x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Biopics get the presidential treatment

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln isn't the only high-profile biopic on the block.

From left, Leonardo DiCaprio as J Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar.
From left, Leonardo DiCaprio as J Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar.

If you believe the critics, the winner of the 2013 Best Actor Oscar has all but been decided: Daniel Day Lewis, playing Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's biopic (adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin's book called Team of Rivals) is a shoo-in. Start placing your bets now.

It's not the only high-profile political biopic on the block, though. Between now and Lincoln's release date (it's being delayed until after the 2012 US elections), we're being spoiled with some of the best living actors and directors tackling historical figures on screen.

First, there's Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the first head of the FBI, which premieres at the American Film Institute's film festival on Thursday. Then there's Meryl Streep's forthcoming Thatcher movie, out in December in the US; and Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray as Roosevelt, which has just finished principal photography and is due out next year.

Schlocky horror movies are getting in on the action, too - Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is set for next year. And another Roosevelt film has been in the early stages of development, with Martin Scorsese attached to the project, for years. Even the Gosling-Clooney vehicle The Ides of March, which premiered in the UAE last week, is based on the story of a real former presidential nominee.

There are plenty of reasons why films about running a country are hot right now. First, the success of The King's Speech was a reminder that nostalgic histories are sure-fire Oscar bait. Serious drama is always going to trump comedy among awards panel judges, and if you throw in politics, history and a few British accents, you're guaranteed critical attention.

Historical movies also perform well at the box office. Hollywood relies on getting people in theatres by telling familiar stories (remakes, adaptations of popular books, updated fairy tales) and that's especially true in a recession. Every Harry Potter reader eagerly anticipated the series' films, and everyone who looks up to Roosevelt or Lincoln as iconic leaders will want to see how directors deal with their stories.

On top of all that, politics makes for gripping drama. It's a realm of ideological struggle, with individuals battling against the system, corruption, betrayal, heroes and villains. Add that to the "Barack Obama effect" in making American politics appealing again, and it's no wonder Hollywood is plundering the history of the White House.

If this type of story succeeds, the rewards are great, but there are many pitfalls to contend with, as a glance back at the history of the genre reveals. If Spielberg and co want to make the next JFK, and not the next W., there are a few rules they'll need to keep in mind.

First, don't whitewash your protagonist's flaws. It's tempting to make a leader a little better-looking or more likeable (Streep positively twinkles in The Iron Lady's trailer), but you'll alienate viewers. Similarly, don't create a cartoon: George Bush is portrayed as a two-dimensional boor in Oliver Stone's W., a movie that never quite got to the heart of the popularity that won Bush the presidency.

Second, avoid reducing political events to a backdrop for a personal journey. Sitting through endless exposition is never fun, but too many biopics follow a conventional emotional arc: rise, fall, redemption. To turn the story of a complicated icon into a simple triumph-against-the-odds tale is to lose what makes the story unique.

Third, don't try to cram too much into the movie. The strength of Frost/Nixon was its laser-like focus; rather than charting every childhood misdemeanour of Nixon's, it's about a single interview Nixon gave after resigning from office. This focus helped the film feel authentic and gave it an interesting structure.

Fourth, don't be afraid to crack a joke. DiCaprio frowns his way through the trailer to J. Edgar, while Aaron Sorkin's acclaimed TV series The West Wing showed that it's possible to mix wit, jokes and snappy dialogue with big ideas.

With this in mind, Hyde Park on Hudson should be a treat. Murray brings levity to the most sombre of roles, the movie has a unique angle (it's told from the point of view of Roosevelt's cousin, played by Laura Linney) and it focuses on a single visit King George made to FDR.

But even that high-profile project looks to be outshone by Spielberg's Lincoln, which focuses on the last few months of the president's life. Day Lewis's dedication to his roles ensures a nuanced, profound portrait of the man and Spielberg is experienced at balancing matters of head and heart.

Let's hope it inspires a whole new wave of political moviemaking.

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