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Commentary: Dead Presidents and Awards Season

The election is over, thank God, but fascination with the presidency goes on. The “big three” -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt -- are back with a vengeance on the big and little screens.

George Washington

The latest edition of Assassin’s Creed takes place during the American Revolution and GW is a major character. Unfortunately, I suck at video games so I haven’t actually perused it. I throw it to the audience to add your own commentary on this game and its consequences.

Abraham Lincoln

Filmmakers have been trying to portray the Great Emancipator at least since Birth of a Nation a century ago, and with the possible exception of Raymond Massey’s portrayal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor) most have failed. He’s just too iconic. 

There’s something about being a national hero, THE national hero, that makes it difficult to do a portrayal of that person as a regular human being. In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg doesn’t do a full biography, but just concentrates on one incident, the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the first in over half a century.

For the most part, the film is a celebration of the art of lobbying. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), hires three unsavory lobbyists -- William N. Bilbo (James Spader), Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Congressman Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) -- to bribe Democrats (who were the bad guys in those days) by offering retiring and defeated congressmen patronage jobs.

While Daniel Day Lewis is utterly brilliant as Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones steals the show playing Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Congressman who led the antislavery movement -- well before there even was a Republican party -- and then the Radical Republicans. He channels Don Rickles and is a hoot. This is one of his best performances, and the whole thing is reminiscent of The West Wing in 19th century drag.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Director Roger Michel’s Hyde Park on the Hudson has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit and it just recently opened. If this one doesn’t get Bill Murray an Oscar®, he’ll never get one. The film’s got everything a Masterpiece Theater fan or political junkie would want. 

After all, there’s nothing the British are better at than a good costume drama, and the visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and his Queen (Olivia Colman) -- the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth -- to the US in 1939 is the perfect vehicle for expanding the American market.

With the Great Depression finally ending and World War II looming on the horizon, someone in the administration had decided that President Roosevelt (Murray) needed a playmate, and found one in his sixth cousin Daisy Suckley(Laura Linney), who is taking care of a very aged aunt. 

The film has the feel of Downton Abbey meets the West Wing to it, as Daisy and FDR fall in “like” with each other and what happens when she discovers he’s shagging his secretary Missy Lehand (Elizabeth Marvel), while their majesties are making a royal visit to the President in order to deliver English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s request for help after he realized he’d made a huge mistake trying to buy Germany’s Adolf Hitler off.

It’s a fun film and really nice to see history done right for a change. I remember how Spielberg really botched Martin Van Buren in Amistad a decade ago, and more recently, Oliver Stone’s horrible history series on Showtime. But with the election over and politics thankfully on the back burner for a year and a half, I don’t think we will see anything like these films in quite a while. 

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