Leading Men: When You’re Done at the Voting Booth, Head for the Box Office

Linney and Murray in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson.’ (Courtesy Nicola Dove/©Focus Features)

WITH THE ELECTION UPON US, it’s worthwhile to remember that movies have always been a good place to brush up on your presidential history—even if only of the kind that follows Hollywood’s rules. Filed under Presidential Villainy, you’ll find Nixon, Frost/Nixon and Dick (all taking on the 37th leader of the free world), Primary Colors (a thinly veiled, and pathologically power-hungry, 42th), and W (Oliver Stone’s self-parodic assessment of the 43rd). Hagiographies are, of course, more common: John Adams (on HBO), Jefferson in Paris, Young Mr. Lincoln, Pearl Harbor, with its heroic and unexpectedly mobile Franklin Roosevelt, the missile-crisis-averting Kennedy of Thirteen Days: the list goes on. This past summer, presidential hero-worship reached a nadir of incoherence, with Abraham Lincoln reinvented for the screen as a vampire hunter. And films currently in production include Michael Douglas as Reagan in the just-announced Reykjavik and a passel of stars playing Kennedy, Eisenhower, Johnson et al. in Lee Daniels’s The Butler.

This fall, the lines at the voting booths will be followed by lines at the box office for two more presidential flicks. Lincoln, a Steven Spielberg production based upon the work of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (to be released November 16), has the rarely working Daniel Day-Lewis on board as the 16th president. Meanwhile, Hyde Park on Hudson (December 7) gives us Bill Murray playing Franklin Roosevelt as a jovial upper-crust gent whose social graces allow for a key alliance with King George VI as World War II looms.

At a glance, the two films would seem to have little in common: Lincoln has a hefty cast of eminent actors playing everyone from first son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). Hyde Park on Hudson (directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame) is a chamber piece by comparison, telling the story of a single weekend retreat bearing global implications. But Hyde Park on Hudson comes from the Thirteen Days school—it uses a discrete period of time as a crucible for presidential character—and Lincoln, according to early buzz and despite its ambitious title, does the same, zooming in on a few pivotal months. Mr. Spielberg told Empire: “The Lincoln story only takes place in the last few months of his Presidency and life. I was interested in how he ended the war through all the efforts of his generals … but more importantly how he passed the 13th Amendment into constitutional law.” Both films magnify the most crucial and admired periods of their subjects’ lives; they’re the inverse of the manic Nixon, say, which sought to convey the totality of Tricky Dick. And they raise the question of why American Presidents are such compelling figures of popular myth—what is it about political animals that make them so ripe for big-screen treatment?

THAT THEY EXPIRED IN OFFICE MAKES Lincoln and Roosevelt highly cinematic characters, said presidential historian H. W. Brands. “The mythologizing came at the moment of their sudden and unexpected death,” he said by phone from his office at the University of Texas. “It’s the reason JFK continues to live in the popular imagination beyond the accomplishments of his presidency. We can remember all the possibilities.”

Adding to their appeal as movie subjects is the fact that both Lincoln and Roosevelt died shortly after taking heroic actions on behalf of the republic. “If Lincoln had lived into Reconstruction,” said Dr. Brands, “his reputation would have suffered. If Roosevelt had had to deal with the confusion of the Cold War, he might have left the presidency as unpopular as Harry Truman in 1953.” In other words, no matter how exemplary a president Woodrow Wilson may have been, leading the nation through the Civil War and the Great Depression and World War II  just makes for more memorable big-screen moments than, say, forming the League of Nations. (And it’s in the nature of films to draw our attention to the presidents’ great moments, rather than their workaday ones. “Were I making a film about Lincoln, I would make a film about the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Dr. Brands. “I would not show the suspension of habeas corpus—which makes him just another politician.”)

TOUGH TIMES MAKE FOR POPULAR leaders. When Americans are polled on who was the best president, Roosevelt, Lincoln and George Washington almost always come out on top, said historian and Columbia University professor Eric Foner. “All of them were presidents during some time of crisis or another,” he explained. For Dr. Foner, major crises, like war or economic depression, explain individual presidents’ popularity more than the circumstances of their deaths. “James Garfield was assassinated, you don’t see many movies about him.”

One thing you’re unlikely to see onscreen is the negative reactions to the great presidents. “Roosevelt was hated by most of the press,” Dr. Foner said. “There are still people out there who consider both Roosevelt and Lincoln tyrants. Go on the internet, you’ll see these neoconservative groups telling you Lincoln ran roughshod over liberty and even introduced the income tax. He introduced the welfare state and social security. I’m not sure the controversies have completely died down.”

And yet a portion of the presidents’ fascination derives from the divergent feelings they inspired in those they led. Roosevelt, said Dr. Foner, “was a man where, people hated him, people loved him—but he was a man who was a leader. He was the face of America as a power.”

Or, as Dr. Brands put it, “Great leaders are not uniters, they’re dividers.”

On film, symbolism and power matter more than bad press: in general, filmmakers have elided the controversies that dogged Lincoln and Roosevelt, by portraying the former as a young man (or a vampire slayer), and the latter as the hero of World War II (despite the fact that his presidency saw much foot-dragging over entering the war at all).

Before celluloid, of course, presidents were lionized in verse: Abraham Lincoln was a heroic subject in the poetry of Walt Whitman and, later, Carl Sandburg. Roosevelt, Dr. Brands pointed out, died at the advent of the newsreel, “so there was the moving image of Franklin Roosevelt.” Audiences were reminded of their departed leader’s greatness in a whole new, highly convincing way: by way of a looped image.

In the translation to film, historical accuracy is generally respected, aside from certain aesthetic tweaks. Asked where his film (which extrapolates an affair from the diaries of Roosevelt friend Margaret Suckley) diverges from historical documents, Hyde Park on Hudson screenwriter Richard Nelson cited the way the doors open in Roosevelt’s cottage. “The doors open out [in the film], and in real life, they slide. There was just a dramatic moment when we had to open the door out.”

A bit of poetic license, even with such revered figures, is hardly a crime. “When I’m asked a question about historical fiction or film, I take the Shakespearean view,” said Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. “I’m not a stickler for strict historical accuracy, I’m a stickler for poetic truth. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.”

THIS FALL’S DOUBLE DOSE of presidential films might serve as something of a corrective to the prevailing distrust of politicians. (Remember the rampant speculation, just after Barack Obama took office, that he might someday be the subject of a film, possibly to star Will Smith? Well, love him or hate him, four years of political battles have cooled Hollywood on the Prez.) “Presumably the people making this want to take us back to a time when leaders could really inspire us,” said Dr. Brands. England may be trending in the same direction, with recent films about heroic leaders from Elizabeth I (played by Cate Blanchett) to Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) to Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, to Hyde Park on Hudson supporting character George VI (whom Colin Firth played as a lead role in The King’s Speech).

In the absence of contemporary political heroes, there’s an appeal to the glorious Lincoln and Roosevelt of the silver screen. “We’ve had a lot of presidents lately where it’s hard to say people should emulate them,” said Dr. Foner. “Clinton—I don’t want my children to emulate him. Bush—definitely a loser. Perhaps Obama, when he came in, before the bitter partisanship.”

Just don’t rely on the movies as your only source. “What my students know about history comes with JFK and Gone with the Wind,” Dr. Foner lamented. Dr. Brands, though, seems to accept cinema’s role as reinforcer of inspirational myth, citing Davy Crockett (whose rugged persona was an invention of the popular culture of the time). “It’s in the nature of retrospective views like this, where you’re selective. And you select those parts of the historical record that suit your purpose. If Franklin Roosevelt is just like any politician today, why bother going to the theater?”

As for those who complain that there are just too many movies about the great presidents, fans like Mr. Perlstein, the Nixonland author, would tell them that, with the right subject, too much is never enough. “If you’re tired of Lincoln, you’re tired of life. His life and his times are more fascinating than anything we deserve to enjoy.”

Leading Men: When You’re Done at the Voting Booth, Head for the Box Office