Hollywood and History: Movies Take a Look at Three Historical Icons

@ The Movies
Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, reviewing the battlefield in “Lincoln,” from Dreamworks Pictures and 20th Century Fox © Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC.

The studios’ end-of-year prestige pictures give filmgoers a bounty of bio-pics, a trio highlighting very different, yet iconic figures: Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” Alfred Hitchcock in “Hitchcock,” and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” All focus on a relatively small slice of the protagonists’ lives. In “Lincoln,” the spotlight is on his last-ditch drive to pass major legislation during January 1865. “Hitchcock” focuses on the director’s dogged effort to make his most controversial film, “Pyscho.” In “Hyde Park,” the timeframe is a long weekend in June 1939 when the British King and Queen came to stay at the president’s family home.

The aesthetic results of each film vary: “Lincoln” is, in this reviewer’s estimation, a landmark piece of historic cinema and a triumph in the re-creation of an historical period; “Hitchcock” is a well-crafted and clever homage to that greatest of all suspense creators; “Hyde Park on the Hudson” works hard at being a telling period piece, but fails because of a major casting flaw.


“Lincoln” opens in the gray mud of the battlefield, with vicious hand-to-hand combat in the wallow. But this is not really a Civil War film, and it quickly shifts to the political hand-to-hand combat between the Republicans (Lincoln’s party), pushing to get House passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. This is no standard Lincoln biography, but rather a film all about political process, rather wonkish in fact. This is also no standard presentation of Lincoln as a stalwart paragon, but a film showing an extremely complex mind within a very practical and practiced politician. It makes the business of legislating, the battle for votes and compromises, more compelling than more facile drama (now showing, the film is rated PG-13 and runs 149 min.).

Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have given us an Honest Abe with warts (and creases), a wry man given to anecdote, a soulful but often uncertain man, a fierce man not above manipulation to get what he wants. Daniel Day-Lewis is all of these things in a towering performance which will probably come to stand for what Lincoln really “is” for many Americans for a long time to come. And beyond the fascinating political facets, Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis also offer a domestic Lincoln who struggles with his marriage, is tested as a father, and dotes on his sweet son Tad.

 Beyond Day-Lewis, “Lincoln” positively brims with other fine performances. A wonderful surprise is Sally Field, now long removed from her plucky heyday, in a bold display as the troubled and apprehensive Mary Todd Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones almost steals the show (and most of his scenes) as Thaddeus Stevens, the incorrigible abolitionist from Pennsylvania who fronted much of the effort on the 13th Amendment. With “Lincoln,” you will learn some American history in the best way, presented with compelling intensity and focus.


As “Hitchcock,” Anthony Hopkins provides another dose of bravura acting, and he is matched in guile and smarts by Helen Mirren, terrific as Hitchcock’s wife and helpmate Alma Reville. The narrative starts in 1959 when he, seeking a new project, comes upon the novel, “Pyscho,” which recounts a murderer with a mother fixation, a story which paralleled the real story of Ed Gein, a true psycho who killed his dominating mother. The story is deemed too dark by his current studio, which wants another sleek suspense tale. So Hitchcock must finance the project himself, an enterprise that could cost the couple their home. Through struggling with shooting difficulties, clashes with censors, and financial turmoil, the director is able to get the picture made and see it triumph, the most successful film of his career.

Hopkins’ Hitchcock is, by turns, droll and strange, childlike and perverse, and the actor makes the most of these contradictory turns. In appearance, Hopkins is much larger than the diminutive director and his face lacks Hitch’s hound-dog look. What overrides these caveats, however, is how Hopkins, a wonderful mimic, nails the distinctive, insinuating Hitchcock voice, often with coiled lips pursed in irony.

Much of that irony is directed at Mirren as Alma. The actress, smart and seductive as ever, looks nothing like the real Alma but easily carries off the role of a woman who is Hitchcock’s match in their creative endeavors.

The film provides, too, the chance to do some amusing casting comparisons with the original “Psycho,” with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel playing Vera Miles, and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. All acquit themselves well, with Johansson being a most convincing charmer (runs 93 min. and is rated “PG-13”).

Hyde Park on Hudson

It is June 1939, and FDR (Bill Murray) is hosting the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) for a weekend at Hyde Park overlooking the Hudson River, marking the first-ever visit of a reigning British monarch to America. Britain’s royals, facing imminent threats from Germany, are desperately looking to FDR for US support. International affairs are commingled with the complexities of FDR’s domestic arrangements which include his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), and, not least, Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), Roosevelt’s distant cousin and lover (opens in mid-December, rated “R” and runs 94 min.)

This film is, sadly, heavily undercut by the actor in the lead: Bill Murray, bless his comic heart, doesn’t look anything like FDR—one of the most photographed faces in history—and he doesn’t sound like FDR—one of the most recognizable voices of last century—and he cannot deliver the man’s distinctive panache, though he works very hard at it. His presence creates a deadness at the center of this drama that cannot be overcome.

The film’s energy is hardly helped by having the story mostly told from Daisy’s point-of-view, that view being one of a mousy, sheltered being unaware that she was witnessing a tidbit of history. Though Laura Linney is a fine actress, she is directed and written here as such a cowering creature that she makes little impression, offers little insight, and contributes little to the drama.

The most entertaining figures in this landscape are King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth. Both West and Colman exhibit bright and believable rapport as a couple and offer both skeptical and puzzled asides about America as they anxiously look to convince FDR and his government to join the war effort.

Long-time Capitol Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.

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