Rob Edelman: Presidents

Nov 26, 2012

At this moment in time, so many Americans seem to have overdosed on presidential politics and, in particular, the wave of negative advertising that dominated the recently concluded election. Nevertheless, as the year nears its close, two new films spotlight certain aspects of the lives and personalities of revered American presidents. They are Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and Roger Michell’s HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, which features Bill Murray as Franklin Roosevelt. 

Actually, LINCOLN and HYDE PARK ON HUDSON are not your standard Hollywood biopics. Far from it. Rather, they center on one specific time period in their subject’s life. LINCOLN is set in the waning days of the Civil War and highlights the efforts of Abraham Lincoln to push through against massive opposition passage of the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. Its scenario stresses how, a century-and-a-half ago, it was unusual and daring for a white man-- even a U.S. president-- to openly declare that black men and white men are equal. Previously, Spielberg explored the mistreatment of blacks in American history in two other films, THE COLOR PURPLE and AMISTAD, so he certainly is at home with this material.

On one level, America has come a long way since the time of Abraham Lincoln. We’ve had black military and business leaders, Secretaries of State and Supreme Court Justices. We’ve had black movie actors who are stars, and whose names are not Stepin Fetchit. And of course, we have a black president who has just been elected to a second term in office. Yet it seems to me that there still are those in our society who resent this equal opportunity. I can think of two occasions where I have been harassed by strangers, all of them white males, for the “sin” of wearing a Jackie Robinson baseball cap. 

It is unfortunate and undeniable that we are living in a time in which the past too often is trivialized. To many, what happened last Thursday is ancient history, and so a film like LINCOLN is set in an era that seems positively prehistoric. But the issues which Spielberg deals with here remain as relevant as ever.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, meanwhile, spotlights Franklin Roosevelt at a moment in time during his presidency. It is the eve of the Second World War and much of the story centers on what happens when Roosevelt hosts a visit to upstate New York by the King and Queen of England, as well as his relationship with Margaret Stuckley, his distant cousin. The FDR portrayed in HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is no saintly, idealized figure, as the film references the intimacies, physical or otherwise, that he shared with women who were not named Eleanor. 

But personal flaws aside, Roosevelt is presented as one of America’s great presidents: a politician who exudes self-confidence, and who will not allow the polio that has crippled him to deter him from performing his duties. Most significantly, he is a politician who is forthright in his dealings with the public. This FDR does not lie. At one point, he poses a question that is well-worth pondering. And that is: “Why can’t politicians just be honest?”

This, too, is a question that reverberates to this very day.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of  Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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