Sometimes, a major historical figure or event cannot be contained in a single film or mode of filmmaking. Take the 2018 Thai cave rescue, which featured in the New York Times, which was brought to life in two motion pictures. The first was the 2021 documentary The Rescue, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, while the second was the Ron Howard narrative drama Thirteen Lives, which was released July 29.
The interaction of a documentary and a feature film to tell the same story is quite common, but it doesnt always mean you get two masterpieces covering a significant event from the past. Often, the documentary entry in the duo gets there first, and is a superior product compared to the later narrative film effort. However, there are strategies for narrative features that ensure theyre not just reprisals of previous films.
One of the biggest limitations narrative films face is that they may end up making a sanitized portrayal of a real person versus their documentary counterpart. Documentaries are often conceived of as having a larger audience, which allows them to push boundaries more easily. Many narrative films are made on larger budgets and with significant studio considerations that hinder their creativity.
Mark Hogencamp, a man who was beaten within an inch of his life, emerged from a coma with no memory of his life, and now uses toy dolls to help him deal with his complicated emotions, is a much more sensitive and insightful feature than Marwencol, who is a sensationalistic figure. In his various portrayals, Marwen only invokes this characteristic of Hogencamp, who also assures viewers that he is not gay.
Welcome to Marwen is examining a key piece of Hogencamp through a lens intended to reassure cis-het viewers, whereas Marwencol is attempting to document the man as he is, while throwing the opinions of viewers to the wind. Only one of these films is interested in actually investigating him as a human being, which only underscores its shortcomings.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a 2019 Marielle Heller directed picture that featured Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and was released in theaters less than 18 months after another Mr. Rogers project graced multiplexes, the documentary Wont You Be My Neighbor.
Neighborhood remained viable as a standalone film because it chose to cover different areas of history than Neighbor. Similarly bold was the choice to include Fred Rogers as a supporting character in a story that instead focused on a cynical journalist who was suspicious of the TV hosts personality.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was not a flash fiction about a superior documentary on its own merits; it was also a clever way to honor Fred Rogers' wisdom in his ongoing work. As such, you may have both a great documentary and an exceptional showcase for Tom Hanks' talents.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood offered something completely different from Wont You Be My Neighbor, a film by Ava DuVernay, that parallels the many documentary films exploring Martin Luther King Jr.'s life in Selma, Alabama. Even Steven Spielbergs Lincoln was wise enough to focus on one event in the titular man's existence rather than recreate his life story like so many documentaries in the past.
Narrative films can be as varied as documentaries, which can go across decades with ease thanks to techniques like anecdotes being relayed to the camera in interview segments. It may not be as thorough as documentaries on every aspect of a given topic, but it will help ensure you are not just treading the same ground as other motion pictures.
Thirteen Lives also has a flaw that current documentary filmmakers must avoid, such as the discovery of 13 children and their coach in a corner of the cave. These are the details that remind you that you were watching humans navigate a situation that you or I have never encountered.
In Thirteen Lives, there aren't many tiny details that suggest the characters' personalities or the filmmakers. Instead, moments big and small, triumphant and crushing, are all captured in a rudimentary manner. In a narrative film, especially one that can afford actors like Viggo Mortensen, you can use this power to create stunning visuals and imagery that you'd never imagine otherwise.
When it comes to documentary films, the challenge is high; it should be. Often the existence of narrative films feels like a refute to documentaries as an art form, as if producers and studio executives cant imagine general audiences paying attention to a story unless it features familiar movie and television actors. It's just that pop cultures' longstanding (and only recently changing, albeit slightly) disregard of documentary forms makes the existence of something like Thirteen Lives extra suspicious.
This is a difficult task to overcome. Narrative films only have to explain why they exist other than because they want to capitalize on a hot historical event.