My favorite portrayals of presidents are usually the fictional ones. Battling multiple sclerosis. Calming a doomed planet. Dogfighting with aliens. Knocking terrorists of his plane. That kind of thing. But there are, of course, some films about actual, historical presidents I like.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a remarkable piece of work. I think the people who wanted this to be JFK Part II were disappointed, because it’s more of a character study than a true indictment of Nixon. People who wanted a standard biopic were disappointed… because it’s Oliver Stone. But Stone and Anthony Hopkins managed to show Nixon as a raving megalomaniac… and as a scared little boy in a man’s body. You were frightened of him, but also sorry for him.
In Thirteen Days, Bruce Greenwood’s Kennedy is a guy who’s kind of prickly, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but also genuinely wants to do right by the country. (And by “do right” I mean “not reduce it to radioactive ash”.) He comes off as heroic, but not superheroic.
With Spielberg’s direction, Kushner’s script, and Day-Lewis’s performance, we see something that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a historical presidential portrait. We see… a really nice guy. This film focuses on two seemingly impossible tasks: ending slavery and ending the Civil War. Seventh grade history students are generally taught that one led to the other in a neat package. But this movie shows (assuming it’s accurate) that history wasn’t so tidy. Time and again, Lincoln’s opponents (and his supporters) say that he can have one or the other. He can’t have both.
But, dang it, he really wants both. And he pushes and pushes. But, even though he’s comfortable with a little legal shenanigans (as shown in a remarkable speech about the Emancipation Proclamation), he’s not comfortable with downright corruption. He’ll offer patronage jobs for votes on his proposed Thirteenth Amendment, but he won’t bribe anyone directly. He’ll make passionate appeals to these Representatives’ morals, but he won’t threaten. And, in any case, he stews over these hard choices anyway.
In the film, Lincoln tells story after story, and usually the stories have a point which is relevant to the situation at hand. But, in the middle of the film, he tells a story about Ethan Allen (which is best heard from his lips) which, unless I just missed it, had no bearing on the scene. It was just a funny story. And he makes himself laugh telling it. That’s when I realized, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln may be the most likeable character I’ve seen in a film in… I don’t know… forever?