in Maestro — both as director and in the lead role — he tries to use Bernstein’s music as a way into his psyche. Cooper consciously stays away from trying to expressly articulate what made Bernstein a great composer and conductor, a choice that can be frustrating for viewers who want a simple timeline of his highs and lows. Instead, he offers musical sequences that seek to capture the chaos of living as Bernstein, a man of effusive love, who was also semi-closeted, seeking relationships with men outside his marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). The most successful of these moments are the dream dance, wherein Lenny and Felicia are drawn into a production of “Fancy Free,” the ballet Bernstein composed for Jerome Robbins, and the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in the UK. The latter offers no magical realism, but Bernstein’s (and in turn Cooper’s) effort is magical. You can see the effect he has on people in that exertion and the way he throws himself into his work.

For Michael Mann, the director of Ferrari, his hero is like his engines: powerful but sometimes almost mechanical in his ambition. The sound of these contraptions is what fuels Mann’s film, a hum of energy that is almost like a score, and Driver seems to match his performance to that rhythm. He barrels into scenes with the furor of his cars, which, it should be noted, are also death traps, a pertinent detail. Enzo is surrounded by death, specifically the death of his son Dino, who has passed before the movie begins.

A man with white hair and sunglasses in a dark suit stands in front of a white brick wall.
Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Ferrari.

Speaking of death: War is the tool by which Ridley Scott illuminates Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix). It’s through the impeccably staged, if not particularly accurate, battle sequences we can see Napoleon’s cunning and insecurity. He’s an ingenious strategist who does not know when to stop, his self-aggrandizement taking precedence over everything else.

Whether physics, music, cars, or war, the filmmakers try to use what makes these men so revered as a way of both idolizing and humanizing them. The audience may not relate to their genius, but they can understand it through what they produced. In turn, the hope is that we can also understand their torment.

Accessing them by the women around them

What is a Great Man without the women around him? All of these films try to define their Great Men by their key relationships, and, yet, this is where they most often falter. For as much as each of these (male) directors tries to put the wives and girlfriends of these guys on equal footing, they are still mostly hypnotized by the Great Man himself.

It’s in Ferrari that this seems like the biggest stretch. Mann sets his film during a period of Enzo Ferrari’s life in 1957 where Enzo is pulled between his wife and business partner Laura (Penélope Cruz) and his mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley) with whom he has a young child. Enzo and Laura’s son has died, and Enzo is resistant to allowing Lina’s child to bear his name — a sign of guilt. Both these female characters fall into easy archetypes: Laura is fiery and persistently furious. She is wracked by grief and understandably angry at Enzo for his philandering. Lina, meanwhile, is a patient and calming force, almost a motherly figure both to Enzo and his illegitimate heir. They are each reduced to the proverbial angel and devil on his shoulders.

This mistress-versus-wife paradigm is also present in Oppenheimer, which has slightly more success with the dynamic. Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) isn’t as developed a character as her real-life counterpart deserves — she led a fascinating life that gets short shrift in the movie — but her presence is nonetheless haunting. Tatlock is a physical representation of the way humans are collateral damage for Oppenheimer, as evidenced by her disturbing death likely by suicide but possibly by assassination over Communist ties and connection to Oppenheimer. (A gloved hand alludes to the latter, which remains just a theory.) Meanwhile, Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) serves as an example of the way the heartbreak of loving a person like him can harden someone. After they wed, she quickly falls into alcoholism but is loyal to the end, especially in her crucial testimony scene. Being in his presence has certainly taken a toll.

A man in 19th century French military garb stands in the foreground while a desert battle rages behind.
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Napoleon.

The difficulty of being married to a Great Man is never more evident than in Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) in Napoleon. His love letters to her offer a sort of framework for the film, but that love is both suffocating and deficient. He punishes her when she cheats on him, and when she can’t bear him an heir he divorces her and takes away her title.

Cooper, meanwhile, tries the hardest to put Bernstein’s spouse on equal footing, framing Maestro essentially as the complicated love story between Lenny and Felicia. Still, it is a love story about what it means to love a Great Man. Mulligan’s performance is a wonderful demonstration of a woman compartmentalizing her feelings. She wants to love Lenny and all of his facets — knowing about his bisexuality — but finds she is fighting to define herself as he strays. That in itself makes her a secondary figure in the narrative. For as much as Maestro is about Lenny and Felicia, Lenny is still the main draw and Felicia’s arc is partly about her knowing that.

It’s the ultimate conundrum of all of these movies. As much as someone may try to subvert the myth of the Great Man, it is hard not to fall under his spell. All of these movies have their moments of virtuosity, some more than others, and when they are at their best they capture why the Great Man is so entrancing.

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