Hyde Park on Hudson


Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

(2012) Historical Drama (Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill, Nancy Baldwin, Samantha Dakin, Jonathan Brewer, Kumiko Konishi. Directed by Roger Michell

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating project, Lincoln finally came to fruition. It was a superb film that really humanized the iconic President and made him, if anything, even more worthy of admiration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is another President who is much loved (well in Liberal circles anyway) and a similar treatment of him would surely have been welcome.

It is 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. King George VI (West), the recently crowned and woefully unprepared monarch of England (after the abdication of his brother) is coming to the United States – the first reigning King of England to ever do so – not just to make political hay in his own country but also for a desperately important task; to gauge whether the Americans would assist them when war inevitably broke out (as it would do a scant three months after their visit).

Springwood, the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson Valley is in an uproar. To be hosting the King and Queen (Colman) of England is important enough but the whole affair has turned into a battle of wills between the President’s mother (Wilson) and wife Eleanor (Williams). Mommy, ever mindful of FDR’s political image, wants nothing done to tarnish his image as a world leader while Eleanor seems hell-bent on tweaking the monarchs somewhat.

Franklin (Murray) needs some respite from the bickering and stress. After a number of relatives are called without success, a distant cousin named Daisy (Linney) at last answers the call and is driven to Springwood to help “take the President’s mind off of things.” It’s awkward at first; while related, they barely know each other and Daisy isn’t really sure what she’s doing there. Franklin pulls out his stamps. They seem to hit it off however once that initial discomfort wears off. Soon they are going for rides in the countryside in a specially fitted car that the President, stricken by polio and nearly unable to use his legs, can drive only with his hands. Soon those drives are leading to stops and at those stops there is some intimacy.

Meanwhile the war continues with FDR’s secretary Missy LaHand (Marvel) trying to mediate but there are absolutes going on – Eleanor wants the Royals to attend a picnic in which hot dogs are served which is mortifying enough but that she wants to serve cocktails ­– that’s more than the teetotaling mother of the President can bear. Daisy tries to hover near the edges so that none can figure out the nature of the relationship she’s building with Franklin, but even she doesn’t quite understand what’s really going on.

The relationship between Daisy and FDR would remain a secret until shortly after she died just shy of her 100th birthday. Some letters and diaries were found in which she discussed her intimacies with the former President. I’m not sure how much the writers relied on those writings for the story – whether they were faithful to Daisy’s words or if they used them as a rough outline – but it could have been a nice jumping off point.

My problem with it is that Daisy really isn’t all that interesting a character. She’s a middle aged woman (she was 48 when these events took place) who hasn’t had a lot of experience with men and develops almost a high school crush on FDR. She is in her own way as lonely as the man at the top, her life mainly revolving around her aunt (Bron) whom she acts as a caretaker to.

She seems like a nice enough albeit naive woman but I’m not sure that she’s got the personality to base an entire movie around – and that isn’t a knock against Linney. She fares much better than Murray however, who doesn’t resemble FDR in the slightest and whose attempt to mimic the distinctive style of speech and accent of the President is simply ghastly. A very big issue – and this isn’t Murray’s fault in the slightest – is that we never get much of a three dimensional portrait of FDR. We see him as a letch and as somewhat disingenuous but we never get a hint of the political savvy or of his inner strength in pulling the country out of a depression and overcoming polio. Instead he sems mostly to hold to the parody image of Bill Clinton as an insatiable womanizer.

The surrounding cast is pretty good, particularly West and Colman as the somewhat befuddled royals who are on the one hand afraid and self-conscious but on the other hand not really sure what to do. We met West’s Bertie in The King’s Speech played with a little more charisma by Colin Firth but West carries the weak chin and frustration of a lifelong stutterer very well. Colman gets the haughty attitude of a Royal who is quite unsure if she’s being made sport of.

Williams also captures the forthright shoot-from-the-hip attitude I always imagined Eleanor Roosevelt to have, although like Murray her accent is distracting. The movie has a bit of a sense of whimsy in the humor (the looks on the faces of the Royals as King George VI is served a hot dog is priceless) but where it lacks is in heart. I was left unmoved for the most part and would have wished that the legacy of President Roosevelt didn’t get trashed by making him out to be the sort of man who thought first with his genitals. I believe him to be a much more complex character than that and that’s precisely what we didn’t get and despite delivering a beautifully shot, meticulously detailed film, we don’t get a movie that is anything more than an ABC Family movie for the middle aged.

REASONS TO GO: Captures some of the cult of personality around FDR and of the era he lived in. Reduces a crucial point in history into a soap opera.

REASONS TO STAY: We really don’t get a sense of FDR the man other than as a complete jerkwad and Murray seems content to caricature him rather than explore him.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality and some fairly adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daisy’s real name was Margaret Suckley and she was one of four women at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia when Roosevelt passed away.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Flowers

UPSTATE NEW YORK LOVERS: I’m not 100% sure if they filmed the exteriors in the Hudson Valley near where these events actually took place but it does look as if they did and those exteriors are just breathtaking.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack Reacher

W.


W

The easy crack would be of Dubya conversing with intellectual equals, but that would be TOO easy.

(Lionsgate) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfus, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffud, Thandie Newton, Jesse Bradford, Toby Jones. Directed by Oliver Stone

When all is said and done, one of the most fascinating political figures of the last fifty years is George W. Bush. Love him or hate him, there is simply no in-between.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone is known for his liberal viewpoint and he’s no stranger to making movies about chief executives (Nixon). He is also known for playing fast and loose with facts in order to get his point across.

He doesn’t do that here. This is a remarkable movie in that sense, what appears to be a sincere attempt to understand a president who has been, in many ways, a complete mystery. It’s not the facts of his life that are in dispute; it’s just that people can’t figure out how this guy became president and then once he became president, why he made the decisions he did.

Josh Brolin is in the title role and he plays the President starting from his frat years at Yale all the way to his last year as President. He gets his mannerisms down pat, just nails them and yet refrains from making his performance a Saturday Night Live caricature. If you ever doubted that Josh Brolin is a fine actor, one glimpse of his performance here will dissuade any notion of that.

The story is not told chronologically for a reason. Stone’s intent is not to tell the story of Bush’s presidency but to examine the man in the office. It looks at his daddy issues, as his father George H.W. Bush (Cromwell) seems to favor his brother Jeb over him, and it’s certainly understandable. George drinks heavily, parties like a fiend and is generally successful at nothing.

His father is skeptical when George runs for Governor of Texas and surprised when he wins. It does serve to change his opinion of his son somewhat, to the point where he asks him to run his campaign (which he loses to Clinton).

His relationship with Laura (Banks) is central to the movie and we can see her influence on him and how much her support helped him grow. There is no doubt that he is a family man and that he has a spiritual side that is strong and sincere.

The actors for the most part capture their roles perfectly. Dreyfus and Wright do wonderful jobs as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, respectively. We don’t get much insight into them as people other than as they relate to Dubyah, but then this is HIS movie.

How accurate is this? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Obviously there’s no way of knowing what went on behind closed doors or what precisely was said by whom. Still, what is said and done is consistent with published accounts of the Bush presidency. I’m sure that this isn’t a 100% accurate biography of George W. Bush (his family has gone on record as saying that it is not), but then is anything? At least it seems somewhat fair-minded.

I have gone on record with my opinions of the Bush presidency on my other blog and there’s no need to rehash it here. In many ways, this movie is apolitical; the argument is that Bush was the poster boy for the Peter Principle. He was ill-prepared for the job; clearly he wasn’t capable. He had advisors that for better or worse essentially set policy. Whatever you stand is politically, you don’t need to love George W. Bush to love this movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Remarkably apolitical despite the filmmakers known political leanings, this is more an attempt to understand Bush rather than to form an opinion about him. Extremely well-cast, the actors all resemble their famous roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like many Oliver Stone films, it runs a bit longer than it probably should have.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language, depictions of drinking and smoking, a bit of sexuality and some disturbing war images; definitely this is for more mature viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Josh Brolin’s dad James played another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in the TV mini-series “The Reagans.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a documentary on the Bush family directed by Sean Stone, Oliver’s son.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Transporter 3