Just as history has delivered many inspiring political and military leaders and others who were roguish or forgettable, so Hollywood has churned out a very mixed bag of biographical films.
From Hitler, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela through to US Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, politicians have provided fertile material for movies.
The Lady, Luc Besson's biopic of Burma's freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, which opened yesterday, is among the more worthy but dull entries in the genre.
One of the earliest bio-pics was Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which starred Maria Falconetti as the French martyr. “It all happened 500 years ago, but nevertheless as one sits in the Little Carnegie Theatre, gazing upon this remarkable motion picture, one is constantly torn between pity and hate,” The New York
At the other end of the scale, the saga of Mongolian leader Genghis Khan has been badly botched on screen due to dumb casting decisions. John Wayne was way out of his comfort zone in playing the character in Dick Powell's The Conqueror (1956), alongside Susan Hayward as the Tartar princess Bortai. Omar Sharif was marginally more believable in the title role of Genghis Khan (1965), with Stephen Boyd as his mentor-turned-enemy Jamuga.
Here's my assessment of the finest political biographical movies – and some of the less inspiring.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel's superlative chronicle of Adolf Hitler's final days, based on the recollections of his secretary, features a riveting performance by Bruno Ganz. Nominated for a foreign language Oscar, the movie fuelled a lively debate about Hitler's portrayal, prompting Roger Ebert to muse, “Is it a mistake to see him, after all, not as a monster standing outside the human race, but as just another human being?”
The Last Emperor (1987)
Bernardo Bertolucci's epic saga of the Qing Dynasty and the life of Pu Yi, China's last emperor, garnered nine Oscars including best picture, director, cinematography and adapted screenplay. It's a bit strange to hear Chinese spoken as Chinese-accented English but John Lone as the adult Pu Yi, Joan Chen as the opium-addicted Empress Wan Jung and Peter O'Toole as the Emperor's avuncular tutor, are splendid.
The Iron Lady (2011)
Meryl Streep richly deserved her second best actress Oscar as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd's classy drama, contrasting the pathos of her personal life with her dogmatic and ruthless political ideology. Jim Broadbent excels as her loyal husband Denis and Alexandra Roach, who does resemble a youthful Streep, impresses as the young Maggie.
Malcolm X (1992)
Denzel Washington shines as the slain civil rights leader in Spike Lee's rousing drama. Controversially, Lee blamed his death on a conspiracy involving a combination of people representing the Nation of Islam and the FBI.
Cry Freedom (1987)
Denzil Washington is in top form as charismatic Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough's poignant film, which explores the relationship between Biko and white newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline). As Variety's review said, “Washington does a remarkable job of transforming himself into the articulate and mesmerising Black Nationalist leader, whose refusal to keep silent led to his death in police custody and a subsequent cover-up.”
Oliver Stone's gripping account of the rise and fall of the disgraced US President is enhanced by Anthony Hopkins' performance as Richard Milhous Nixon and Joan Allen as his long suffering wife Pat, who threatened to divorce him. Hopkins portrays Nixon as paranoid, bitter, indecisive and self-pitying, with little hint of the political skills and guile that got him voted into office in 1968 and re-elected in a landslide in 1972.
Michael Sheen as British television interviewer David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon are a combative duo in Ron Howard's engrossing movie adapted from a Peter Morgan play. Whatever your views of Nixon's place in history, it's hard not to feel even a little sympathy for a tortured, conflicted man who insisted, “I'm saying if the President does it, it's not illegal.”
It was before my time but Abel Gance's epic tale starring Albert Dieudonné as the Corsican general who rose to power, capped off by spectacular military victories filmed on then-revolutionary hand-held cameras, was hailed as a masterpiece.
Oliver Stone's biting satire charts George W. Bush's rise from drunken frat boy and the son who could never please his father to 43rd President. Josh Brolin looks and sounds uncannily like the ambitious Bush, and Richard Dreyfuss nails the scheming Vice President Dick Cheney.
The less inspiring:
True, Richard Attenborough's bio-pic of the lawyer turned political activist who led India in its revolt against British Imperial rule won eight Oscars including best picture, director, cinematography and for Ben Kingsley as lead actor. But my-oh-my, it's wearingly slow at 191 minutes and Attenborough's depiction of Gandhi verges on sainthood. Still, the photography is exquisite and the supporting cast led by John Mills, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Edward Fox is exemplary.
Madonna wasn't the worst choice to play Argentina's widely adored first lady and spiritual leader in Alan Parker's musical biography but she was given very little leeway as the movie plays like a pop opera; according to one report, she had just 140 words of dialogue.
The combination of Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and director Clint Eastwood really doesn't work in this earnest film about South African President Nelson Mandela and the Afrikaner captain of the country's rugby team. There are no great surprises or twists as Mandela encourages Damon's Francois Pienaar and his teammates to dare to dream of winning the World Cup.
Bedecked in a fluffy blond wig, Colin Farrell never looked comfortable or convincing as the sexually ambiguous Greek warrior king in Oliver Stone's overblown epic. As for Angelina Jolie as his sexy, slithery mother Olympias, sporting a Russian accent, give us a break!