The new film about Franklin Delano Roosevelt pretends to pay tribute to a simpler political time, but actually brings the 32nd president in for some modern-day scandalizing.
Historical epics produced by Hollywood inevitably say more about the era in which they're produced than the eras they present. The latest two examples, Lincoln and the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt biopic Hyde Park on Hudson, reflect the negativity the American people now feel towards political culture, although only one of them responds with anything constructive. In Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg looks back with reverence to a time when government was harnessed to fix America's biggest problem, and provides a bit of optimism to ease our post-election weariness. On the surface, Hyde Park offers that same reverence for a bygone era, but it is driven by a deep cynicism—and is built on the systems of political exploitation and titillation that it claims to decry.
Based on a BBC radio play, the screenplay for Hyde Park intertwines FDR's affair with his distant cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney), with the first visit to America by King George VI (Samuel West) and Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). FDR and Eleanor (Olivia Williams) host the nervous monarchs, who are hoping to earn a pledge of support for their war against Germany. The historical details, however, are just set dressing. The real purpose of the film is to give audiences a glimpse at the president's sordid personal life. It makes an important point about how celebrity culture infuses our politics, but it is not the one director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson were trying to make.
If you were to believe the filmmakers, Hyde Park paints a lush portrait of a simpler political time, when our leaders' personal lives were their own business. Daisy tell us as much in voice-over, and there is also a lengthy scene in which FDR, playing father to the boyish King George, reassures him that the people of both their countries are uninterested in uncovering their politicians' flaws. The film, however, is interested in nothing but those flaws, starting with a crude scene in the president's car in which he consummates his relationship with Daisy. The great president is shown to be a bit of a free spirit, indulging in more than one love affair at a time. Eleanor gets in on the action, as well; there have always been rumors about the sexual preference of the First Lady, but this film chooses to be certain of it.
Because Hyde Park projects the values of the sexual revolution onto the New Deal president and his wife, some might presumptively classify it as a political exercise in character assassination. It is an easy claim to make: Republicans have used the terminology and imagery of the counterculture in their efforts to attack Democrats for years, from George McGovern to Obama. To suggest that the film has a political intent, however, would be giving the filmmakers too much credit. Hyde Park has only one purpose: To capitalize on the revelation that FDR had mistresses and to make a quick buck off of it. There is simply no other coherent thought to be found in the film. The story of the King and Queen's weekend with the president is given no thematic connection to the love affair, and none of the characters reveal much sign of intelligence or humanity outside of their most primal impulses.