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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How The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme brought humanity to horror

In memory of a great movie man - and a generous soul. 

Professional distance is important as a journalist. I’ll always be grateful to the editor who told me, as I set off to interview a musical hero, “He’s not your friend; he doesn’t want to be your friend; he’s never going to be your friend.” The funny thing about the films of Jonathan Demme, who has died aged 73, was that they felt like the work of a pal. That was his special gift—not only to tell stories dynamically but to do so with an emotional joy and directness that spoke to a common humanity. This may not be immediately apparent if his biggest hit, The Silence of the Lambs, is the only movie of his that you’ve seen, though even that was intensely humane in a way that its imitators never were.

Demme welcomed you in. In his best movies, such as Melvin and Howard, about the brief, unlikely friendship between a Utah milkman and Howard Hughes, or the screwball thriller Something Wild, which was two-thirds riotous and one-third hair-raisingly scary, you felt you were being invited into some gleeful shindig. The characters might have been people he’d run into, whom he was certain you would find every bit as enchanting as he did, and the soundtrack was littered with these bouncing tunes he’d heard and that he simply couldn’t wait to share with you. The sets and costumes had a thrown-together, thrift-shop feel; you could base an entire fancy-dress party around the garish outfits and hairdos from his delicious Mafia comedy Married to the Mob, while some of the most eye-catching effects in his Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense are achieved with only a springy household lamp and an imaginative use of light and shadow.

Beneath the bristling, bustling surface of each film was an innate curiosity about people. It is obvious in pictures like Citizens Band, his 1977 comedy about CB radio users, and the stormy but sweet-natured family drama Rachel Getting Married, but let’s take that more challenging example of The Silence of the Lambs, which showed how his generous spirit could infuse even the dankest chambers of genre cinema. Thomas Harris, on whose novel the picture was based, had a fairly cut-and-dried approach to issues of good and evil. Demme was more flexible, which is what made him such an interesting choice of director for that material, as opposed to blood-and-thunder merchants like Ridley Scott (who made the sequel, Hannibal) or Brett Ratner (who directed Red Dragon, based on the same source material as the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter).

Demme began from the starting-point that everyone is human, which is how he and the screenwriter Ted Tally and the actor Ted Levine came to shape the portrayal of the killer Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill. Demme described Gumb not as a bad guy but as a “bad guy who is, in fact, a terribly damaged guy whose life has been a disaster”. No wonder he was upset when the film was accused of homophobia despite the fact that he had gone to great lengths to explain in the movie that Gumb is not gay. “The film very clearly says that Jame Gumb spends his life altering himself to escape from the terrible fact of who he is, and how he’s been abused,” he explained. “So it makes sense that if he’s heterosexual, he’ll try being homosexual, and vice versa. But people heard the line about him having a male lover, and saw him looking effeminate, which was enough for some audiences. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Gumb wasn’t gay, so I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals. I welcomed that other viewpoint.”

He was averse to using violence in his films without also showing that it had consequences — what is his greatest movie, Something Wild, if not a demonstration of that very point? “In Something Wild, I was trying to show that if you behave violently, you will taste violence,” he said in 1988. “And I feel there are definite signals in the first half of the movie that the characters had better straighten up or else.” The shots fired by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) at the end of The Silence of the Lambs are not gratuitous or exciting; they really count. “There’s nothing to cheer about when someone is shot dead,” he said. At the end of The Truth About Charlie, his unloved Nouvelle Vague-tinged remake of Charade, he has the hero (Mark Wahlberg) implore everyone to put down their guns. And at the climax of his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the weight of the entire film rests on a single bullet. “To whatever extent the glamorisation of gun violence helps in some way in my country to continue the acceptance of guns, I want to remove myself from that equation,” he said. 

There were many reasons to love Jonathan Demme, not least the movies themselves and the fact that he was a sweet and generous soul. (The L.A. Times critic Justin Chang tweeted that he told Demme: “‘Y’know, you’re really nice!’ I couldn’t help it. He really, really was.” I said something similar as I presented him with my Stop Making Sense DVD—professional distance be damned—and asked him to sign it. He wrote: “Keep on rockin’”.) I can think of one more reason to love him. His family has requested that any donations be made in his name to the charity Americans for Immigrant Justice, which is just another sign that we need Demme more than ever just at the very moment that we have lost him.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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