Issue 3: Article—Political Figures on Screen

Each issue, RSL offers up that perennial internet favourite: the themed list. Following on from this issue’s analysis of Selma, we take a quick look at a few political figures who have been brought memorably to life on the big screen over the past 15 years…

The Iron Lady (2011)

Iron Lady

Who? Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), UK Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 and the leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. A Russian journalist nicknamed her the ‘Iron Lady’, a moniker that became synonymous with her uncompromising leadership style.

On screen? The great Meryl Streep was a somewhat surprising choice to step into the shoes of one the most controversial figures in UK politics. Streep picked up an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for the performance.

Reality check: Streep reportedly prepared for the role by watching broadcasts of Thatcher and spoke with people who knew her, including former opposition leader Neil Kinnock, who faced the real Iron Lady in the House of Commons.

Thirteen Days (2000)
13 Days
Who? John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), US President from January 1961 until his assassination in Dallas in November 1963. Occupied the White House during the tense Cuban Missile Crisis, which is the focus of the film.

On screen? Portrayed on screen on numerous occasions, before and since; on this occasion it was Bruce Greenwood who was selected to portray the popular president. The film tells of tense negotiations over the titular time period, during which the US teetered on the brink of nuclear war with the former Soviet Union.

Reality check: Greenwood and Steven Culp, who portrayed Robert F. Kennedy (JFK’s brother and US Attorney General), would reportedly engage in arguments off screen in character. Additionally, much of the film’s dialogue is taken from tapes Kennedy kept of White House meetings.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)Last King

Who? Idi Amin (1925-2003), President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. His regime was characterised by human rights abuses, political oppression and ethic persecution. It is estimated the number of people killed as a result of his regime was between 100,000 and 500,000.

On screen? The job of finding a spark of humanity in this brutal figure fell to Forest Whitaker. The focus of the film is actually on a young Scottish doctor who comes to Uganda to assist in a rural hospital and soon crosses paths with Amin, himself a fan of Scotland. Whitaker picked up an Oscar for his performance.

Reality check: Apparently Whitaker stayed in character throughout the shoot, even when not on set, and put on nearly 50 pounds in weight in preparation for the role.

Frost/Nixon (2008)
Frost Nixon
Who? Richard Nixon (1913-1994), US President from 1969 to 1974. He became the only US president to resign the office. His name is synonymous with the ‘Watergate’ scandal, which started when five men were caught breaking into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.

On screen? Frank Langella stepped into Nixon’s shoes for the film, which centres on taped post-Watergate TV interviews with UK broadcast journalist, David Frost (Michael Sheen). Langella was Oscar-nominated for role. He and Sheen previously played their roles in the stage version, for which Langella also won a Tony.

Reality check: Apparently other cast and crew called Langella ‘Mr President’ throughout the shoot and he said afterwards that almost none of the crew ever met the real Frank Langella. In fact, all the actors reportedly remained in character throughout shooting, even when the cameras stopped rolling.

The Last Mitterand (Le promeneur du champ de Mars) (2005)

Last Mitt 1Who? François Mitterrand (1916-1996), President of France from 1981 to 1995. Mitterrand is the longest-serving President of France. He started out on the Catholic nationalist right but moved to the left and served as leader of the Socialist Party.

On screen? Michel Bouquet portrayed the elderly statesman recounting his life story to the journalist who is putting together the president’s memoirs. Bouquet won a César Award for his performance.

Reality check: While the film is a fictional work, it’s inspired by Georges-Marc Benamou’s controversial book, Le Dernier Mitterrand. The book was based on Benamou’s account of his conversations with the real Mitterrand.

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)


Who? Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), US President from 1933 to his death in April 1945 (winning a record four elections). He led the US during a time of economic depression and World War II.

On screen? The one and only Bill Murray! The film centres on an alleged clandestine love affair between FDR and Margaret Suckley. It largely takes place during a weekend in 1939 when the President hosted the British monarch at his upstate New York estate. An otherwise soggy and uneven film is lit up by Murray’s lively and eccentric performance, for which he won a Golden Globe.

Reality check: The film is based on Suckley’s private journals and diaries, which were discovered after her death. However, historians have cast serious doubt over the accuracy of the events, as portrayed.

W. (2008)
Who? George W. Bush (1946-current), US President from 2001 to 2009 and son of George H.W. Bush (President from 1989 to 1993). The younger Bush was in charge at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and spearheaded the ‘war on terror’, including the controversial conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On screen: Josh Brolin stepped into the much-maligned President’s shoes for Oliver Stone’s irreverent look at the life and presidency of  ‘dubya’. Released while Bush was still in office, this is a fragmented and slightly surreal film which has no love for its central character, who is portrayed as a reformed hard-drinking buffoon living off his father’s dime who finds himself out of his depth as the leader of the free world.

Reality check: Brolin reportedly prepared for his role by telephoning hotels in Texas and talking to the people to hear the accent. He also watched videos of Bush so he could mimic his walk. And yes, the film does include Bush’s immortal line, “Is our children learning?”…

Next issue, we take a look at some historical films that got history dead wrong!

Issue 4 of RSL is out on 6 July 2015.