This week, Leonardo DiCaprio aims towards an Oscar nomination by starring in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar as J. Edgar Hoover. This isn’t the controversial original head of the FBI’s first attempt at big (or small) screen greatness. In the past he’s been played by Bob Hopkins (quite flamboyantly in Oliver Stone’s Nixon), Billy Crudup (with the same disappointing results as everyone else involved in Public Enemies), Dorothi Fox (a woman in Woody Allen’s Bananas, released a year before Hoover’s death) and Harris Yulin (in the 1974 TV movie The F.B.I. Story, which I haven’t seen but was impressed to see that that guy’s been lurking around fictional politics for the past 30 years.).
In recognition of this movie and Hoover’s 37-year reign at the top of the FBI, we will be looking at biopics that feature some of world history’s greatest national heroes (and monsters). If only there was a good Revolutionary War movie. No, Paul Giamatti’s John Adams spending the war on a boat in HBO’s well-done John Adams doesn’t count. Neither does The Patriot. I’d rank Time Chasers over The Patriot.
Nixon (dir. Oliver Stone, 1995)
Oliver Stone’s Nixon is one of his best films and, quite possibly, might be his last truly good one. Starring Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced President, Stone shows Nixon in a way very few have done before: as a human being. He is a scumbag, but he’s also remarkably complex- a man burdened with the desires of greatness while also aware of his impotence in the grand scheme of things. Unlike many (most) biopics that seem to solely feature the highlights of its subject’s career, Nixon delves into the psychology of the 37th President while delving into his many impressive accomplishments. It’s one of the few biopics that creates a man out of an icon rather than an icon out of a man.
We get some of the standard biopic tropes such as the dead brothers and stern parents (though I guess you can’t change history), but Oliver Stone imbues the genre pic with his 1990s visual style that established him as one of that decade’s most renowned directors. A genuine epic, the film spans close to 50 years, from childhood to resignation, and jumps around throughout time regularly. Maybe because it’s such a long film (212 minutes in its Director’s Cut) or due to the way Stone presents Nixon, this technique works better here than in most other biopics.
The cast is populated by some well-known character actors including James Woods, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Bob Hoskins, Paul Sorvino, Mary Steenburgen, and J.T. Walsh. It’s not as good of a line-up as Stone’s JFK (either in cast or characters), but the performers play their parts more than adequately. However, the entire show rides on Anthony Hopkins, and he pulls it off admirably by portraying Nixon as a tragic, conflicted, self-hating figure rather than just a monster. While Hopkins might not have looked much like Nixon, the role shows what a charismatic and involving actor Hopkins can be when he’s not having to do post-Silence Hannibal Lecter.
Is it entirely historically accurate? No, of course not. But in some ways, the liberties Stone takes with the historical record works better here than in his more famous prior effort JFK. After all, instead of viewing history through the levelheaded Jim Garrison, we are doing it through the fevered paranoia of Richard Nixon.
Interestingly enough, the film’s best scene never made it to the theatrical release. In it, Law and Order’s Sam Waterson puts in a terrific performance as CIA Director Richard Helms, who, through utter calmness, puts the fear of God into a frazzled Nixon.
W. (dir. Oliver Stone, 2008)
Thirteen years after Nixon, Oliver Stone attempted to correct the books on another Republican president with W., but to much lesser success. W. follows the format of Nixon (jumping around through time from childhood to presidency, controversial president, decent side cast aside from a mustache twirling Richard Dreyfus as Dick Cheney) but lacks the strength of his previous work. Josh Brolin gives a good, compassionate performance as George W. Bush by portraying our last President as a simple-but-not-stupid guy who ends up over his head when leading the free world. Unfortunately, the film plays more like a greatest hits compilation (like so, so many biopics) than an actual analysis of the man.
The biggest problem with W. was probably timing. A divisive figure like George W. Bush could probably benefit from a biopic like Nixon, but obtaining the insights of a real human being needs time. We need to divorce ourselves from the hysteria (either positive or negative) of the persona and truly delve into the person. After a breathing period, we can escape from contemporary conceptions and misconceptions and begin to view things more objectively. History shows a lot more than the present. Books can be written without authors feeling the need to play to a hypercharged political climate. Confidential documents are released that allow us a different (and more accurate) view of what really happened behind closed doors. People close to the administration and the Commander-in-Chief might feel more comfortable speaking freely about what they witnessed over the terms. This cannot be done whilst the figure is still in office.
Of course, time is not the only component in a successful biopic of a legendary leader. A few years earlier, Stone attempted to show the life of Alexander the Great with Alexander. Although I’ve only seen the theatrical release (there’s been two subsequent versions, with the “final cut” reaching over three-and-a-half hours), Alexander was the type of bloated prestige film that people prefer to pretend never existed after the shock of its badness wears off.
Abraham Lincoln (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1930)
People condemn D.W. Griffith because of Birth of A Nation and the like, but he actually was an amazing filmmaker. Sure there are “issues” with some of his films, but there are “issues” with history as well, and ignoring or blindly condemning them does a disservice to who we were and what we have become. Similarly, disregarding Griffith is a shame. He was one of the first to truly see the potential of the new medium of film and produced epics of tremendous scope even with the limitations of the technology. He also understood the strong human connection between the camera and the audience, as evidenced in a film such as Broken Blossoms.
As difficult as it might be to accept, D.W. Griffith also loved America in the way the son of a Confederate Army colonel could. Watching his oeuvre (1908-1931) provides remarkable insight into the mindset of a generation easily forgotten, discounted, and stereotyped. His adoration of this nation comes clear in his biopic about Abraham Lincoln, which showed how much Griffith respected the 16th President. Throughout the film (Griffith’s second-to-last film and first of two talkies) you get the sense that the filmmaker wanted to do right by Lincoln and present him both as a man and more than a man. Starring Walter Huston, the movie starts with a young Lincoln (not to be confused with John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln) and takes him from his early career as a tavern owner up through his assassination.
Is it the greatest biopic? No. It’s an okay-at-best film, and it’s clear that Griffith didn’t really “get” sound or the changes that innovation meant to cinema. It plays like a silent movie (complete with sluggish pacing) and is full of the style that worked in the 1920s but fell out of favor in the subsequent decades. Nevertheless, the movie contains enough details specific to Lincoln’s life and treats him with such an awed reverence that it makes clear that Griffith wanted to develop something at least somewhat accurate and courteous.
In the 80 years since the film was released, there’s been plenty of portrayals of Lincoln but very few genuine biopics. However, this will change next year when Spielberg releases his take on the man with Lincoln featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role. Alternatively, there’s Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter starring Benjamin Walker.
To complement the “strictly presidents” segment, I hereby submit a brief meditation on the “controversial monarch” subgenre. — DLF
The Queen (dir. Stephen Frears, 2006)
Dame Helen Mirren, long a distinguished lady of the silver screen, achieved new heights with an Academy Award- and BAFTA-winning role as Queen Elizabeth II. Detailing the 1997 election of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, and following the Queen’s relationship with his administration through the death of Princess Diana and ensuing media backlash, The Queen garnered more acclaim and attention than any other film in 2006. Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity and many more) added yet another extra-large plume to his cap.
Though decidedly different in tone and content, this effort from a British cast and crew echoes the runaway critical success of Germany’s Downfall (see below). In general, depictions the British royal family have served comical purposes, and rarely has a modern, non-Shakespearean monarch of the realm appeared in such a serious and central role.
No doubt those more familiar with the modern face of British politics could point out holes, inaccuracies, caricatures and other assorted problems with The Queen as a biographical drama. However, in making such a story comprehensible, palatable, and furthermore compelling to an international audience, Frears and company could hardly have done better. James Cromwell stands out as a delightfully stodgy Prince Philip. Michael Sheen plays a charismatic and popular Tony Blair as we remember him at the time of his election, not as the maligned genuine article whose image had so declined by the time of the film’s release.
Mirren portrays a ruler torn between the demands of tradition and the increasing demands to modernize Britain. She warily confers Blair’s new office upon him, even as the PM’s supporters and personal cabinet exhibit strong opposition to anything remotely royal. Blair, however, has great personal respect for Elizabeth and struggles to strike a balance between pressure from the public and loyalty to his monarch. The death of Diana, and the unprecedented frenzy of public response, provides a dramatic testing ground for just how much the crown will budge in response to popular currents. Under pressure to embrace Diana, despite her severance from the royal family, the queen must reconcile her own feelings with what she knows is expected of her on all sides.
Ivan The Terrible (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1945)
Sergei Eisenstein was the preeminent figure of Soviet Russian cinema, and rightly so. His historical works like Battleship Potemkin and October demonstrated not only a keen sense of storytelling and political drama, but his eye for composition and montage were matched by very few. His two-part epic Ivan The Terrible is a demonstration of the director’s talent on a massive scale. Ostensibly made to impress Josef Stalin (a wise but morally dubious move), it demonstrated the Soviet leader’s ideal of just how ruthless and powerful the ruler of a great nation could be. Shame about the period that Russia was just about to enter under Stalin.
Tsar Ivan is indeed a fearsome fellow, and his bid to unite his nation against its enemies is one brutal, hard-fought battle on both foreign and domestic fronts. The machinations of Moscow’s boyars against him are as troublesome (and often more so) as any threat of invasion from outside. As the film goes along, the conflict spirals inward to a confrontation with enemies among the tsar’s inmost circle. Time and again he wonders if perhaps man was not meant to wield such power. Then again, he seems to tell himself, I am Ivan The Terrible.
Owing to censorship, over a decade passed between the release of parts one and two of the film. Indeed, Eisenstein was planning a third chapter before his death cut the project short. Part two is most centrally concerned with direct personal attacks aimed at Ivan, culminating in a dramatic assassination plot. Presumably, part three would have allowed him to direct his efforts back to conquest and the enemies outside his gates. Nonetheless, the lavish staging, clever symbolism, and overall arresting quality of this drama does not suffer by only spanning two installments.
To describe the ins and outs of the plot does a disservice to the experience of watching it. Much like the work of David Lean or other epic filmmakers, the scale and composition are so integral to the experience that it is simply better to watch than to describe. For anyone looking to complete an education on historical epics, be sure to stop by Ivan The Terrible for a look.
Downfall (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Bruno Ganz, esteemed veteran of German cinema, made a mighty bold choice in taking this role. The controversy surrounding the production of Der Untergang fell most heavily on its star, renowned as he was for triumphant collaborations with the likes Wim Wenders (Wings Of Desire) and Werner Herzog (Nosferatu The Vampyre). Humanizing Adolf Hitler to any degree seems like one of the last major taboos left in cinema, and Ganz jumped in with both feet.
The portrait of Hitler Downfall is complex and challenging. At no point does the script make apologies or attempt to engender sympathy for his monstrous career. However, that is not to say pity and deep tragedy have no place in the story of his life. Far more important than his own woes is the overwhelming effect he had on other people. This film shifts its gaze from the infamous success of Nazi genocide to the direct impact Hitler’s actions had on his inner circle, many of whom remained frighteningly loyal to the bitter end. And bitter it was. The grim truth is that Hitler did not build the Third Reich on black magic. He began his career as an extremely charismatic and persuasive orator, and in private could mask his twisted ideas with a personable nature. Only near the end of a losing battle did he really lose his composure and credibility. That is an important lesson of political history that we would do well never to forget.
Most of us are familiar with the popular internet fad in which Hitler, through the magic of doctored subtitles, has a fit over some trivial pop culture phenomenon. The actual scene in the film – in which Hitler comes to shaky grips with the fact that he is losing the war – is one damned fine piece of acting. The supporting cast is excellent, the atmosphere suitably bleak, and the dramatic weight of the movie more than sufficient to escape accusations of exploitative intent.
The international critical success of Downfall, in the face of skepticism and anxiety before the fact, more than proves its right and need to exist. The intimate details of the fall of Berlin and the Third Reich’s final days are a critical and historically underdocumented period of world history. It is safe to say that this will be the definitive work on the subject for a while. It was a courageous move, especially for a German cast and crew, which turned out to be a most dignified and worthy effort.