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.
All of which makes Hyde Park very much a product of the current political era's tawdry obsession with fame and celebrity.The film may have the look of a prestige picture, but it plays more like a version of FDR's life as told by TMZ, focusing on naughty details and ignoring the historical implications of the events depicted (like, say, the fact that the conversations between FDR and King George might well end up determining the fate of the modern world).
Few filmmakers in the relatively small field of those who have made movies about U.S. presidents have been audacious enough to try something like this. Thirteen Days dramatically fills in the details of JFK's most important foreign policy success, the Cuban Missile Crisis, with nary a word of the president's legendary personal life. By making one of JFK's advisors the central character instead of the president himself, the filmmakers allow him to remain somewhat elusive and do not risk breaking his myth. Oliver Stone's presidential trilogy of JFK, Nixon, and W., on the other hand, were squarely focused on the deconstruction of American political myths, but the films were all so full of overt speculation that the legacies of their subjects remained largely untouched (at least, in the last two cases, no further harm was applied).
The film may have an air of historical significance, but since the affair between FDR and Daisy amounts to nothing, neither does the story.
The most recent entry in the genre, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, may offer the best contrast of all. The tone is largely worshipful—this is Spielberg, after all—but the time we spend with Lincoln the human adds more weight to the other material. In the more personal scenes, such as his monologue on Euclid offered to two low-level staffers, the film fulfills the audience's expectations of a peek behind the White House curtains and bolsters its message about good democracy in action by showing that actual, relatable people passed the 13th Amendment.
Hyde Park seems similar on the surface. It also reduces its subject from myth to man. The man it presents, however, is defined not by his humanity but by base desires and embarrassing secrets. The other characters are that way, too. Daisy embarks on an affair with FDR simply because she is awed by his presence and the two seem to enjoy each other's company. Rich details in costuming and set design may lend the proceedings an air of historical significance, but because the affair amounts to nothing, neither does the film. This is not the critical deconstruction of a myth; it is the exploitation of that myth for box-office success.
This central failure of the film crushes everything within it. Many have wondered how Bill Murray would fare in such a role, and they may leave the theater still wondering. His gift for subtle bemusement is no asset playing the larger-than-life FDR, but I'm not sure any actor would have done much better. Murray quietly recedes, and we are left knowing little more about the man he plays than when we started. In fact, all there is to be learned from Hyde Park on Hudson is that we live in cynical times, never moreso than when we try to pretend we don't.