The rise of the political biopic

Why do we want to see our political figures on the big screen?

Political biopics have always been popular. The past two decades has seen film chronicle the lives of President Kennedy in JFK, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and human rights leader Malcolm Little in Malcolm X, among countless others.

In an age of political dissent and dissatisfaction with governments world-wide, the political biopic is flourishing. Already released this year is J. Edgar, the biopic of the first head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Next year will also see the release of the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and two major presidential biopics: Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray as Franklin D Roosevelt.

Aside from the fact that politics makes for gripping drama, why is looking to history's iconic leaders becoming so popular? Biopics are not a source of political truth - they often obscure elements of history, ignore social relationships and distort important facts. The truth is subject to the imagination and artistic direction of the screenwriter, the actors and the director. In many cases, as film critic Ronald Bergan points out, the stars of political biopics "have substituted their own personalities for those of the persons portrayed".

Political biopics must tread carefully. There is the danger that a two hour film makes a bloated attempt to pin the protagonist to the psychiatrist's couch or tries to unearth a childhood trauma in an attempt to reveal some sort of psychological epiphany. In an effort to avoid this, Hyde Park on Hudson is instead told through the eyes of Daisy Suckley, Roosevelt's distant cousin and confidante.

They are also at risk of trying to cram as many details and events of the person's life into the film as possible, resulting in a directionless and uninspiring film. It is unnecessary and frankly rather boring to watch someone's life unfold from cradle to grave - famous or not. Frost/Nixon avoided this pitfall by only focussing on the post-Watergate interview given by the disgraced president, rather than rehashing his whole presidency or, indeed, his entire life. Similarly, Spielberg's Lincoln will focus on the final few months of Abraham Lincoln's life.

A good political biopic must also avoid glorifying the protagonist and ignoring their flaws and weaknesses. The key to the success of a political biopic lies in its ability to portray a humanised version of a seemingly stoical political figure. Despite Meryl Streep's storming performance as Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she is arguably too likeable in comparison to the lady herself. In addition, biopics that portray the protagonist as merely fulfilling their destiny are equally unappealing. All men and women are mortal and fallible and a biopic that implies someone is otherwise is both unrealistic and trite.

However, many biopics do the opposite and instead paint the political figure as a monster - a caricature of themselves. Oliver Stone's George W Bush biopic W does just that. Granted, he may be one of America's most unpopular presidents as a result of the war in Iraq, and has made more gaffes than Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry, but the soap opera-like film glosses over Bush's immense popularity when he first entered office. Perhaps because of the lack of aesthetic distance due to Bush being an incumbent president at the time of the film's making, Stone chose to capitalise on the mood of the nation and paint Bush as totally one-dimensional with a complete lack of self-understanding.

Far from revealing a benign truth, a political biopic should seek to provide intimate insight into a real human being. Their surge in popularity is arguably a reflection of society's desire to see our political figures in real terms and thus avoid the tendency to label them as simply good or bad; wrong or right. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the British screenwriter responsible for 24 Hour Party People, sums it up nicely: "It's important for biopics to challenge the idea that there's a fixed interpretation. There might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being."

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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