The season of biopics is upon us — that time of year when audiences see beloved (or reviled) historical figures in a new light, and actors, directors and producers see the gleam of future Oscar statuettes. “Lincoln,” which earned a four-star review from critic Ann Hornaday, is the first major biographical film to kick off the season, but it will be followed in short succession by another presidential film: “Hyde Park on Hudson,” a kicky glimpse at a weekend with FDR.
Political biopics have always been popular — Napoleon, Peter the Great and Benjamin Disraeli were all subjects of the earliest films, and a biography of Lincoln was among early “talkies” — but in recent years, they’ve been an anchor of the award-season film slate. Filmmakers return to presidents and leaders again and again, not just because the political process provides built-in drama, but also because their stories are so malleable. Directors of biopics bring giants down to earth — in ”Lincoln,” freeing their subjects to “joke, grieve, spin yarns, brood and work his considerable wits and wiles in the service of political sausage-making at its spiciest and most untidy,” as critic Ann Hornaday wrote.
It’s a winning formula, sure to produce Oscar nominations, as it has for these other notable biopics worth revisiting:
“The Iron Lady” (Meryl Streep as prime minister Margaret Thatcher): “Meryl Streep disappears so uncannily into former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in ‘The Iron Lady’ that her performance overpowers the movie it’s in - a perfectly executed triple axel that renders everything else just featureless ice.” — Ann Hornaday.
“Thirteen Days” (Bruce Greenwood, as President John F. Kennedy) “David Self’s screenplay, based on historical records and documents, White House tapes, memoirs and interviews with some of the players, feels like classic television theater at its best. And it’s easy to accept these performers as the very real people they portray.” — Desson Howe
“W” (Josh Brolin as President George W. Bush): “Had ‘W.’ been able to sustain such sharply ironic focus, it might have been a timely and historically useful satire on a par with Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Instead, it’s a scattershot attempt at stylized portraiture that plays like a half-baked editorial cartoon.” — Ann Hornaday
“Evita” (Madonna as Eva Peron): “Directed by Alan Parker, ‘Evita’ is long (130 minutes) but visually resplendent, thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Brian Morris and costumer Penny Rose. With lavish sets and densely populated tableaux, it evokes not only a particular time and place -- Argentina in the ‘40s and early ‘50s -- but the reigning oligarchy and military’s great disdain for the masses.” — Richard Harrington
“Milk” (Sean Penn as Harvey Milk): “The list of things ‘Milk’ gets right is a long one. But the first item has to be Sean Penn, who undergoes a startling physical transformation to play the title character. He hasn’t put on or lost tons of weight, and the only visible prosthetics are a pair of brown contact lenses. But by way of simple changes in posture, facial expression and mostly voice, Penn virtually disappears into his character, burying any trace of native mannerism or accent and emerging as a wholly convincing New York Jewish boy made good.” — Ann Hornaday
“Gandhi” (Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi): “In addition to sustaining an extraordinary physical impersonation over the course of a scenario designed to cover highlights of Gandhi’s life from age 23 to 78, Kingsley provides some witty resistance to the smothering solemnity of the production itself. One feels grateful for the playful, fallible human dimensions Kingsley brings to Gandhi’s goodness, because the presentation as a whole gets stuck in a reverential rut.” — Gary Arnold
“Nixon” (Anthony Hopkins as President Richard Nixon): “As Richard Nixon, Anthony Hopkins -- who skids expertly to a halt just this side of easy caricature -- is subtly magnificent. He’s a beast of ambition, with sensitive, haunted memories of his strait-laced, saintly mother (Mary Steenburgen) and a paranoid view of the Eastern Establishment. He’s hard and soft, brilliant and blundering. In short, Hopkins brings all the public interpretations of Nixon into one entertaining, touching composite.” — Desson Howe
“The Queen” (Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II): “While it’s fair to say ‘The Queen’ gives the Windsors a right royal razzing, it also provides mitigating balance. Mirren’s finely calibrated performance reveals a complex woman coping with a bewildering world, and Blair’s growing sympathy for his beleaguered monarch gradually becomes ours. This nuanced compassion may not impress the real Queen Elizabeth II, but, for us commoners, it makes for a richer experience.” — Desson Howe