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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era