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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The world has not had enough of Daniel Craig as Bond

The actor's fifth film in the franchise will be a welcome return for his layered and troubled Bond.

It looked like a cut-and-dry case. He was going to be the spy who went out in the cold. The one who didn’t say “never say never again.” Dr No Thanks. But with the announcement this week that Daniel Craig is staying on to have one final stab at the role of James Bond, it’s become a case of Resign Another Day. 

A fifth outing in the part will nudge Craig ahead of Pierce Brosnan (four) and comfortably outstrip Timothy Dalton (two) and George Lazenby (one) while leaving him a couple short of both Sean Connery (seven) and Roger Moore (also seven, though consecutive where Connery’s run was not). But it’s the quality not the quantity that counts and Craig has been consistently intriguing and surprising, whether the films themselves have been (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) or not (Skyfall, Spectre). He has also attracted compliments where it counts. Moore, who died earlier this year, referred to Craig as “the Bond.” Are you going to argue with the man who leapt across a row of snapping crocodiles in Live and Let Die, survived the G-force simulator in Moonraker, told a tiger to “Sit!” in Octopussy and went to bed with Grace Jones in A View to a Kill? Thought not.

I’m glad in one way that Craig has chosen not to leave just yet. He has one of the best heads in the industry. I’m not talking about his business acumen - I mean his actual head, a cross between a breeze-block and a bullet, with distinctive jutting ears stuck on the sides for good measure. He looks formidable before he even produces a weapon. What’s more, he casts the most easily-identifiable shadow since Mickey Mouse. His appeal is not just physical though. His is a genuinely layered and troubled Bond, something which the films immediately prior to his own tried to evoke, but which seemed slightly beyond the range of Pierce Brosnan - who, let it be noted, had some tremendous moments of befuddlement in GoldenEye (the one where Judi Dench, as M, gives him that memorable dressing-down in which she calls him a “dinosaur”) and even came close to a Craigian callousness in The World Is Not Enough.

In the end, it was Brosnan who was not enough. Not dangerous, intelligent, damaged enough. Craig has the whole package. If you’ve seen Casino Royale, and you have forgotten the intermingled strains of pain, resentment and vulnerability that he brought to one cruel line near the end of the film (“The bitch is dead”), then I envy you. I can still hear his chilling delivery. 

Any reservations I feel about his return in the next Bond movie, which is scheduled for November 2019, can be traced to an eagerness to see what else he will do once he hangs up his holster and tuxedo. He was a fine actor before Bond (check out Love is the Devil, The Mother and the BBC’s Our Friends in the North for proof) but has not made such a strong impression so far in extra-curricular parts during his tenure as 007. (He will shortly be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s heist movie Logan Lucky.) It will be exciting to witness what he can do once he is a free agent - or rather, not an agent any more at all.

It would have been nice and neat for Craig to have bowed out with Spectre. It wasn’t an impressive piece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it dropped so many hints about its hero’s demise that it felt like a natural swansong. Bond is first seen in Spectre  wearing a skull mask during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. In scenes later on in London, he learns that plans are afoot to sack him. Switching on a radio, he is greeted by “New York, New York”, the lyrics of which have P45 stamped all over them: “Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today.” His off-screen antipathy in interviews towards the idea of being bound to Bond only fuelled the rumour that it was curtains for him.

But though he said straight after finishing Spectre that if he played Bond again it would only be for the dough, no one should doubt his commitment. “I get paid a lot of money to do something I love to do,” he said in 2011, when Skyfall was still in the planning stages. “And whatever it is—the way I was brought up, or whatever—I feel if you’re getting paid you should put the work in. Maybe I’m stupid and everyone’s looking at me and saying: ‘Chill out, take the money and run.’ I can’t do that. I feel the more we put into it, the more we’ll get out. How best can we spend all this money? You don’t just take it and go, ‘Yay! See ya!’ I want millions of people to watch the movie. So why not make it good?”

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.