Can a Person Be Portrayed Too Many Times? (Or, Do We Really Need a Neil Armstrong Biopic?)

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2014

Paramount Pictures

Among the criticisms I’ve seen of Gotham, the new Fox series set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, is that it opens with an event we’ve already seen too many times on TV and in movies – the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, complete with pearls flying about in slow motion. But it’s an iconic scene, isn’t it? That starting point to the origin of the Caped Crusader is almost as much a part of pop culture as the Apollo 11 Moon landing. And the latter has been been replicated on screen a lot more times. I guess the fictional event could be reworked, though, even if it might upset some fans. The Moon landing, though it’s often shown to be a hoax of some kind or another, is for the most part an unchangeable scene. That’s why it’s more remarkable that nobody seems to get tired of it.

“They could make a thousand movies about the Apollo space missions and I would be right there on opening night for every single one of them,” wrote FSR publisher Neil Miller more than six years ago, when a Neil Armstrong biopic was announced at Universal with Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) scripting the film based on James R. Hansen’s book “First Man.” Now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the project has resurfaced at the studio with Whiplash filmmaker Damien Chazelle likely to helm from an adapted screenplay by Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate). In the time between our first hearing about the biopic and now, Armstrong has been portrayed in at least another handful of works, from little-seen shorts to blockbusters like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Men in Black 3. And the Apollo 11 mission has been referenced even more.

Add those to notable depictions we’ve seen in such movies as Apollo 13, The Dish, Forrest Gump and plenty more, including documentaries where he appears in archival footage and/or in the present. For one of the latter (the IMAX film Magnificent Desolation), he’s voiced by none other than Morgan Freeman as well as Colin Hanks, and on screen he’s been portrayed by Tony Goldwyn and others, but it is true that we haven’t really had anything in the way of a full biographical feature, something that wasn’t strictly focused on the Moon landing or another major chapter in his career. For Armstrong it’s not as much that he’s been over-portrayed, but his greatest achievement has.

What would be neat is if Universal’s movie avoided showing his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” or him stating his famous line. Of course, that would never happen. It’d be like a movie about Jackie Robinson not having the part where he starts playing for the Dodgers.

With an Armstrong biopic, we’re likely to get yet another portrayal of Richard Nixon, someone who has certainly been played on screen more times than the astronaut and is among the most common US presidents in movies and television (see Slate’s handy leader-board showing the ridiculous numbers for Lincoln, Washington and third-placer Grant). Just recently, we posted news of yet another Nixon for the big screen, and that one – titled In the Event of a Moon Disaster – is even related to the Apollo 11 mission. Perhaps we’ll also see someone play John F. Kennedy in the biopic, if they choose to stage the whole space race promise, and that portrayal can join the many for that president, which will also include the newly announced Hulu miniseries 11/22/63.

Consider that Abraham Lincoln has been played in more than 100 movies, 80 of them between the years 1911 and 1944, and yet Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was a must-see event film that took home an Oscar for his very portrayal, by Daniel Day-Lewis. Or that Andy Warhol is always fun to see on screen in the various caricatures from such actors as David Bowie, Guy Pearce, Crispin Glover, Richard Harris and Bill Hader. I’m not sure who holds the record for most portrayals of a real person, but Lincoln is probably up there. If we qualify Dracula as being a fictional extension of Vlad the Impaler, then he might win with more than 270, including the upcoming Dracula Untold, which makes that historical link. He was recognized by Guinness a couple years ago as also being the most-portrayed literary character. Sherlock Holmes was close behind with 254.

Obviously as long as the portrayal and its project are done well, they’re not going to be overkill. That seems to be the case this year with Stephen Hawking, who is played with great acclaim by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, and was also portrayed just fine 10 years ago by Benedict Cumberbatch – who also plays Holmes and also may be Redmayne’s Oscar competition with his portrayal in The Imitation Game of Alan Turing, who was also recently portrayed in a TV movie by Ed Stoppard. We can go on and on with these constant historical and cultural figures, and it’s interesting that we’re more tolerant of immediate returns and often simultaneous “dueling” portrayals than we are of, say, comic book characters recycled on screen. If Spider-Man was a real person, would we have minded so much when his story was redone so quickly with Andrew Garfield?

Which famous persons, real and/or fictional, do you think have been portrayed too many times? Or do you think there’s plenty of room for hundreds and hundreds of depictions of just about anyone, so long as they can remain entertaining and/or important?

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.