(Ch. 4) Drama, Reality & Documentary

stallonecriticschoice-ap_177282715907Each September the motion picture box office transforms from the “Summer Event Season” into a period know as “Award’s Season.” Between Labor Day and Christmas Day, film critic’s groups, Academy members, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and other film voting organizations began to gain instant access to new films that studios feel are award-worthy.

spotlight-intl-posterArt house films, documentaries, films based on real-life figures, or on true stories tend to be commonplace during this time. These are the movies that have the greatest potential for glory and honor when the awards are handed out.

Critics and film honors organization are drawn to these films, these acting talents, and these directors, because drama has a way of reflecting who we are (or who we hope we aren’t). Documentary productions and dramatic interpretations on film offer a mirror to some part of society’s past, present, and future … essentially our humanity. Sometimes what we see may frighten us, or inspire us, anger us, or cause us to consider our own identities or morality. These films speak messages and meaning in grand volumes.

As you carefully consider the power of film dramas (and documentaries) of the past, ask

The Elephant Man (1980)

yourself this, “What ways have I been reached by these types of films?” If you really take the time to think about it, you may actually be surprised by your answers.

Let’s explore documentary, op-ed films, reality-based films, biopics and the power and understanding of drama.


  • What is documentary? – A true to life view into the reality of a person, place, event, or war_main_2thing (true documentary shows balance and offers very little personal or editorial bias). – Ken Burns is the king of documentary production. He won numerous Emmy awards for his history-related documentaries.
  • Op-Ed Film (opinion/editorial) – Using documentary style – these films are used to explore the bias and agenda of the filmmaker or producers. Michael Moore has been honored with numerous awards for taking on big business, healthcare, the environment and the political establishment.
  • What is a Reality-based film? – (also known as “Based on a True Story” films) Just what it says –it is a film of any genre based on true life. Note: These films can be
    The Last Emperor (1987)

    loosely-based on reality with an incredible amount of artistic license, or they could closely represent the original story.

  • What is a Biopic – (or biographical pictures) These are a sub-genre of the larger reality-based genre. These films depict and dramatize the life of an important historical person (or group) from the past or present era. Sometimes, historical biopics stretch the truth and tell a life story with varying degrees of accuracy. This may be done to provide enhanced drama, or to fit the director’s interpretation of the script (or the screenwriter’s desire to provide deeper conflict).

Big-screen biopics may cross many genres (drama, suspense, mystery, action, comedy, animation, etc.). Since these films might showcase a western outlaw; a criminal; a musical composer; a religious figure or leader of a movement; a war-time military hero; an entertainer; an artist; an inventor, scientist, or doctor; a politician or president; a sports hero or celebrity; or an adventurer.

In many cases, these films put an emphasis on the larger events (wartime, political, or social

Lincoln (2012)

conditions) surrounding the person’s entire life as they rise to fame and glory. Some begin with the person’s childhood, but others concentrate on adult achievements. Lincoln (starring Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis) is a great example of a film capturing only a segment of one’s life. It covered just four months of the legendary president’s story, yet it finds a way to highlight the man; his struggles; his connections to people; and the life and death conflicts he was thrown into.

What is Artistic License? These films often alter events to suit the storyline.

  • Events are sometimes portrayed more dramatically than they actually occurred.

    Raging Bull (1980)
  • Time is “condensed” to fit all-important events into the film.
  • Several real-life people may be blended into a single composite character.


  • What is Drama? Drama comes from Greek words meaning “to do” or “to act.” True drama is a reflection of human life.
  • Three types of Drama to be aware of:
  1. Tragedy – Lead characters suffer defeat, a downfall, or utter chaos. Many times it is
    Boyhood (2014)

    because of their very own failings, their own choices. Human weaknesses become the ultimate undoing of the ultimate leader.

  2. Problem Drama – Social, economic, political, family, or religious problems/challenges are the central conflict of the story.
  3. Historical/Chronicle Drama – dealing directly with recordable/documentable historical events.


When examining, reviewing, or evaluation drama –look for these items:

Ghandi (1982)

Dramatic Conflict

  • What did the leading character(s) want?
  • What stood in the character’s way (people, environment, personality, society, government, etc.)?
  • What was the high point of tension or the crisis? This is where the leading character(s) must make a crucial decision that will ultimately impact the outcome of the story.


Character analysis

  • Are the characters true to life, or are they stereotypes or caricatures? Do they feel
    Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

    real, or are they a parody?

  • How are the character(s) represented (hero, villain, tortured soul, loner, leader, etc.)?
  • What is the driving force of each leading character? What motivates them into action? Is it for fame, fortune, country, others, selfish desires, etc.?
  • If a character changes – Are the causes convincing and true to life?


Critical standards of Evaluation

  • Does it show life as it really is, or does it distort life?

  • Does it present any problem of human relationships?
  • Does it glamorize life and present an artificial happy ending?


We live in the real world (or at least many of us do), so these films, these stories speak to who we are or where we’ve been, and they may also provide visions of where we’re headed.



AMC. (n.d.). Drama Films. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/dramafilms.html


Glatzer, R. (2001). Beyond popcorn: A critic’s guide to looking at films. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press.


Kolker, R. P. (2006). Film, form, and culture. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.


Manning, N. T. (2015, September 9). Drama, biopics & the art of reality [Lecture].




3 Comments Add yours

  1. jguberman242 says:

    One thing that I find interesting in relevance to this particular topic is the way that dramatic stories are treated differently in different cultures. I’ve been taking French for over 8 years, and because of that I’ve had to watch my fair share of French movies. Often, these movies have inconclusive endings that aren’t wrapped up with a bow, and if there is a finalized ending, it isn’t glamorized. If it’s a story about human struggle, it’s going to end as any human struggle would– realistically without a concrete ending. It’s just something that, as an American used to American films, I’ve noticed varies so much from culture to culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. noeltmanning says:

      Thanks Jen – You nailed it. Every culture explores life (or drama) films in different ways. American audiences for the most part are drawn to the “Happily ever after” endings … even in true-life kinds of films.

      Liked by 1 person

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