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

The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past