Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Hyde Park on Hudson (directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson) is a biopic/period piece about Franklin Delano Roosevelt (played remarkably in the film Bill Murray).

FDR was elected President of the United States in 1932 three years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent onset of the Great Depression in 1929, author of the New Deal package of legislation that subsequently led if slowly the country out of the Great Depression (at the cost of greatly expanding the role of the federal government in the United States for which many in the "free market wing" of the Republican Party have never ever forgiven him) and who led the United States during most of World War II.

Yet, this film is not about FDR's politics or achievements.  Instead, it is more about his personal life (and failings...) that came to light after the 1991 death of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (played in the film by Laura Linney) and a suitcase full of intimate letters between her and the President had been found under her bed.  The letters were published in a non-fiction book by Geoffrey Ward (of Ken Burn's Civil War [1985] documentary series fame) entitled Closest Compainion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley [1995].  A 2007 article about Margaret "Daisy" Suckley appearing in the New York Times entitled At the Home of F.D.R.'s Secret Friend is worth the read as well.

A criticism of the film could be made that if one went to see it without much knowledge of FDR, then one would leave the film thinking of him as simply another (vaguely) "Important Man" who mistreated (took liberties) with vulnerable (younger, and since he was President after all, necessarily less powerful) women.  HOWEVER, I do believe that this film is more complex than simply some kind of a "right wing" hatchet job (Those who have been following my blog would know that I've repeatedly noted here that Hollywood is actually far more conservative in its outlook than its libertine reputation would suggest.  For those who would doubt me here, just consider the way the that the last two sets of Academy Awards turned out [2011] [2012]):

First, the increasing mainstreaming of previously considered "feminist" radicalism _has_ resulted in some remarkable and justified historical revision.  To me, the most obvious example of this phenomenon was the portrayal of male-female relations in the film Defiance [2009] (and the book on which the film was based) about the band of Jewish partisans led by the Bielski Brothers in Nazi-occupied Byelorussia during World War II.  In the past, that story would have been presented as simply a "glowing" account of the heroism of the (largely male) Jewish partisans with the women not playing much of a role at all.  Instead, in Defiance [2009], women were key to the story and often produced a rightfully embarrassing challenge to the way history had previously been remembered.  To put it bluntly: the women were shown as not feeling particularly safe around their male counterparts.  Yes, the male partisans were certainly better than the Nazis (who fed all Jews, male and female, into the gas chambers).  But in a culture of men taking "forest wives" from among the women in their band, the women were forced to "make choices" that weren't exactly "free" ("Should I 'choose' to be a 'forest wife' of this guy or take my chances at being simply taken / raped by one or another of the "freedom fighters" ...?).

So, in the current film, FDR is perhaps a "great man."  On the other hand, he did use women who would have been considered "below his station" including the young, then presumably 20-something, Daisy.  To be sure, he "was generous" to the women he used in this way (rewarded them with access and favors that were beyond the reach what anyone "of a lower station."  BUT ... I do believe the "outing" of FDR in this way to be a fair criticism / correction of the historical record, especially since the Catholic Church itself is (hopefully) coming out of an era of scandal where many of the same tactics of "reward" for inclined to not "out" a "great man" (a priest), and punishment (of those who would be more inclined to do so) had been part of the (clerical / good ole boy) culture of the Church as well...

Second, this is not the first film in which director, Roger Michell has approached the topic of "complex" (and often unequal) relationships between younger women and older men.  Consider simply two of his films Morning Glory [2010] (which was released a few months after I began my blog), and Venus [2006] (which came out before the start of my blog).  Add that the director is English and the current film takes place in the context of the 1939 visit by King George and Queen Elizabeth of England (of The King's Speech [2010] fame) to FDR at his summer retreat on the Hudson and one could understand why this director would be interested in this story at this time.

So what then to make of the film?  I thought it was well acted and crafted.  I do think that some on the fringes of the American Right will probably get an undo thrill in watching a film about the personal life and failings of a towering (and Liberal) icon like FDR.  BUT ... there is a story here in this film and it is one that will hopefully help current and future generations of both men and women from making the same mistakes.

Finally, the film has an R-rating and probably appropriately so.  There is no nudity in the film, but the themes are such that many/most parents would probably appreciate being consulted prior to letting their child (and even a teen in high school) see the film.  

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