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Hollywood loves to churn out 'great man' movies. This year stands out, critic says


Hollywood makes movie after movie about so-called great men. You know the kind - those grand historical figures who often, against great odds, achieve the extraordinary. In 2023, we saw Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer," about the so-called father of the atomic bomb...


CILLIAN MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) We're in a race against the Nazis, and I know what it means if the Nazis have a bomb.

SUMMERS: ...Ridley Scott's "Napoleon," about the French conqueror...


JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Napoleon Bonaparte) I'm destined for greatness, but those in power only see me as a sword.

SUMMERS: ...And Bradley Cooper's "Maestro," about the legendary American composer Leonard Bernstein.


YASEN PEYANKOV: (As Serge Koussevitzky) He can be the first great American conductor.

SUMMERS: These films have received critical praise and may even receive Oscar nominations, as stories about historical male figures often do. But writing for the website Vox, Esther Zuckerman says 2023's crop of great man movies stand out, so we called her up to talk about it. Esther, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ESTHER ZUCKERMAN: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: So Esther, I mean, I think that we've all seen movies about important male figures. But for our listeners, can you just break down some of the tropes of a great man movie? What should we expect to see when we're watching this kind of film?

ZUCKERMAN: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, the typical biopic - you usually see the highs and lows. There's usually a triumphant ending where we're supposed to sort of, you know, revel in this person's supposed greatness.

SUMMERS: So Esther, what are some movies that come to mind that you think really exemplify the great man movie?

ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, obviously, Hollywood is littered with these biopics. Two sort of immediately jump to mind as really sort of fascinating examples. I think "Amadeus" is one - the Milos Forman film about Mozart...


JEFFREY JONES: (As Emperor Joseph II) How good is he, this Mozart?

JONATHAN MOORE: (As Baron van Swieten) He's remarkable.

NICHOLAS KEPROS: (As Archbishop Colloredo) He's an unprincipled, spoiled, conceited brat.

TOM HULCE: (As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) I'm a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not.

ZUCKERMAN: ...Which sort of famously focuses on the jealousy of his competitor, Salieri, sort of as, you know, this point/counterpoint in terms of, you know, talking about this idea of greatness. The other one, which I just think is so sprawling and, you know, meaty is Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."


DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) These are the questions you and I have to ask. How did we get this mind? You're not an American. You're an African who happens to be in America.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You have to understand the difference. We didn't come over on the Nina, the Pinta and the whatchamacallit. We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us - landed right on top of us.

SUMMERS: Your piece singles out "Oppenheimer," "Maestro," "Napoleon" and also "Ferrari," which is about the founder of the famed car manufacturer. And when you watch their trailers, you might think that these are more films that glorify the achievements of the men who are at the centers of these stories. You have watched these films. How true is that?

ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. I don't think that's necessarily true this year. I think all of the filmmakers this year who are tackling these stories with various levels of successes are sort of trying to work against the familiarity of these narratives in a certain way. I think, at times, they definitely fall into some of the tropes that we usually see, especially when it comes to the women in these men's lives. But I think all of them have an element of both praise and sort of, if not criticism, then maybe skepticism about these heroes and the places that they exist in society.

SUMMERS: Of these films, which do you think is the most subversive?

ZUCKERMAN: I mean, I think "Oppenheimer" is probably the greatest achievement of all of these films. I'm not sure if subversive is necessarily the right word for any of them, but I do think that the way Christopher Nolan is taking you inside the not just genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but also the guilt and the hubris of him, I think, is, you know, bordering on radical. Obviously, I think he's the most controversial of any of these men that we're talking about. But I think the way the film accomplishes it, and especially, structurally, sort of in back-and-forth between the black-and-white of this hearing and the present of the, you know, lead-up to the Trinity test is really astounding.

SUMMERS: I want to talk a little bit now about the women in these movies. I mean, one of the staples of these movies is this role of an aggrieved wife.


SUMMERS: And oftentimes, the wife is fighting for space in the man's life, but he's too busy out there making history. And it's often, I've got to say, a pretty thankless-seeming part for the actresses...


SUMMERS: ...Who play these wives. Did these movies that you've written about - do they do any better with that role?

ZUCKERMAN: I mean, I think it's interesting. I think if you look at "Maestro," you know, Bradley Cooper envisioned his movie about Leonard Bernstein as the story of a marriage, so it is a movie about Leonard Bernstein's marriage to Felicia Montealegre, who was an actress in her own right. And I think it's trying to get at the difficulty of being married to a man like Leonard Bernstein - not just the fact that he had affairs with men, but also in the fact that, you know, he had this sort of irrepressibility which made him, you know, a captivating figure, but made it very hard to be married to him.


CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) Let's not make excuses. He didn't fail me.

SARAH SILVERMAN: (As Shirley Bernstein) Felicia.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) No, it's - it's my own arrogance to think I could survive on what he could give.

ZUCKERMAN: And Carey Mulligan does a fantastic job, but I think the thing you're always still running into is - is this still a movie about a woman sort of fighting for her place alongside this man? And I think the screenplay makes it more equal than other films do, but it is about this power imbalance.

SUMMERS: So big picture, what would you say these movies say about how Hollywood is approaching stories about important historical figures, especially men?

ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think Hollywood knows that these are captivating stories, and I think there's a reason we focus on these figures because, for good or ill, we are still fascinated with them. But I think Hollywood, or at least maybe not Hollywood, I would go so far to say, but, like, interesting directors - like Christopher Nolan, like Bradley Cooper, like Ridley Scott and like Michael Mann - are trying, all in their own ways, to dig beneath the surface of why these men fascinate us and get to something more core to them. I mean, I think one of the things that you can see all of these filmmakers doing is sort of using the tools of these people's geniuses to shape the film. You see it in "Oppenheimer," sort of using, you know, his visions of physics. You see it in "Maestro" in the way it uses music. I mean, "Ferrari" has these car-chasing sequences, which I think are, you know, the best in the film, which sort of get at the deadliness of this passion. "Napoleon," I think, uses war in a similar way. So I think you can sort of see how they're trying to visually bring us into why we keep being enraptured by these people.

SUMMERS: Esther Zuckerman is an author and film critic. Thank you so much for being here.

ZUCKERMAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUPE FIASCO SONG, "I'M BEAMIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.