The easy answer is Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. I’ve been studying Lincoln all my life and before I sat in the theater and watched that movie, that’s how I imagined Lincoln spoke and moved and acted. It was amazing. (And after Lincoln sat in this theatre, he decided not to go to any more plays.)
Another one is Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon. Now, Langella isn’t impersonating Nixon in there. He’s not really trying to do an impression of Nixon like Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (another performance I really enjoyed for different reasons). But Langella got inside Nixon in a way that was just remarkable. There’s a scene at the end of the film where Michael Sheen’s David Frost character visits Nixon to say good-bye after they filmed the interviews. Nixon tells Frost, “You were a worthy opponent,” because Nixon looked at everything in life like a battle.
Then Frost gives Nixon a pair of fancy shoes that Nixon had noticed Frost wearing in their first meeting. Nixon is touched and the humanity that Langella gives Nixon is just incredible. Then he talks to Frost privately and asks him if he enjoys all the parties that Frost goes to, and Frost is like, “Yeah, of course”. And Langella/Nixon looks at him and says, “You got no idea how fortunate that makes you. You know? Liking people, and being liked…It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinged on being liked.” At the end, as Nixon is all alone, and looking at the shoes that Frost gave him, and looking out at the ocean, the look on Langella’s face (as Nixon) just breaks my heart. I’m not even a big Nixon fan, but that’s a hell of a performance.
Lincoln is a must-see. I’d also highly recommend Killing Lincoln. I was hesitant to see Killing Lincoln because I thought it would be like one of those History Channel documentaries with the goofy reenactments, but it was awesome. The narration by Tom Hanks gives it a nice pacing and Jesse Johnson, the actor who portrayed John Wilkes Booth, is electric and steals every single scene he is in. And if it is accuracy that you are looking for, I’d say that Killing Lincoln is closer to being totally historically accurate than Lincoln was, but you can’t miss out on Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln (or Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens).
The miniseries about the Kennedys takes quite a bit of creative liberty. It’s entertaining and the performances are really good, but if you’re looking for something that is as close to 100% historically accurate as possible, that’s not it. Honestly, nothing is going to be 100% historically accurate, so you just have to accept that some films or portrayals require composite characters or altered timelines in order to tell a solid story. HBO’s John Adams miniseries is an absolute classic and had David McCullough as a lead consultant, but even that series takes some creative license. It’s well worth checking out, though. Paul Giamatti is great as Adams, Stephen Dillane is even better (in my opinion) as Jefferson, and although he’s only in a few scenes, I think somebody needs to finance a film in which David Morse plays Washington again.
I’m cycling through the rolodex of POTUS movies in my head, so if I miss one, I apologize.
I’ve always loved Oliver Stone’s Nixon, but that REALLY takes some creative license. So does Frost/Nixon, but Frank Langella really captures an aspect of Nixon that is absolutely tremendous. The funny thing is that Langella’s Nixon is completely different than Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, yet they both portray certain parts of Nixon’s personality accurately. Again, both films stray from the exact historical record, but I enjoy both of them no matter what.
I haven’t seen The Butler yet, but I’ve heard good things. Hyde Park on Hudson is okay and Bill Murray is good as FDR, but I felt like it was missing something. Thirteen Days is good. Gary Sinise does a pretty good job in Truman. Oliver Stone’s W. tries to slap together every goofy thing that George W. Bush did or said in a couple of scenes just to squeeze them in the film, but Josh Brolin does pull off a pretty solid Bush. It’s definitely not historically accurate, but I was surprised with W. because so many people thought it was a hit job on Bush. It wasn’t completely flattering, but I thought it showed Bush as a guy who screwed around a lot when he was younger and then turned his life around and showed a determination and ambition that was actually kind of inspiring. Surprisingly, I’ve never seen Amistad, but I’ve heard Anthony Hopkins does a really good job as John Quincy Adams.
If you really want to watch some great films about Presidents that are 100% historically accurate, I’d highly recommend just picking up some of the PBS American Experience documentaries about Presidents. You cannot go wrong with American Experience. I bought a boxed set a while back called “The Presidents Collection” that features 10 different documentaries: Theodore Roosevelt (almost 4 hours long); Woodrow Wilson (nearly 3 hours long); FDR (over 4 hours); Truman (over 4 hours); The Kennedys (4 hours long); LBJ (nearly 4 hours long); Nixon (3 hours long); Jimmy Carter (3 hours long); Reagan (over 4 hours long); and George H.W. Bush (over 3 hours long). I also have individual documentaries from American Experience on Abraham Lincoln, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, A House Divided: Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and the 4-hour-long Bill Clinton episode that was just released last year. In 2000, PBS released an awesome documentary called The American President with episodes highlighting every President from Washington to Clinton. Sure, feature films are fun, but nothing beats PBS and American Experience.
However, the film adaptation of the book is not good, to say the least. Sam Waterston (a real-life Lincoln history buff) isn’t terrible as Abraham Lincoln, but if you see Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and then go back and watch Waterston in the same role, it’s just not fair.
I can’t think of any others off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a few other stinkers that my brain worked hard to forget about.
Random: Everyone has recommended There Will Be Blood to me for a very long time, and I finally watched it the other night. I’ll probably get hammered for this, but I thought it sucked. And I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was totally overacting in it. It felt like Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York had become an oilman (and I LOVED Gangs of New York, so no disrespect there). But, yeah, maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset for it, but it was a rare miss when it comes to the recommendations I get (and for DD-L), in my opinion.
Frost/Nixon was definitely a great movie. Frank Langella’s portrayal of President Nixon was so compelling. Instead of ratcheting things up and making Nixon a caricature, Langella made some really subtle choices that sold the main themes of the film and humanized Nixon. After everything that Nixon had done, Langella’s portrayal of him gave me some empathy for him. He deserved to lose the Presidency, he deeply wounded the country, and his actions destroyed any innocence Americans still had about their government and their leaders. But Langella showed the personal pain and sorrow that Nixon seemed to finally recognize literally in the middle of one of the interviews with David Frost.
Most remarkable to me was the end of the movie when Frost brings Nixon a pair of the expensive shoes that the former President had noticed Frost wearing at an earlier meeting. First of all, we caught a glimpse of what Nixon’s exile was like. For most of us, being able to retire to a beautiful beachfront mansion in San Clemente would be paradise. But La Casa Pacifica was no La Casa Blanca. For all his faults, though, Nixon was a man of action. Like LBJ before him, Nixon had no idea what to do with all of the time in the world and no power, no problems to solve. Nor did he have many friends left. That moment where Frost gives Langella’s Nixon the shoes is powerful because we see something interesting in Nixon’s eyes — and this is where Langella deserves so much credit because he got the point across without saying or telegraphing a single thing. He sold the feeling with his subtle expressions.
Accepting the shoes, Nixon switches from wary to surprised to grateful. Paranoia destroyed his Presidency that paranoia seemed to wonder what Frost’s endgame was. Was he spiking the football to rub his interview successes in? No, Frost was sincere and Nixon’s appreciation added to the personal revelation, the sense of loss that Nixon had recognized during the interview. Not everybody was out to get him, even if they were on the other side of the aisle, or, in Frost’s case, the other side of the interview set. It was as if Nixon finally took his own words — the impromptu remarks he made to White House staff before resigning — to heart. During that final speech, Nixon rambled at times, he choked back tears, he thanked the people he worked with, and he did what Richard Nixon had never done — he spoke from the heart and ended up giving the best speech of his life. Towards the end, he said, “Always give your best; never get discouraged; never be petty. Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” The beauty of Frank Langella’s performance in Frost/Nixon is that he gets all of those emotions or actions — shame, sorrow, regret, uncertainty, loneliness, and the beginnings of forgiveness — across in that one scene, and he does so with his eyes and his facial expressions. It’s a magnificent bit of acting by Langella.
For the second part of your question, nothing can really vindicate Nixon for Watergate and his Administration’s excesses, not even a masterful film portrayal by a great actor. Yet, Nixon is, and always has been, one of the more fascinating Presidents, in my opinion. The 20th Century was full of towering figures, good and bad, and Nixon is one of the tallest. His life took up most the century that would become known as the “American Century”. He served the nation from World War II until his death, acting as a behind-the-scenes adviser to Presidents on foreign policy, particularly when it came to China and the Soviet Union/Russia. Richard Nixon did some dumb things, but he was a brilliant, brilliant leader who was capable of quickly grasping many difficult details and formulating a plan — often unilaterally — to tackle problems. Very few leaders of any kind of background have that unique capability.
People often recall how physically awkward Nixon was, and the White House taping system which helped bring down his Presidency certainly made the President sound like a boorish, insensitive asshole who disliked people and was thus a terrible politician. He may have been most of those things, but he wasn’t a terrible politician. A terrible politician doesn’t get elected to Congress at 33 years old, the U.S. Senate at 37, and get sworn in as Vice President of the United States just a few days after his 40th birthday. It’s impossible for a bad politician to find himself on a national campaign ticket FIVE TIMES — twice successfully as General Eisenhower’s Vice President and three times as the GOP’s Presidential nominee.
As popular and appealing as John F. Kennedy was, Richard Nixon very nearly beat him in 1960 to become President. In fact, shady voting irregularities in Texas and Cook County, Illinois swung the election in JFK’s favor. Many historians have a different description for those “irregularities”: “voter fraud”. Despite strong evidence that the election had been stolen from him, Nixon refused to contest the results. Most likely, there had been some “irregularities” on NIxon’s side, too, and Nixon didn’t want to open up that can of worms.
If Nixon wasn’t a bad guy, he wasn’t a good guy, either. I don’t know that I like him, but he was an impressive man and, before he began the downward spiral of paranoia and vindictiveness which destroyed his Presidency, his gifts as a leader and as his own top diplomat were resulting in historic and positive relationships between the United States and much of the rest of the world. Nixon had all of the tools to be one of the great Presidents of all-time, but he brought it all down upon himself.
I have not only always thought that Franklin Pierce would be a perfect subject for some sort of dramatic interpretation, but I have considered writing it myself. In fact, I’m still considering it. It would be good as a movie or a mini-series, but I’ve been thinking for the past year or so about writing it as a stage play.
Pierce is one of, if not the, most obscure Presidents in American history, so it may seem like an odd choice, but there was so much heartbreak and tragedy in his life to match the triumphs (and there were remarkable triumphs) that there is a deep story there. It has some serious Shakespearean themes in it and that’s as straightforward history without even dramatizing it or taking creative liberties.
There is something there with Pierce and I’ve been drawn to him for as long as I’ve been seriously studying the Presidents. One of my first publications as a Presidential historian was an essay for the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Commission. I’m drawn to him, and I think I’ll eventually make the jump.
•Oh, and I’ve mentioned this before even though it would never happen, but Johnny Depp was born to play President Pierce:
NO! I’ve been waiting for a theater within 40 miles of me to actually show Lincoln, but that hasn’t happened and I haven’t wanted to drive to St. Louis just to see it. I think I’m finally going to go to see it tonight, though. I’m dying to catch the movie. If I don’t go tonight, I’ll go tomorrow, but I’ll be sure to let you guys know what I think.
That wasn’t a purposeful slight or anything. I actually thought Brad Pitt was really good as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He didn’t go over the top and try to portray the outlaw as some misunderstood, good-hearted superhero. He got over the fact that Jesse James was violent, short-tempered, paranoid (with good reason, obviously), restless, and becoming increasingly unglued towards the end of his life.
To tell you the truth, Pitt’s portrayal of James was easily the most historically accurate depiction of Jesse James that we’ve ever gotten. Dime novels mythologized the outlaw and the James-Younger gang in their own time and movies over the years have made him into a Robin Hood-like character who battled the railroads and never stole from the working people. While the film was an adaptation of Ron Hansen’s excellent novel — which was historical fiction, but heavier on history than fiction, kind of like Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (BOOK•KINDLE) — the Jesse James that Brad Pitt plays in the movie is basically the same person that T.J. Stiles describes in his biography of James.
The book that Stiles wrote, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (BOOK•KINDLE), is pure history and, unquestionably, the best book ever written about the famous outlaw. Stiles makes it clear that while James did become a folk hero of sorts and is definitely an appealing, intriguing character, he was also a murderer and, in many ways, a terrorist. I thought Brad Pitt’s version of Jesse James showed those scars more than any other portrayal. While a lot of the credit certainly goes to the film’s writers, Pitt made some great choices as an actor that demonstrated the tension and edginess in the complex personality of Jesse James.
Have I mentioned that I really enjoy The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford?
Once I started to think about my answer, this question became more difficult than I imagined because I realized there were some great historical movies or biopics to choose from.
Also, even though Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis hasn’t been released and I obviously have not yet seen it, I actually considered putting it in my Top 5 solely because of my anticipation and high hopes.
Anyway, on to the Top 5 as it stands until November 16th.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Not only is this my favorite historical film, but it’s my favorite film overall. Jesse James is a fascinating figure in American history and always has been to me, even though I don’t see him as a heroic, Robin Hood-type as he has been mythologized as. In this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s book of the same name, the outlaw is portrayed perfectly, and Casey Affleck’s creepy depiction of Robert Ford is cringe-inducing in all the right ways. Visually, the movie is beautiful, and the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is absolutely perfect. In fact, the music is so good and so fitting that I don’t think the film would have been as good as it is if not for the Cave/Ellis score. I am not one who rewatches movies — even those that I love — but I have to put this film on every few months or so. On top of everything, and despite the fact that it does take some creative liberties, it is about as historically accurate as you can ask for while still making the film completely engrossing. I’m certainly no film critic, but I think The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an American masterpiece.
I should note that while I have a definitive, unquestionable favorite at the top of the list, the following four favorites aren’t in any real order or ranking that distinguishes them from one another.
The King’s Speech
When I first watched The King’s Speech, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I knew that the film featured some amazing actors, but I never would have imagined that I’d watch a film about King George VI and his speech therapist and wish that it had been longer so that I could have spent more time in that world. The performances, unsurprisingly, were tremendous and, like The Assassination of Jesse James, the movie was a visual treat. I know nothing about cinematography or set design or costume design, but as I watched The King’s Speech I knew that I was watching something very special that was augmented by extraordinary work in those aspects of filmmaking.
It’s basically two separate movies, clocks in at nearly 5 hours long overall, and all of the dialogue is in Spanish, but Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of the legendary Che Guevara is epic. Benicio Del Toro is really good as Che, even though Del Toro looks more like Fidel Castro. The issues that I have with the film are more about what was left out than what is in the movie. I felt that the second part, focusing on Che’s ill-fated attempt at carrying the successes from the Cuban Revolution over to Bolivia really dragged, but it was an important part of Che’s story. The first part, focusing on the Cuban Revolution, was awesome and the actor who played Fidel, Demian Bichir, was so good and so believable as Castro that I left wanting to see a Fidel biopic with Bichir in the starring role. Che is definitely not for everybody. It’s a real commitment, but I have always had an inexplicable interest in Cuba and an affinity for its revolutionaries, so I loved it.
Gods and Generals
I believe that I am probably in the minority here, but I really enjoyed this 4-hour-long prequel to Gettysburg, particularly the performances of Robert Duvall as General Robert E. Lee and Stephen Lang as General Stonewall Jackson. I liked Gettysburg a lot, too, but Duvall replaced Martin Sheen (who had played General Lee in the first film but couldn’t fit Gods and Generals into his West Wing filming schedule) in the prequel and, although I love Sheen and think he’s a wonderful actor, Duvall was a better fit as Lee. Gettysburg and Gods and Generals are overly dramatized and not the greatest historical films made, but they are enjoyable to watch. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are monumental films — two of the greatest films that I have ever seen. But they are difficult to watch; they are difficult to “enjoy” in the same way that I enjoy a less intense film like Gods and Generals. It’s obviously not the better film, but sometimes you don’t want to make an emotional investment; you just want to relax.
(TIE) Nixon and Frost/Nixon
It’s a total cop-out to have a tie in a Top 5 list where I already took the easy way out and didn’t actually rank all of my favorites, but that’s how I roll. Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon are two very different movies and feature two very distinct portrayals of the 37th President, yet I equally appreciate and enjoy them. Stone’s film takes far more creative license, but the final months of Nixon’s Presidency were so crazy that it’s a hell of a ride to watch them in Stone’s film. Howard’s adaptation of the play based on David Frost’s post-Presidential interviews of Nixon is such a different story that it might as well feature different characters, let alone different actors. In their own way, however, each film captures Nixon really well, despite the different ways that Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) portray the man. Hopkins totally nails the tenacity, the paranoia, the anger, and the frenetic final grasps at power that dominated Nixon’s final 18 months in office. Langella is Nixon in exile, still trying to defend himself but eventually breaking down and finally admitting to himself that he failed at the same time he admits it to the world. While the performance of Hopkins is all about Nixon’s outbursts and scheming, Langella actually humanizes Nixon through his subtle expressions, especially the downcast shadows that seem to overtake his features as he admits his failures, as if he just realized how disappointed he was in himself. The Hopkins Nixon is isolated because that was his style; the Langella Nixon is lonely because that was his punishment. Both movies have merit and both actors gave remarkable performances. I think the films actually complement each other.
Honorable Mention (as if a tie in my Top 5 wasn’t a big enough cop-out):
•Elizabeth/Elizabeth: The Golden Age
•Letters From Iwo Jima (but definitely not Flags of Our Fathers, which was awful)
•Black Hawk Down
And about 50 other movies if I spend any more time on this question.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve watched PBS’s new, four-hour-long documentary of Bill Clinton twice in the past week. Because it was so good, it reminded how good the other PBS American Experience documentaries about Presidents are, so I started watching some of the other editions that I have on DVD, thanks to the awesome The Presidents Collection boxed set.
The Presidents Collection is a boxed set of feature-length documentaries on some of the most influential 20th Century Presidents from PBS’s American Experience. It contains 15 DVDs and over 35 hours of documentary goodness on Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, The Kennedys, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
I spent most of the evening watching the Woodrow Wilson documentary (2 discs/165 minutes long) and almost halfway into the 194-minute-long documentary on George H.W. Bush. I’ve watched these before, but I always forget how good they are. They are detailed and definitive, rich with historic video footage and photographs, and accompanied by commentary from our finest historians and historic figures. Even the reenactments aren’t cheesy like reenactments can so frequently be.
I highly recommend checking out The Presidents Collection, and the boxed set of 5 DVDs from the 2000 series, The American President, which features shorter documentaries on every single President up to Bill Clinton.
(By the way, do you know what is a really amazing piece of historic footage? The grainy video of the U.S. Navy submarine Finback pulling a 20-year-old George H.W. Bush from the Pacific Ocean a few hours after he was forced to parachute into the water from his crippled plane when it was shot down by the Japanese. It’s unbelievable that was caught on film. Oh, and that’s another reason why I include George H.W. Bush near the top of the list when people ask me which Presidents were badasses.)
I’m watching the entire new four-hour PBS American Experience DVD on Bill Clinton…again. I rarely watch something twice, and certainly not twice in the same week. If you haven’t seen the Clinton documentary, it’s a must-see — as all of PBS’s American Experience documentaries tend to be.
If you haven’t seen it, go order it right now.