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You played yourself: when Hollywood picks real-life subjects over actors

Last week, New York’s Quad Cinema completed the run of a repertory screening series titled That’s Me Up There: The Singular Art of Playing Yourself, a collection of films featuring real-life figures portraying varyingly fictionalized versions of themselves. An eclectic array of selections posed tricky theoretical questions and interrogated the boundaries between artifice and reality; the late Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up takes a cerebral approach to the camera’s relationship to its subjects, and the cuckoo surrealism of Being John Malkovich digs deeper into the subconscious rather than film form .Not every selection relished its own conceptual knottiness. Picks such as A Hard Day’s Night and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare use their well-known cast members to lampoon their own celebrity, undermining their public personae to wonderful comic effect. The less successful instances of this phenomenon tend to come from self-aggrandizing types telling their own stories, such as Private Parts, radio shock-jock Howard Stern’s account of his ascent to stardom. Stern’s vanity is part of what’s made him captivating to listeners for decades, but when channeled into art, it sours instead of piquing fascination.

It scarcely seems like coincidence that this series should wind up just as Clint Eastwood’s latest, the ripped-from-the-headlines thriller The 15:17 to Paris, should come to theaters. The ageing master’s new feature dramatizes the events of 21 August 2015, in which a gunman opened fire on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. A tragedy turned into an exemplar of heroism when a group of passengers joined forces to incapacitate the shooter before he could take any lives. Three of those passengers – American servicemen Spencer Stone and Alex Skarlatos, both off-duty during the attack, vacationing with their boyhood friend Anthony Sadler – attained some measure of star status back home for their courage, and now they’ve hit the uppermost echelon of the fame cycle in the US with starring roles in Eastwood’s film.This is the logical conclusion of a recent trend in Eastwood’s oeuvre towards re-enactment of brave displays in modern history. American Sniper tapped Bradley Cooper to turn army marksman Chris Kyle into a vessel for a battered patriotism. Two years later, Eastwood would reframe the story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s daring emergency landing in the Hudson river as a clash between the rugged individualist (what is a pilot if not a cowboy of the air?) and the federal pencil-necks who won’t let him do his job. From contemporary biopic to full-scale restaging, Eastwood has inched closer to the vérité style he’s now fully embraced with his train-contained thriller.

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