New Historical Movie Madness!

So yesterday, the internet was all abuzz with the debut of the “42,” trailer, the new Jackie Robinson biopic featuring the music of Jay-Z. First of all, what trailer doesn’t feature the music of Jay-Z these days. Second, the introduction of this movie’s presence into my little world, sent my movie loving heart into overdrive. Historical biopics are my absolute favorite genre of movie, even though they are almost all terrible. Quentin Tarantino said it best, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘You can’t just shove a famous person’s life into a 2 hour movie and expect it to be a good exercise of film-making.’ He’s right, practically every historical biopic is fatally flawed for this reason. In these movies, the main actor is usually too old looking for the teenager scenes, and too young looking for the elderly scenes. Think “J. Edgar.” Another problem is the level of historical accuracy. Most times, historical fact is stretched for storytelling purposes in order to sensationalize the person or their story. One scene that comes to mind is from “Nowhere Boy” where fictional teenage John Lennon punches fictional teenage Paul McCartney at John’s mother’s funeral.

Needless to say, this never happened. The director of the flick, Sam Taylor-Wood, remarked that they needed a way to show John and Paul physically bonding…you know outside of their incredible musical partnership.

Another problem with historical accuracy is that sometimes its too accurate. This is the main criticism levied at Steven Spielberg’s soon to be released historical extravaganza, “Lincoln.” The film is an early bet to win a slew of Oscars because of the combination of the commercial master Spielberg, and Daniel Day-Lewis, the actor with the world’s greatest method. Lewis is known for throwing himself into roles with extremely methodical techniques and extensive research. Naturally, the excitement level for this flick was off the charts, and when the trailer hit, the general popcorn munching crowd were stunned when they heard the great Lincoln speak at last. Day-Lewis employed a high pitched, slightly whiny, Kentucky accent. By all recorded accounts, this is how Lincoln spoke. The public, used to seeing Lincoln sit majestically in the Lincoln Memorial, or gaze stoically off their pennies and 5 dollar bills, expected this man to speak with the voice of God. There was a palpable disappointment from the trailer debut because of this one minor point. For me, I loved that Daniel decided to give his Lincoln a historically accurate voicing. My problem with the trailer was the presence of too many familiar superstars dotting the canvas. I found it distracting to see Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt inserting their famous mugs in the middle of 19th Century America. To me, this should be a movie where Day-Lewis is the most famous face, and all the rest should be brilliant but lesser known character actors like Jared Harris, who plays General US Grant, and Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens. I’m not too upset though. Sometimes a trailer can’t do a great movie justice. Hopefully the film matches its hype and star power. Judge for yourself.

The next movie that I am absolutely seeing is “Hyde Park on Hudson.” The film is directed by Roger Mitchell, and stars Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Its set during a crucial visit of British Royalty to FDR’s palatial family estate in Hyde Park, New York right before the onset of World War II. For those wondering, yes, its the same King and Queen we all loved from “The King’s Speech,” though obviously played by different actors. A lot of “Lincoln’s” early hype came from the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis was able to physically embody the person of Abraham Lincoln so perfectly. The man transformed magically into that Honest Abe, even if his voice shocked people. When I see Bill Murray as FDR, I just see older Bill Murray with a cigarette holder and a fancy hat. He looks nothing like FDR, and frankly, doesn’t even really sound like him. Now, its actually not really important for an actor to look exactly like the historical figure he is portraying. If the movie and performance are great enough, you end up buying the whole thing no matter what people on the screen look and sound like. Bill gives Roosevelt a halting and mischievous voice, hinting at Bill’s expert comedy skills. There are hints of seriousness from Bill, and I hope there are more in the actual movie, because FDR was one of the country’s greatest and most brilliant Presidents, and it would be interesting to see Bill play a character of such historical gravitas. On the surface, this trailer looks sleight, as one of the biggest plot points seems to be the scandal at serving the King and Queen of England hot dogs and cocktails. Take that you poncy snobs! It also seems to be an awkward love story where we are supposed to be rooting for Franklin as he merrily cheats on his wife with Laura Linney, who plays FDR’s real life mistress. Could be great, could be a train wreck, either way, they have my money.

Now we’re going to end from where we began, with “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson. Ironically, of the three trailers, this was my favorite, even though I think this will be the worst film of the bunch. On top of being a huge fan of history, I’m even a bigger fan of baseball history. It was stunning to see the long destroyed monument to Brooklyn baseball, Ebbets Field, existing in full HD reality. Also, the vintage uniforms and realistic baseball choreography was like catnip to me. Jay-Z’s ode to Brooklyn, “Brooklyn (We Go Hard),” which bleats menacingly over the gorgeous imagery of late 40s era baseball is a great contrast. Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, the real life hero who had the good sense and courage to integrate baseball with the signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947. Having seen Ken Burns’s “Baseball” documentary a hundred times, I can tell you that Ford looks and sounds just like Rickey, and based on the trailer, I’m betting on a masterwork performance. The actor that plays Jackie Robinson, Chadwick Boseman, is a dead ringer for the man, however there is one crucial difference. Boseman gives Jackie a thunderously low and powerful voice, like a cross between Shaft and Howling Wolf, when in reality, Jackie had a high pitched, almost nerdy voice. Think Tony Gywnn. The voice Boseman uses sounds great, and it makes you wonder how much more excited people would have been for “Lincoln” if Daniel Day-Lewis employed a similarly powerful voice. Now, with all that said, why do I think this film will be the worst of the three highlighted? Well, first of all, I hope it isn’t. I have high hopes that the filmmakers will be focused and clever enough to give Jackie the story he is due. The problem is that this is being marketed as a sensationalistic movie. Jackie is being presented as the toughest, most hard loving, passionate, and heroic human beings ever, all in the span of 1:47. Now, obviously, Jackie was all those things, but being a hero in a movie is radically different then being a hero in real life. In movies, heroes tend to swerve from one adrenaline spiked moment to the next, carried on the wings of ceaseless action and drama. What’s left out is the sense of tedium, loneliness, awkwardness, and randomness that makes up the majority of anyone’s life, be they an average Joe or Niel Armstrong. Like I said, hopefully this movie lives up to its great trailer.

Well, lastly, I hope you are looking forward to these movies as much as I am. I plan to be providing extensive reviews of each one once they come out to let you know how well I think they held up to their hype, so stay tuned historical biopic junkies! First up is “Lincoln,” premiering right after election day in early November. “Hyde Park on the Hudson” is coming out December 7th, and we’ll have to wait to April 2013 for “42.”

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