2017 minus 38: Political portrayals

Posted: 24 November 2016 in 2017 minus, media, politics
Tags: , ,

I’m a sucker for political dramas, and even more so for political dramas based on real events. I’ve mentioned serial drama before, and I’m covering some shows elsewhere, but I’m concentrating today on one-offs today, movies and televised single dramas. 

I’m not sure which were the first I remember watching, but by the time I was a teenager, I was hooked on them. Reconstructions, or biopics*, or just plain drama. I sucked them up, absorbed them and loved them. I prefered the ‘based on a true story’ types to the obviously fictional, but yeah, any political drama, particularly about American politics, I’d watch. I loved Seven Days In May, I adored All The President’s Men. I must have watched Fail Safe a dozen times by my mid-20s. 

(*biopics is one of those words I came across in print long before I heard the word. For years I pronounced it “bye-opics” rather than as bio-pics. I’m still not convinced I was entirely wrong to do do.)

But never have I mistaken fiction for reality. I’ve always understood that even the best, most faithful recreation of events are nudged to be more dramatic. As many have mentioned in biographies and memoirs, most governing is hard, boring work; the genuine drama is the exception not the rule. And as for portrayals of that, no matter how good the portrayal, I know the actor is the actor and not the politician, not the reporter, not the political operative.

I’ve seen Recount, the movie about the 2000 US Presidential election, more than a few times and the performances of the actors never fail to amaze me. The cast is stellar, the writing spectacular and the performances from Kevin Spacey, from Laura Dern, Bruce McGill, from Denis Leary… stunning. 

I’ve no idea how true to life the portrayals are, of course, although various sources online suggest that not everyone was delighted with how they appeared on screen. In particular, both James Brady and Warren Christopher have suggested that the latter is portrayed as too conciliatory, that Christopher knew it would be a down and dirty fight from the off. AndMichael  Whouley is insistent that he didn’t swear quite as much as Denis Leary’s performance as him suggests. By the way, I do hope that in 2020, some producer has the nous to get as many of the people concerned in a room and discuss the battle, two decades on.

Part of the reason I like Recount so much is because it shows just enough of the ‘person’ to make the ‘operative’ seem… real. But Recount has another reason for mention today, now that the 2016 Presidential election is over, and it’s nothing to do with the result, nor the surprise of it. It’s about one of the characters portrayed in the movie, an important one, but not one of the leads.

Thing is, I’ve watched lots of these things, ‘based on true events’ reconstructions. The Deal by Peter Morgan, starring Michael Sheen (for the first time) as Tony Blair and David Morrison as Gordon Brown, is excellent, and to an outsider perfectly captures Labour politics in the aftermath of John Smith’s death. But at no point do I now see Blair and think “huh, he doesn’t look enough like Michael Sheen”. While Helen Mirren is superb as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, also written by Morgan, I don’t see QEII and think “she’s not enough like Mirren.”  Nor did I see Maggie Thatcher at any point and think “She’s not actually like Patricia Hodge’s performance in the Falklands Play”. 

I never do that. Now, fair enough, almost certainly that’s because I’ve seen the ‘real’ people so often I ‘know’ it’s just a portrayal.

But no. I saw plenty of other, minor characters, played by actors in all of the above, and when I saw the real person, I was never thinking “they don’t look like… and they should do.” So why with Recount, with that one character? I don’t know.

It’s not with every portrayal. In fact with every performance bar the exception, I don’t do it. I see James Baker on something and don’t think “huh, he looks wrong; he should look like Tom Wilkinson did in Recount“. 

There’s one character I definitely do that with though. And I’ve no idea why.

The political operative and lawyer Ben Ginsburg has been a fixture of Republican politics for more than a few years. He served as counsel to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. And in 2000 and 2004, he was national counsel to the Bush/Cheney presidential campaigns. And in 2008 and 2012, he served in the same role for Mitt Romney’s campaigns.

On the left is what he looks like, and on the right, his portrayal by Bob Balaban.

For the past few years, he’s been an MSNBC political pundit and during the election, he appeared on a few shows, well more than a few shows. At one point, it seemed he was on every other day. Ginsberg that is, not Balaban. And every time – every time – he appears on screen, I am disappointed. “But he should look like Bob Balaban. He doesn’t look like Bob Balaban.” Every bloody time. 

I wish I knew why.

Ginsberg’s take on the movie is here, by the way. It’s an entertaining read. I just wish I didn’t imagine Bob Balaban wrote it.


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

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