Playing Presidents: Good History vs. Good Drama and The Actor JFK (and Jackie) Wanted To Play Him

Whether filtered by an archivist, historian, editor, screenwriter, actor or director, perspective on the life of another person is ultimately subjective - and there's no group of people more highly susceptible to the subjective than the presidents.
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With the mini-series The Kennedys in the midst of its consecutive episodes this week, the controversy it has engendered begs for a reminder of what it is -- and isn't. Good history does not always make good drama, and good drama rarely makes good history. A film or TV movie that achieves both is a challenge. Those about presidents have generally failed to meet it. Perhaps it is near impossible when one first considers how subjective the very idea of "good history" and "good drama" really is. It has produced films and television movies ranging from those excellent as both drama and history, like Sunrise at Campobello (1960) about Franklin Roosevelt's pre-presidency confrontation of his polio to the purely fictional and melodramatic Sally Hemings (2000), based on a novel about Thomas Jefferson's real but largely undocumented relationship with a slave.

The historian narrates based on facts. When facts are missing or conflicting, a conclusion might still be offered, if identified as speculation. A film, television or stage drama can't do that without being disruptive. A documentary can. Richard III was more than the character depicted in Shakespeare's play Richard III, but don't blame him for distorting history. His first responsibility was to drama, and however great its potential to educate, its purpose is to entertain. If people watch a movie and believe it is history, someone close might think of giving them a non-fiction book about the topic on their next birthday. However a disservice to history such dramatic depictions might be, as long as it is sold as "historical drama" and not "dramatic history" it has done its job.

Real life rarely unfolds into the three-act structure of challenge, conflict and resolution as it does in the movies. Even those films advertised as "historically accurate," necessarily remove small and subtle incidents along the way, thus distorting what remains from the genuine sequence of events. Without edits to emphasize the turning points, even those watching for the history would be distracted in boredom by the clutter that would kill the drama. What's true of biographical film also applies to biographical books. My first draft of a forthcoming book on the McKinleys was over 1,000 pages. It had to be cut at least in half. Yet, technically, by editing out what's deemed superfluous and keeping in what makes it true and compelling is still taking license with the record.

And how accurate is any documentation used as research for a movie or a book? A memoir is still one person's perception and presentation of the events in which they participated. An interview is just their subjective memory. The only absolutely true historical record are volumes of all the known published writings of a person, not their "edited" or "selected" papers, letting a reader make their own judgments. Leaving out a mundane receipt could have an impact if, for hypothetical purposes, it was Ulysses S. Grant's purchase of whiskey or cigars during a crucial Civil War battle. Even letters written during a crisis can be composed with intent to leave a viewpoint for what may eventually become public record, even subconsciously. Published soon after his 1972 death, Harry Truman's family letters, for example, often express his testimony on public events more than his feelings for wife and daughter.

Whether filtered by an archivist, historian, editor, screenwriter, actor or director, perspective on the life of another person is ultimately subjective - and there's no group of people more highly susceptible to the subjective than the presidents. Political symbols by their very nature, always with adulating and denigrating constituencies.

Any dramatization of a president's life will never win universal approval. Consider Oliver Stone's W. (2008). Before it was released, supporters of the incumbent President feared the film would unfairly attack him, yet were largely mute when it proved more nuanced. Yet for the larger majority of Bush critics who also believed it would be an attack, it seemed too sympathetic.

Still, if the best dramatic characters are those with complexities, there's no greater pool of material than the lives of the presidents. Most of them were secretly ambitious for the job several decades before they got it, yet let others first suggest the idea they should run. Behind a façade of modesty, however, many were ruthlessly willing to sacrifice emotional well-being and risk professional stability and navigating towards the presidency meant learning to compromise with the timing of a cellist. Scratch their egos and a myriad of emotional motive are suggested. Did JFK and W. really grasp for the presidency to please their fathers? Was rootlessness behind Obama's drive, disability behind FDR's, lack of social standing behind Nixon's and Lincoln's?

There's more poignant struggle for those with internal conflict about exercising power or who inherited the job and suddenly find themselves challenged by outside events into making reactive choices of unclear consequence. The most compelling aspect of the TV movie Truman (1995) had that small-town chap facing a stark decision to end a world war by unleashing the atomic bomb. Tennessee Johnson (1942), a movie now rarely seen, remains relevant in 2011. Starring obscure actor Van Heflin as obscure southern Andrew Johnson, thrust into office by Lincoln's assassination, he proves that integrity is the best defense as he fights the northern congressman seeking to destroy him in the first presidential impeachment trial. Liberties, however, were taken with factual detail, though the primary storyline is accurate.

No matter how important a president, if a dramatic adaptation of their life fails to force them as characters to face their deficiencies and dark side, it rapidly deteriorates into a period farce. Few are worthier than George Washington, but there's a reason no great drama about him has been produced. His military role in the French and Indian War, and the Revolution both offer good strategic plots if told as military action drama, a genre without crossover demographic appeal. To engage as wide an audience as possible in the overall story of his monumental persona, the mini-series George Washington (1984, 1986) would have required the stretch of truth that he harbored discrete interest in women other than his wife to boldly consider adultery. The series is praiseworthy for historical accuracy in not doing this, yet his repression of passion ends up having no impact on his character arc, and thus no purpose in a movie, other than preventing him from seeming one-dimensional. It's a reason why many great books but no great dramas have ever been produced on George Washington.

Audiences accept dramatic license if used honestly. In Nixon (1995) for example, the President calls his wife Pat by the nickname "Buddy." Fact one, Nixon never called her "Buddy." Fact two, her teenage friends all called her "Buddy." Fact three, Nixon's character of Pat accurately plays the role of a loyal, loving, supportive buddy. Having just adapted my own book Florence Harding into a feature script, it was clear that making all of Harding's Cabinet into separate characters would clutter the drama. Instead, only those three whose nefarious deeds led to the Harding scandals appear but with dialogue from deliberations among the whole Cabinet. Both seem reasonable use of dramatic license. Showing "Buddy" advising Nixon on Watergate or pinning all the Harding scandals on one Cabinet member would not.

Purely fictional film stories which appropriate a president as supporting character can often convey them more accurately in sketch than can a laborious cradle-to-grave biopic with a political agenda. Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) mixes up Grover Cleveland in the imaginary story of Chief Sitting Bull's secret plan to exploit Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which exploits the Indians. As unwittingly complicit representative of the unresponsive political system who's distracted by his pretty young bride, Pat McCormick's Cleveland may be an artful caricature in a fantasy comedy but the characterization of good, but distracted intentions offer a pithy glimpse into a truth about this president who supported Hawaii's sovereignty yet lacked activism on its behalf.

Compare that to the didactic Wilson (1944) starring Alexander Knox. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck's labor of love it was an endless and overproduced spectacle with an idealistic political agenda which ignored the President's uglier racism. In the film Wilson takes the nation through World War I but then fails in his effort to gain support of his vision of a League of Nations to end future wars and falls ill. Wilson was released as an ailing Franklin Roosevelt was campaigning for his fourth term as President and national dialogue was beginning to focus on a United Nations to avoid future conflicts.

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