I have no problem admitting that I am a total history nerd. For someone like myself, who struggles with non-fiction reading, history is the perfect bridge between the dramatic and the factual. In history, I find all the elements of fiction I appreciate but can still enjoy the feeling of moral superiority that comes from reading non-fiction. So make a movie based on a historic figure and, for me, it is analogous to eating chocolate-covered Brussel sprouts—the pleasure of dessert without the guilt.
Recently, I have watched two such movies, Lincoln and The Iron Lady, and was struck dumb by the contrast. Obviously, the dumbness has worn off, though I still may gape a bit now and then when comparing the two films. I have read several books about the life and death of Abraham Lincoln and especially enjoyed Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. So Lincoln, based it loosely on Goodwin’s book, was just my cup of tea. I highly recommend the movie though I will say that being knowledgeable about Lincoln and especially the back story of his relationships with his cabinet enhances the experience. There just isn’t enough time to develop the complexity of those stories within the film, especially with Spielberg’s focus on the passage of the thirteenth amendment.
I wish we had the time and money to have seen the movie twice because I am still undecided as to whether or not it was a truly great movie or if it was good movie with an amazing performance. Daniel Day Lewis makes you feel as though you are watching Lincoln the man rather than Lincoln the movie. My respect for him as an actor could not be higher.
There is another amazing portrayal of an historical figure in The Iron Lady—Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. This is an example of a terrible film with a fantastic performance. Told from the perspective of an aging, delusional and alcoholic Thatcher, this film manages to take one of the most interesting political dramas of the twentieth century and reduce it to a pathetic old woman watching home movies with her long dead husband. As Jim asked me afterwards, why make a movie about a person you so obviously dislike?
The best I can say about this film is at least it has inspired me to find out more about Lady Thatcher. While Lincoln had everything I love about history, The Iron Lady wasn’t even Brussel sprout, take-your-medicine-like-a-good-girl history. While Lincoln was both enjoyable and edifying, The Iron Lady was neither chocolate nor Brussel sprout, just a gooey, unappetizing mess and that is certainly a meal I am happy to pass on.