We often hear people refer to entertainment as threat-less, as in “It’s just a movie,” or “It’s only a story.” The bullets shot in blockbuster action movies are blanks, falls from buildings are all staged, and White House-destroying explosions are created only with pixels. Fantasy, not reality. On the other side of fictional narrative is its credibility—stories are supposed to “suspend disbelief” so that audiences can journey along with the tale presented. When it comes to portraying real people, many directors and writers will give interviews in which they insist the historical characters were researched down to the last eye blink and pinky movement.
But for a writer, director, and actor to carve out the personality in question, they make a series of choices: which scenes in this person’s life to present? Which known statements to recreate? Which relationships to highlight and which to leave absent from the screen?
Even if the people in question were consulted for a particular retelling—which is not usually the case—there must remain a gap between the whole of their lives and the film version. In this case then, these films may say something about the era in which they were produced, as well as our cultural need for a particular representation.
Spoilers coming up for Primary Colors, Munich, the Iron Lady, and Game Change.
Reactions from politicians aspiring and elected came out upon the release last weekend of HBO’s new movie, Game Change, and movie critics communicated their opinions, too. This is the “retelling” of the McCain campaign’s decision to put Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the ticket as Vice President, and the tension that marked McCain’s election team after her arrival. What is described in the film (also, slightly unrelated “whoa” moment: one of the producers is Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a woman in over her head, too incompetent for the job of second-in-command who doesn’t know the difference between North and South Korea, or that the Queen of England is not the leader of government. But the other main message in the film, set against Palin’s unreadiness for governing, is that smart political operatives are also micromanaging control freaks. It’s a push-pull battle described in Game Change—exemplified in the moment when Palin is told she won’t be giving her own concession speech after Barack Obama’s election win. McCain’s political advisor looks at her patronizingly and says, “It’s not about you, it’s about the country,” suggesting that Palin is too small to understand national history and its importance.
In Primary Colors, Hillary Clinton is depicted through the character of Susan Stanton, portrayed by Emma Thompson, who told interviewers she did not base her work on Hillary herself. But in the aftermath of the revelation that the author, originally anonymous was in fact Joe Klein, who closely covered the Clinton campaign for President, it’s largely settled business that the book and film were at least inspired by, if not describing the famous power couple. “Susan” is the woman who stands by her womanizer while lusting after the power of the office her husband could occupy. So once again the treatment here is that the woman involved in the campaign is attached to her personalized understanding of political power, not invested in the good of the country or its citizens.
The film Munich covers the secret Israeli operation to assassinate the men responsible for killing Israel’s Olympic athletes, approved of by Golda Meir, the Prime Minister. Although her character is absent for much of the movie, focusing instead on her former bodyguard (Eric Bana) as he leads the team through the task of killing eleven men, we do see her in communication and in charge. She tells her confidant: “Every civilization finds it necessary to compromise with its own values.” National security—or the film’s conception of Meir’s motivations regarding national security—is the priority. Does this mean that Munich understands female political leaders can govern as ruthlessly as men do, or that women without their soft side to personalize the issues and focus only on themselves are capable of state-sanctioned spree kilings?
Meryl Streep won her second Best Actress Oscar last month for her performance as Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in the film The Iron Lady. The film pulls apart the layers of expectations for Thatcher as a woman, as a person with no personal military service, as an unlikely candidate to lead her party, as a spouse, and as an individual with regrets who faces too many tradeoffs.
Asking what price politicians pay when they take on their country’s leadership, The Iron Lady goes to a terrain that Game Change fears—how do the institutions of power and not the people in them, erode character and energy from these leaders? Thatcher gets a more than fair treatment for what many have asserted was a painful choice to deregulate and privatize industries in Britain, leaving them worse off after her conservative policy and funding shifts. But again we have a narrative that begs a larger question—is political office even compatible with womanhood?
I look forward to a depiction of a real life female politician that does not center on this question.