Documentary vs. Biopic: Which Is Better, from ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ to ‘Welcome to Marwen’

     November 19, 2019

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On November 22, 2019, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the acclaimed Tom Hanks-starring biopic about Fred “Mister” Rogers drops in theatres to warm all of our hearts. It comes just one year after Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the acclaimed Fred “Mister” Rogers documentary that dropped in theatres the summer of 2018 to warm all of our hearts. Now I’m no grumpus. I want as much Fred “Mister” Rogers content as people are willing to give me. But it is curious that we’re getting a fictionalized version of the man so soon after such a culture-grabbing, supposedly definitive take on him. What can Marielle Heller’s drama show us about him that Morgan Neville’s documentary didn’t already?

This line of thought led me to a broader question. What form of film is more effective at exploring the ins and outs of a true subject: a documentary or a biopic? Are there certain parts of a subject’s psychological profile that are better suited to a fictionalized treatment? Are historical contexts better served for the journalistic approach of a doc? What can each form of film teach us about how we tell real-life stories? To tackle these questions, I decided to compare and contrast five real-life stories given both a documentary and biopic, and see which work is ultimately the most effective.

It’s time… for the Documentary vs. Biopic Battle Royale.

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