The Change Biopics Need?

The Barack Obama era will bring us many things, including, no doubt, a major motion picture. That may at first seem counterintuitive: After all, the story itself is certainly nowhere near completion. Asked during a Frost/Nixon junket interview in December, producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard agreed it was too early to talk about an Obama biopic. But the onetime Illinois senator’s acclaimed 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, remains a much-discussed potential movie property, and with good reason: It’s a self-contained bildungsroman, written before Obama entered politics. While the forty-fourth president’s story may have just begun, the narrative of Dreams possesses a satisfying arc all its own. With Hollywood swooning over the new commander in chief, the temptation may be too great to resist.

A movie about a sitting president is not a far-fetched notion: Just this past year, George W. Bush and moviegoers were subjected to Oliver Stone’s semi-satire W., as well as the Emmy-winning HBO movie Recount, about the catastrophic 2000 Florida battle of the ballot that landed Bush in the White House. These were a far cry from 2003’s DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, an uninten-tionally hilarious and not-at-all-balanced TV action movie about Bush’s handling of the 9/11 attacks. (It features the memorable lines: “If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me. I’ll be at home. Waiting for the bastard!”) That’s not even counting such films as Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) and Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006), which have used Bush as a comic foil for their excitable heroes. By comparison, Bill Clinton got off relatively easy—though he did have his own depiction to contend with in 1998’s Primary Colors, an adaptation of Joe Klein’s thinly veiled account of the 1992 campaign.

“Movies almost always get the basic facts wrong,” writes Richard Shenkman in the foreword to Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History. “They usually present one-dimensional presidents who are either all evil or all saint; and they perpetuate hoary myths to appease the audience’s expectations.” Formerly when Hollywood tackled the presidency, prestigious hagiography was the order of the day. The Technicolor epic Wilson (1944), starring Alexander Knox as an impossibly noble Woodrow Wilson, received ten Oscar nominations. Ralph Bellamy won accolades for his portrayal of a pre-presidency Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1960’s Sunrise at Campobello and reprised the role in the ’80s miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Lionel Barrymore was featured in the star-studded The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) as a determined and commendably homespun Andrew Jackson. Even 1942’s Tennessee Johnson, about the disgraced Andrew Johnson, who assumed the office after Lincoln’s assassination and wound up impeached, is a surprisingly admiring biopic, starring the burly and charismatic Van Heflin. Of course, John Ford’s thoroughly fictional Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), starring Henry Fonda, remains the gold standard, in part because it, too, gives us a leader well before his journey to national office.

When it comes to sitting executives, however, unflattering depictions have taken hold. Indeed, it may seem inconceivable to modern viewers that 1963 saw the release of PT 109, an action-packed World War II movie based on the heroic actions of a young John F. Kennedy from Robert Donovan’s 1961 book. The new president personally chose Cliff Robertson to portray him. (Reportedly, Warren Beatty later claimed he was Jackie’s choice.) Its reception, however, was not guaranteed: During the film’s production, Kennedy’s presidency was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs disaster. But by the time of the film’s Boston premiere in early 1963, the president was riding a wave of popularity following the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

PT 109 may have been the beginning of the end of the movies’ idealization of sitting presidents. True, the fallen Kennedy would be heroically portrayed in later films like 1974’s The Missiles of October and 2000’s Thirteen Days. (One might also include Stone’s 1991 conspiracy drama JFK, which takes place after the assassination.) But the ’60s began a dramatic shift in the portrayal of the presidency, with Richard Nixon’s rise compounding the situation: Even before Watergate, the thirty-seventh president had been ridiculed in the 1972 film Another Nice Mess, with Rich Little offering his Nixon impersonation. As the ’70s rolled on, the admiring presidential portrait became the exception rather than the rule. It would be one more historic accomplishment if Barack Obama occasions the refashioning of this very American genre.

Fame from an undisclosed location

As the Italian crime epic Gomorrah continues to rack up awards and praise, one can safely assume that writer Roberto Saviano will be watching the festivities from afar. The twenty-nine-year-old journalist, whose devastating nonfiction exposé was the basis for Matteo Garrone’s fiction film, continues to live under twenty-four-hour protection, thanks to numerous threats against him by the Camorra, the vast Neapolitan crime syndicate whose many tentacles he documented in his 2006 best seller. “I wouldn’t go back in time and unwrite the book,” Saviano wrote in the Washington Post in June 2008, soon after the film had taken the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. “But I admit that there are days when I hate it—and what it has done to my life and the life of my family.”

Despite its blistering success, so far the film has not prompted any new threats. That may be because it’s a variation on Saviano’s work. Garrone intercuts five distinct stories, weaving elements from the book into a more fluid, though still fragmented, narrative. One story, that of an overworked and underpaid expert tailor called Pasquale who falls out of favor with crime bosses when he teaches a competitor’s workers haute-couture techniques, comes directly from the book. Another, that of a wide-eyed young boy named Toto who is indoctrinated into the thug life, is the film’s invention, used to hold several unconnected incidents together. For Saviano, who is also one of six credited screenwriters, conveying the right impression was more important than were any facts in particular: “The general atmosphere was respected,” he says. “The icy gaze, the absence of stances taken, of moral judgments.” He also notes that working on the screenplay allowed him to bring a flesh-and-blood reality to his stories: “We managed to add to Gomorrah what you had to imagine in the book: faces, noises, sounds, colors, atmospheres.”

Saviano aimed to deromanticize the gangster life as seen in films like The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983): Such films traffic in fantasies of power, and Gomorrah’s stories are largely about powerlessness. One might assume that the writer would fret over a big film adaptation, but Saviano notes that he made movie rights available at the time he signed his publishing contract, before the book was even finished: “I wasn’t too worried about those rights . . . because I couldn’t even imagine the fate of Gomorrah yet.” By the time the idea of a film finally seemed ready to become a reality, he saw it as another way to keep the pressure on the Mob; indeed, he had already staged his own theatrical version, mainly to give the exposé as much visibility as possible.

The gritty, no-nonsense approach of Garrone’s film has provoked comparisons to the acclaimed American series The Wire, but for all its ground-level authenticity, the HBO show uses the interaction between the police and the underworld to propel its dramatic narrative forward. In Gomorrah (both film and book), the police are largely absent—as a result, the narrative is one of despairing stasis. On-screen, this takes on an almost dreamlike quality: Whereas Saviano’s book is a cascade of names, dates, deeds, and details, written with the breathless poetry of a young man impatient for the truth, the names and the faces are easy to forget in Garrone’s film. The film’s perspective floats casually from story to story, from character to character, the camera an observant and unhurried tourist in a strange terrain. For his part, however, Saviano believes this drifting quality represents a telling similarity between the two works: “In the film, as in the book, the audience feels suddenly taken by the hand and accompanied with no protection, defenseless in a world that perhaps it wouldn’t want to see and that it is certainly sheltered from in everyday life.” Ironically enough, the writer has now found himself reluctantly sheltered from that world.