Five Portrayals of Politicians In Movies

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The news must have had every paid up member of the Conservative Party choking on their breakfast cup of tea. In a thousand Home Counties bungalows, men called Jeremy or Brian must have reached for their writing paper and fountain pens to compose a strongly worded letter to the Telegraph. The reason behind their outrage was the actress Meryl Streep. Or to put it more precisely, not Meryl Streep herself. Jeremy and Brian probably quite like Meryl Streep. What they can’t tolerate is the idea of Meryl Streep, American as crippling medical bills, donning a wig, putting on an accent and playing Margaret Thatcher.

The Iron Lady opens in cinemas this week. Opinion on Thatcher as a person might be divided, but opinion on Streep’s portrayal of the woman who invented Mr Whippy icecream and kicked the Argies out of a sodden little pile of rock called the Falklands, is unanimous. Streep, for all she comes from the wrong side of the pond, has the Iron Lady nailed.

Which all goes to show that portraying a national icon on screen can be difficult: you not only have to look and sound right, you have to get across the essence of a person who epitomizes not only themselves, but also a period in history. It’s a tall order. Here are five who, like Streep, have made that attempt, with varying degrees of success.

Anthony Hopkins as Nixon

If an American playing a Brit sticks in the national throat, how does a Brit fare playing an American President? In Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon (, Welshman Anthony Hopkins essays the role of Tricky Dicky in his final weeks in office, as Watergate thunders towards him like a Chieftain tank with “Crisis” stenciled on its steel plate side. Stone originally wanted Tom Hanks for the role, but he was far too likeable. Hopkins on the other hand, specializes in playing characters whose appear to have a sheet of inch thick glass between them and the world, so he made an obvious candidate for the role of a man whose strongest emotional connection was with a good bottle of bourbon.

Hopkins does a reasonable job even if he looks nothing like Nixon himself. The biggest challenge the actor faced was getting Nixon’s unctuous delivery right: Paul Sorvino ( – who played Henry Kissinger – took Hopkins aside and offered advice on how to replicate Nixon’s accent, a gesture which backfired when Hopkins promptly quit the production, presumably unconvinced that Nixon should sound like he came from a close knit Italian family located somewhere in New Jersey. Hopkins was coaxed back in front of the camera by Stone,

Simon Ward as Churchill

Cross cultural boundaries aside, here’s an example of a Brit playing a Brit. Actually of a Brit playing one of the most famous British politicians of all time: Winston Churchill.

The Young Winston, made by Richard Attenborough in 1972, tells the story of Churchill’s early life: from being farmed out to a boy’s public school which makes Guantanamo seem like a holiday camp, to his work as a war correspondent in Africa and ending with his first election to Parliament. Fair haired, wide browed Simon Ward was an unknown when Attenborough picked him for the role of Churchill as a young man. It was a wise choice: although Ward is substantially better looking than Churchill (who in later years looked exactly like a large, irascible baby) his resemblance to the real man is much stronger than the others in this list, making it that much easier for the audience to believe in the character. Ward also supplied the voice over for the film, which was based largely on Churchill’s own memoirs, and does an uncannily good job of replicating Churchill’s instantly recognizable growl.

Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln

From probably-the-most-famous British politician to probably-the-most-famous American president, none other than the chinstrap bearded Abe himself and another film which takes the early life of the politician as its subject. While Attenborough’s film came under some fire for idealizing Churchill’s youth, particularly his time as a journalist in Africa, at least it had a hold, if only a weak one, on reality. Young Mr Lincoln – directed by John Ford in 1939 – can’t even lay claim to a toehold on the truth. Even though Lamar Trotti received an Oscar for his screenplay, it wasn’t because the script gave us a better understanding of how Lincoln rose above his humble beginnings to become Leader of the Free World. Young Mr Lincoln is the type of slushy melodrama which went down a treat with wartime audiences: rousing speeches, women in bustles dabbing their eyes, syrupy violins telling us when to get out our hankies – and this from the man who gave us such muscular fare as Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath. I can only imagine that when Ford took this project on, he was suffering from an uncharacteristic and fortunately unrepeated attack of hormones.

As for Fonda’s performance, hampered by a prosthetic nose which gives him an uncanny resemblance to Sam the Eagle from The Muppets, he looks stiff and uncomfortable throughout the film. And his vocal delivery – close your eyes and what you hear is pure John Wayne. Maybe Ford wasn’t being that prissy after all.

Josh Brolin as George W Bush

Oliver Stone seems to have a fancy for taking totally unlikeable Presidents and devoting millions of dollars of good money to confirming our opinion that there wasn’t much to admire about them. He did it for Nixon and in 2008’s W he does it for Dubya, giving us a result which while it isn’t a hatchet job, doesn’t exactly portray it’s subject in what anyone could call a flattering light.

In casting the actor who would capture his vision of Bush, Stone chose Josh Brolin an interesting decision given that Brolin is a card carrying Democrat, but perhaps not all that surprising when you remember that Stone is as well. Like Hopkins and Fonda, Brolin looks nothing like his subject. In an interview he admitted “we had to do a lot with prosthetics”, but claimed the Texas accent was a cinch. The result is watchable, but not convincing. The key to Bush’s persona lies in his dull, anxious little eyes and Brolin is way too intelligent to capture the essence of a man who, once out of range of an autocue, had the conversational skills and wit of a Texas swamp rabbit.

Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler

And in the spirit of saving the best until last, the final performance is an untouchable tour de force. In Downfall (Der Untergang) directed by Oliver Hirchbeigel and released in 2004, Bruno Ganz doesn’t so much play Adolf Hitler as become him. Ganz spent months preparing for the role, studying not just the oratory we’re familiar with, but tapes of Hitler in conversation to give his portrayal greater accuracy. The result was so successful that the film came under fire for making Der Fuhrer too human. This was the man who was directly responsible for the Holocaust and one of the most violent and murderous conflicts in history and seeing Ganz convey the dictator’s exhaustion and despair as everything he has worked towards falls apart was too much for some critics to stomach. And yet, as others pointed out, it’s Hirchbeigel’s and writer Bernd Eichinger’s refusal to make Hitler one-dimensional which elevates this film to greatness. Even as the screenplay reveals Hitler’s better side, Ganz uses his ruined, corrupt features to never allow us to forget that this was a man whose entire motivation was based on hatred, fear and suspicion. It’s more than well rounded: it’s a compelling, unbeatable piece of work.

With not one but three films about Abraham Lincoln in production, the supply of movies about world leaders shows no sign of drying up. Daniel Day Lewis is sure to do a better job than Fonda in Spielberg’s Lincoln (no one wears a beard with quite the same conviction as Day Lewis) but when it comes to as yet uncovered Presidential subjects, interesting possibilities open up. I’ve always thought Ben Affleck would make a great Ronald Reagan – but looking forward is even better. One day, someone’s going to make a film about Obama and when they do, I’m tipping Will Smith for the part. With Beyonce as Michelle. Don’t forget, you read it here first…

– Cath Murphy


  1. Antony says

    It appears you are using the name ‘Cath Murphy’. My apologies.

  2. Antony says

    Addendum: In case someone feels moved to remind us of Dickie casting ‘Ben Kingley’ as Ghandi, I remind them, in turn, that Ben Kingsley is not English, having started life as Krishna Pandit Bhanji. You take liberties with white history and culture in Hollywood, no-one else’s.

  3. Antony says

    It is unmitigated twaddle to suggest that film furnishes insight into the truth of a character or period or event. What ‘truth’ about Churchill’s time in Africa did Dickie’s film conceal or at the very least fail to reveal? What was it we should have known about ‘Honest Abe’ that might have supplied enough ammunition to deny the writer’s Oscar?

    We didn’t know Abe wanted blacks repatriated to Africa, or the implications of the COMPLETE Jeffersonian phrase about ‘all men’ being ‘created equal’. We weren’t told (though someone knew the truth). Whose to say he was wrong trillions of dollars and untold welfare cheques later? Will Smith may be the last crusading bacteriologist alive – a Legend – but he’s almost certainly the only black in that profession.

    Collective liberal delusion inspires articles like this, to say nothing of an intellectual dishonesty that makes film a medium of importance when it is anything but. Film, the moving image, is mind candy. It is propaganda for the masses. It always was. Film is throwaway, what you get in a cheap, throwaway world, all we deserve, which isn’t much, and all we receive, a cost to our psychological health we pay in its entirety.

    Investing cinema with a sanctity and worth it scarcely merits won’t make you look any cleverer ‘Tweet’. Not to me anyway. ‘Tmack’ could be a different story. He’s easier, a born mug. He thinks Che Guevara was revolutionary. ‘Tmack’ is the perfect film-goer – one of Orwell’s ‘slogan-swallowers’ [but not female as far as we know]; his vocabulary being as loose as his grasp of the facts.

    I am an Englishman. For different reasons I too was no fan of Mrs Thatcher. She was not ‘fascist’ (does ‘tmack’ know the meaning of the word?). This sort of belief has its own pathology curiously enough. That is ‘tmack’s problem, or more likely one of his many.

    Don’t give up on Dickie either way ‘Tweet’. He had a statue of a mere Englishmen removed from Parliament Square to make way for one of Nelson Mandela a few years ago. He’s really on your side when you come down to it. Given the chance the old fraud would cast an African as a Norse God, or maybe Will Smith as James Bond, in pretty short order. Tom Hanks as Nelson Mandela? Didn’t think so…

  4. tmack says

    It’s hard for me to get excited about watching a movie about Margaret Thatcher; I detested the woman. I regarded her as a fascist reactionary. I still haven’t watched W or Nixon–as much as I love Brolin and Hopkins. I finally some time ago relented to see Bruno Ganz as Hitler and discovered a surprisingly fascinating film. Bruno Ganz is another of my favorite all time actors with a face that melts your heart. His acting is always pitch perfect.

    I do better watching left wing revolutionary activist types than movies about reactionary politicians…but I’ll give it a shot. Meryl Streep has rarely failed at anything big like this throughout her career.

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