Political Fictions: Fictionalizing History

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.

Previously: The Personal (Life) is Political, Power Corrupts Women Like Whoa

by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Something I've always heard

Something I've always heard about Golda Meir from my (Jewish) family is "great politician, but such an ugly woman, poor thing".
When I read your post, the part about Munich made me think that maybe, this is a common conception about Meir and her purported "ugliness" makes her--in the eyes of the screenwriter at least--somehow less "feminine" and therefore better suited to male-style/business as usual politics.

I haven't seen the movie so I don't know if this makes sense, but I'd love to hear your take on it.


Speaking of Golda, has anyone seen the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda, with Ingrid Bergman? It's on my list and was just wondering if anyone recommends it.

I've been trying to get my

I've been trying to get my hands on that -- it was one of Bergman's last works, and I remember seeing it as a kid, but of course I need to watch it again.


I watched it for the first time a few years ago. It was interesting and worth seeing, although I thought it was just a little too long. Judy Davis plays young Golda, and my biggest issue with the film is that it felt the older and younger Golda weren't very much alike. Not just in looks, but personality as well.

An excellent point,

An excellent point, Gatanini--
There was also some going on with the visuals and shot selection in The Iron Lady around Thatcher's imperfect teeth, as if her increasing polishedness was mitigated by this imperfection. Female codes of beauty are something I will look at in this series, as it does come up again and again. I remember when Hillary Clinton was running for President during the Democratic primary, and the press kept talking about her hair and outfits, most notably her pant suits.Good question!

Clinton's pant suits were

Clinton's pant suits were also much discussed during her time as first lady, and I imagine during Bill Clinton's campaign for president. I distinctly remember my family talking about how un-glamorous she was, comparing her, negatively to Jackie Kennedy and making comments about how her pant suits would look in the Smithsonian along with the more glamorous outfits. I also remember the critique that Clinton was too involved in her husband's policy making. I think there is an interesting connection. Too masculine, not glamorous enough, and too outspoken.

Primary Colors

I actually really like Primary Colors, but partly because I look at it from a different view. You're absolutely right about it not being an accurate or particularly nuanced depiction of Susan Stanton as a female politican, but I love its depiction of the campaign staff. Kathy Bates is a great strong woman character and I love the scene where the short-haired woman staffer tells Billy Bob Thorton's character off for sexually harassing her: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI9k6Fo2mDY

As someone who's spent a lot of time staffing campaigns, I found it to be a humorous but actually fairly accurate depiction of campaign staff dynamics. By contrast, Ides of March made me never want Ryan Gosling to "Hey Girl" me ever again. I didn't see the campaign dynamics I knew there.

But back to Primary Colours for a minute. While I think the Clinton comparison was obvious, I did feel Emma Thompson gave the "Hillary" character her own edge and I think she did bring across that Susan had principles. While ultimately Susan succumbs to the drive to power and compromises their clean campaign commitment, I understood she did it because she still thought she and Jack were the best hope for real change.

Another interesting thing is that in the novel the movie was based on, and in the movie's original script, Susan ends up sleeping with Henry after she finds out about the babysitter's pregnancy test. I don't think leaving it in would've improved the movie but it's interesting to speculate how it might signify to us differently if they had.

Anyway, thanks for writing this post - it's one of my favourite things to watch/write about/debate political movies, and I just got my fix for the day!

Let me clarify: I liked a lot

Let me clarify: I liked a lot about Game Change and The Iron Lady, and parts of Primary Colors, it's the pattern of themes and messages that I see in them that makes me start thinking about why they keep characterizing women in this way.

I think Julianne Moore took great pains to make Sarah Palin sympathetic, in that this huge juggernaut of politics lands in Juneau and immediately starts to try controlling her. It was absolutely opportunistic and cruel, and at the same time Palin herself was used to getting what she wanted out of her political power. When I had occasion to see the Alaska State Capitol Building up close, during a trip to Alaska in 2009, I was struck by how very far away the state is, how unattached to a sense of nationalism is out there, and how teeny tiny the capitol city (and Capitol) were. I turned to my partner and said, "I can just see McCain's people coming into town on a sea plane and their jaws dropping, and saying, 'Oh my god this is a mistake.'" And then voila, that line is in the movie!

In future posts, I'm going to take a close look at the women in The West Wing and the short-lived series Commander in Chief.


Very much looking forward to it. Am a big WW fan but the more I watch it the more problematic aspects I find. And I hate, hate the Josh/Donna thing. So I definitely know what you mean about liking something and also understanding its flawed representations.

Have you watched the movie The Contender with Joan Allen? That's another one with interesting gender dynamics that speaks to issues around how women's behaviour is scrutinized on a different level than men. She plays a woman who faces a sex scandal while being nominated for Vice President. I don't actually enjoy it as much because I think the acting and dialogue is only so-so, but it's interesting.

I just finished watching Game

I just finished watching Game Change tonight. There were two scenes in particular -- right after Palin's speech when she accepted the VP nomination, and while she was debating Joe Biden -- that just really reminded me of <I>My Fair Lady</i>. When the committee starting cheering in relief as she "hit her notes," all I could think of was Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering merrily congratulating each other on Eliza's success at the ball. In fact, in general, the entire story arc of Palin (as presented in Game Change) very much reminded me of Eliza Doolittle's story arc in Game Change.

I really liked Game Change. It actually made me feel a little more sympathetic to all parties involved. My biggest beef with Sarah Palin's acceptance of the VP nomination is that she wasn't self-aware enough to realize she wasn't qualified. I don't know if their depiction of her crumbling under the pressure was accurate -- the panic attacks and shutting down -- but if those depictions were accurate, I wish she (or someone close to her) would have recognized that she didn't have the strength of character to deal with a national spotlight.

The ability to handle fame and scrutiny is not, in my opinion, a gender-specific trait. Whether or not that was what Game Change intended, I didn't see her emotional break-downs as feminine weakness. I saw it as an inability to handle the pressure -- like Nixon's crippling paranoia. I will acknowledge, however, that those break-downs would probably not have been as damaging to other people's perceptions of her if she'd been a guy experiencing exhibiting that sort of stress.

I completely agree with this

I completely agree with this post. I would say though the reaction to Palin that is portrayed in the movie is very patriarchal. Like when they decide the should fly in her kids because she needs them. If it had been a man in the same scenario, it is not likely they would have thought that said male needed his kids. They would have tried to remedy the problem and underlying issues (and maybe would have come to the source of the problem sooner). Instead, the team seems to place her weakness solely on her rural, femininity rather than based solely on her merits and capabilities. That I think is the most interesting part of this movie, because it certainly displays it very well.

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