Making history less of a lesson

Golden Globes Countdown 2013

The problem with political films is that motion pictures usually require motion — and politics don’t often involve car chases, explosions or dwarf-Orc battles in Middle-earth. Except metaphorically.

Still, a surprising number of this year’s more prominent dramas are built around events of historical nuance and political complexity. The question: How to make a cerebral subject cinematic?

“First, you get a great cast,” says Kathryn Bigelow, whose “Zero Dark Thirty” recounts the hunt for Osama Bin Laden from the perspective of an obsessive CIA agent (Jessica Chastain). “And then you humanize the story.”

You capture the characters’ excitement, frustration, disappointment and/or anticipation, says the Oscar-winning director, “so that already gives something inanimate a perspective and an animation and an expectation. And then you break it down visually and try to find an imagistic way to look at living history.”

She says the story behind her film, which will likely be one of the more controversial and scrutinized features of the year, was inherently dramatic, and she stuck fairly close to her producing partner Mark Boal’s script. (“It’s pretty close,” Boal says. “Closer than what I thought it would be.”). “Zero Dark Thirty” follows, over two hours and 40 minutes, what Bigelow calls “arguably the world’s greatest manhunt.” Still, history had to be compressed, a problem similar to that faced by director Ben Affleck.

“We’re probably right on par with any other true story,” Affleck says of “Argo,” which dramatizes the rescue of six Americans from the Canadian embassy during the Iran hostage crisis of the ’70s — an era the film attempts to mirror stylistically. “We looked at how a lot of them had been done, like ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘Missing.’ And because of the structure of the true story we were able keep to it more than we might have. We created some thrills, but did it sparingly.”

Affleck says if there were sins committed in putting the “Argo” story together, they were “sins of omission.”

“You would have had to make a 10-hour miniseries to get it all in,” he says. “For instance, there was a Canadian news reporter who struck upon the fact that the number of potential hostages hadn’t actually been released by the government, and the government had to then go to the papers and say, ‘If you print this people are going to die.’ Also, the fact that they had to have a special parliamentary session to OK the printing of fake passports. That we had to drop.”

The filmmakers also elided over the fact that four of the hostages weren’t initially at the home of the Canadian ambassador but elsewhere, and yet attention to that kind of unnecessary detail would have turned the film’s 120 minutes into 140.

“They were great details, but they bloated the script,” Affleck says. “We had to collapse things.” Which is the great thing about Blu-ray, he adds: The “Argo” homevid release will include all that “missing” material.

The advantages of “Lincoln” and “Hyde Park on Hudson” — the latter of which is about President Franklin Roosevelt’s affair with a distant cousin, and his cementing of the bonds between pre-war England and America — was in having epic central characters who needed very little exposition. And thus allowed for a more complex storyline.

“We made a decision, and I think it was the right one, that we didn’t want to create an essay about the passage of the 13th Amendment,” says “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner. “We wanted to make a drama in which we accurately depicted what the characters were contending with.”

This meant positioning the 16th president and commander-in-chief (Daniel Day-Lewis) in a slightly claustrophobic city, surrounded by the South, and at the center of a political arena crawling with casual corruption, chicanery and shameless self-interest. Kushner says director Steven Spielberg also wanted to “make sure we knew why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the real deal and this was,” which required a script that laid out arcane legalese in a manner viewers could digest without coughing. Already winning critics awards for his screenplay, Kushner credits his sources, chiefly Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”

“Lincoln was a great admirer of the law and I wanted that to come through,” he says. “There are a number of sources, but ‘Team of Rivals’ was the main source. Doris’ version of this guy is a very compelling and very rounded version that I believed in.”

In the struggle to make politics compelling, “Hyde Park” has the unbeatable advantage of sex: Bill Murray’s FDR is having an affair not only with his cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) but with his private secretary Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), too, while his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), remains stung by her husband’s earlier tryst with her secretary Lucy Mercer (which may never have ended). The tensions surrounding the satyrish FDR’s juggling act is highlighted by his simultaneous efforts to establish the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” and setting the stage for America involvement in World War II.

Screenwriter Richard Nelson’s strategy for getting helmer Roger Michell’s vision across was to do it via an exceedingly naive Virgil.

“The film is from Daisy’s point of view,” Nelson says, “and she’s someone who’s catching bits of things here and there, which is pretty much how you or I would look at the world if you or I went into a dinner at the Obama White House. You’d get dribs and drabs of conversation, you’d piece things together as an outsider, and reach a subjective conclusion. I think it’s an interesting way to deal with history, and that’s the journey of the movie. We’re following it through Daisy’s eyes. The point is that things are being revealed. Not that things are changing.”

Golden Globes Countdown 2013
Making history less of a lesson | Corporate baddies suit up this season | Gervasi’s rock heart opened to ‘Hitchcock’ | More thesps tapped for glory on both silver, smallscreens | Globes embrace the next big things

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