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Filmism.net Dispatch January 29, 2012

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I know I've mentioned it in a lot of reviews, but lately I've developed a love for movies about real historical figures from politics or civic life. Being such a huge Meryl Streep fan I was really excited to see The Iron Lady, and I recently watched J Edgar as well.

I liked them both, but what caught me by surprise was the critical reaction to each film. The Iron Lady scored barely above 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and J Edgar didn't even get that high.

The reaction to both seems to be similar. Many critics saw them both as toothless, non-partisan approaches that failed to address the huge controversies (many would say outright evils) surrounding both Thatcher and Hoover.

As just two critics put it, 'Hoover was one of the darkest figures in US history but Eastwood and his scriptwriter have forgiven all in a hazy resignation to old age coming to everyone and love being what matters'. And '...screenwriter Abi Morgan is less interested in Thatcher the world leader than she is in Thatcher the dotty shut-in.'

I understand the desire for more political vigour in both films but it puts the filmmakers in a quandary. First, I think most screenwriters would be more interested in the people Thatcher and Hoover were, not the sleazy blackmail files on successive presidents, celebrities and activists or the policy failures of extreme free marketeering or the poll tax.

And even if the filmmakers want to get partisan, which side do they take? Hollywood is notoriously left leaning, but it's seldom that simple, and Hoover and Thatcher both installed sweeping change for the better (like centralising law enforcement to make it harder for criminals to hide because of warring jurisdictions and beating the unions when they became too powerful).

So the question remains, how do you portray political figures? Michael Sheen has done the best job after playing Tony Blair three times in The Queen, The Deal and The Special Relationship, charting Blair's evolution from the political hero who shepherded Britain to its pre-millennial greatness to a credibility-free lap dog in Bush's disastrous war on terror.

It may well be that in looking at Hoover's suppressed homosexuality or Thatcher's decline into the madness of old age, there was simply no room for rumours of involvement in assassinations or union busting. Do you look at the person, or the politics?

Amid all this pontificating about history and the place of partisan views in film biography, I experienced history of an entirely different kind that's no less pleasurable and which I highly recommend if you grew up in the 70s or 80s, The Muppets.

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