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For Your Consideration: 'Hyde Park on Hudson' and 'Lincoln'

When depicting a U.S. president on film, a director and the actor who portrays him can create a saintly icon or a glimpse of the man behind the history. Two of the year's presidential movies, Steven Spielberg's dour, overstuffed hagiographical Lincoln and Roger Michell's backdoor portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hyde Park on Hudson, demonstrate the two opposing approaches. In the latter, Richard Nelson adapted his own play of the same title, based on the journals of Margaret Suckley, FDR's distant cousin and intimate, whom everyone calls "Daisy." Only recently discovered, Suckley's account of her relationship with the president lifts the veil on FDR's inner life and his sexual relationship with Suckley, among several others. The film focuses especially on the visit of King George VI and his wife to the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park on Hudson in June 1939. The story pulls no punches on the odd family existence of the Roosevelts: the sexual estrangement of Eleanor Roosevelt, played with a hard, slightly asocial edge by Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense, Rushmore); the president's domineering mother (veteran Elizabeth Wilson); the way in which Laura Linney's Daisy gradually finds her place in the pecking order. In this oddly ordered existence King George VI (played by Samuel West in the shadow of Colin Firth's rendition of the same character in The King's Speech) and his wife (Olivia Colman) are completely out of place.

Bill Murray is an extremely odd choice to play FDR, but what he lacks in believability he almost makes up for in whimsy. Daisy, it turns out, took some of the very rare photographs of President Roosevelt in a wheelchair, and the film shows how FDR managed his movements, being carried from place to place by assistants and driving a specially made car that could be controlled entirely by the hands. The acquiescence of the political press corps, which always waited to take pictures until FDR was standing or sitting in place, is unthinkable in today's age, as was the willingness of almost everyone to look the other way, to keep sexual affairs private. Hyde Park is not a great film (it received no nominations), but it is entertaining enough in its own way. The score, composed by Jeremy Sams, is a misty melange of Gershwinesque and Coplandesque, with a main theme that is two melodic nips and tucks away from being the motto of the old Star Trek television show.

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Lincoln also attempts to show a behind-the-scenes view of its president, but director Steven Spielberg has in some ways revealed the statue in place of the man, rather than the man behind the statue. Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the greatest acting mimics of the age (My Left Foot, A Room with a View), is almost too perfect as Lincoln, the beard, the wrinkled face, the stovepipe hat -- a sort of living stone monument. He is likely the surest bet in your Oscar pool this year (Best Actor), along with Anne Hathaway as Best Supporting Actress for Les Misérables. The New York Film Critics Circle picked Sally Field in the latter category, for her braying, over-the-top harpy portrayal of Lincoln's wife -- not sure I would agree with that either. Lincoln is the sort of film -- with historical sweep, but life-affirming, dotted with star performances, and lavish production values -- likely to do very well at the Academy Awards (it received twelve nominations).

Better than it probably deserves, in fact. Tommy Lee Jones chews the scenery as the abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens, fun mostly because of the invective placed in his mouth and the relish with which he pronounces it. There is a whole cast of recognizable actors in supporting roles, bringing to life the drama of President Lincoln's white-knuckle attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution past the U.S. House of Representatives: David Strathairn (L.A. Confidential) as the scheming Secretary of State William Seward; Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50) as the president's hot-headed son Robert; James Spader (Crash) as W. N. Bilbo, a fast-talking, dirty-handed tough who crosses palms with silver to get the necessary votes; Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, founder of the Republican Party; and many more. Spielberg's direction and Janusz Kaminski's cinematography seem restrained, giving the film the air at times of a documentary -- most of the story is drawn from Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals -- rather than a feature.

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