Sunday, 28 January 2018

6 Great Biopics About Bad People

The only Internet listicle that features both Adolf Hitler and Lance Armstrong (probably).

A lot of biopics are about heroic, influential or lauded historical figures who irrevocably changed the course of history; think Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie or Daniel Day Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. And while these films are all well and good, I often find the most interesting biopics centre around bad people; those who are divisive, despicable and downright nasty. Boy, I can’t wait for the inevitable Donald Trump biopic once he leaves office – you just know it’s gonna be great.

In honour of Margot Robbie’s new film I, Tonya, a film about disgraced American figure skater Tonya Harding, we’ve turned our attention to great biopics that are all about bad people.

The Program (2015)

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons

The ultimate Icarus tale, Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall is carved into sporting infamy, and the inevitable biopic that recounted it was equally as frustrating and fascinating as you’d expect. 

With Ben Foster donning Armstrong’s lycra bike shorts, this is one biopic that was overlooked by audiences when it first opened, but it’s examination of a sportspersons unrelenting urge to win at all costs is compelling to say the least. The Program goes behind closed doors to show you the minute details of Armstrong’s doping efforts, from bullying and intimidating those around him to the gradual justification of his own cheating. And while I feel that the film stops just short of eliciting sympathy for the disgraced cyclist, and falls into many of the same pratfalls that lots of biopics do, it does go to great lengths to unpack the sort of headspace one has to talk themselves into to deceive as Armstrong did. 

Downfall (2004)

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes

The ultimate biopic about a bad person; Downfall follows the final days of Adolf Hitler, a man who needs no introduction for anyone who has ever spent five minutes on the History Channel. 

Even though it received acclaim upon its release (and a nomination for Best Foreign Language film), I find this film a little problematic as it at least establishes a shred of sympathy for its subject. Hitler, played with aplomb by Bruno Ganz, in many ways comes across as a frail human figure rather than a terrifying supervillain, which one could argue diminishes the atrocities he ordered. On the other hand, that he can be portrayed as a human yet still invoke evil in his supporters tells us a lot about the era and the setting of Hitler’s Germany. It’s a chilling and compelling contradiction. 

Steve Jobs (2016)

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen

How insufferable, self-centred and unequivocally unlikeable can your lead character be before the audience turns against you? 

That was the question swirling around my head throughout Danny Boyle’s 2016 biopic of Apple cofounder and technological visionary Steve Jobs; armed with biting repartee penned by Aaron Sorkin, Michael Fassbender’s compelling performance as Jobs pushes audiences to reject him – from coldly dismissing his own daughter to squeezing friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) out of the business he helped found, it’s a complex portrayal that doesn’t exactly paint Jobs in the best light, who for the most part comes across as a borderline sociopathic narcissist. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that this film is a riveting watch, and the execution is second-to-none. Almost makes you want to root for the guy.

The Founder (2016)

Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, Laura Dern

Another film, another money-grabbing tycoon who goes to extreme lengths to screw over honest people and make a fortune – the real American dream. 

The Founder sees director John Lee Hancock tackle the life and times of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a travelling salesman who uses every ounce of his business acumen to outsmart the McDonalds brothers (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch) and steal their billion dollar idea, turning a wholesome burger joint with a quirky process and turning it into a multinational corporation. Hancock’s films works as well as it does because of this dark underlying edge and a magnetic (and overlooked) performance by Keaton, especially when he digs his claws in and flashes a snarky grin – “Contracts are like hearts. They're made to be broken.”

The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer

A film in the same mould as Steve Jobs, David Fincher’s landmark 2010 biopic of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg in a career-defining role) is as close to perfect as you can get. And yet, at its core is another detestable and single-minded upstart who goes to great lengths to alienate everyone around him, landing himself in legal hot water in the process. 

Eisenberg’s terrific performance is complemented by another ripping script from Sorkin, which brilliantly illustrates the irony in the founder of a social network acting in such an antisocial and solitary manner. Systematic and scathing, The Social Network is a collaboration that illustrated the compelling nature of unlikeable people in a way few other films had before or since.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill

Sex, drugs and stock markets; Martin Scorsese’s depiction of provocative Wall Street power broker Jordan Belfort was so gleefully grotesque and raucous that it split audiences down the middle; there were those that revelled in the overblown indulgence of late capitalism and there were those that despised its glorification of Belfort’s decadent and drug-fuelled lifestyle. 

The film famously elicited heckles from the crowd when it was first screened for the Academy in 2013. Of course, Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives possibly his best career performance here, insists that the film doesn’t glamourise Belfort but instead critiques the society that allowed a man of his ilk to flourish. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, you have to admit – Scorsese, DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, in her breakout role, crafted a raucous and insatiably good biopic about a whole bunch truly terrible people.

This article was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.


  1. I have only seen two of these and I like how we both had the same kind of idea for this weekend!

  2. The Program and The Founder I haven't seen, but I loved the others. I really hated The Wolf of Wall Street though but I'm planning on giving it another chance.

  3. Oh I love The Founder. I've been meaning to revisit it for a while now.



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