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Hamilton Bio-Pic?

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There’s a been a bit of buzz across the blogosphere in the last 24 hours supporting Hendrik Hertzberg’s call for an Alexander Hamilton movie.

Of all the Founders’ lives, Hamilton’s was the most garishly cinematic. Consider these elements: born in the West Indies (the film could open with a sweeping aerial shot of palm trees and blue water); spends his childhood among black people; is reared in struggling, humble circumstances; attends a Jewish school after the Church of England school denies him admission because of his illegitimate birth; orphaned at around twelve when his mother dies; is so impressive a youth that funds are raised to send him to the northern mainland to further his education; studies at Kings College (now Columbia); becomes a student revolutionary pamphleteer and, at twenty, a revolutionary soldier; rises to be George Washington’s most trusted aide de camp, almost like a son to the childless general; hurts Washington’s feelings by leaving his staff to seek, and find, battlefield glory; friend of Lafayette; incredibly handsome, dashing, and charming; successful and imaginative politician; writes call for Constitutional Convention; still in his mid-thirties, is made President Washington’s secretary of the treasury and ghosts his farewell address; mired in spectacular sex scandal, foils cuckolded husband’s blackmail by making full disclosure; maneuvers to stop Adams’s election as President but is appointed by Adams to command the army anyway; jousts with Jefferson; back in New York, still in his forties, founds the Evening Post; the duel; the fatal wound; the deathbed farewells.

How can this miss?

How can it miss? Pretty bloody easily!

Most bio-pics are not good movies. You could probably make a mediocre film about Hamilton fairly easily, but something good? Bio-pics are hamstrung by the need to justify the film through telling a semi-mythological tale about a beloved figure but having to follow the sometimes less than cinematic realities of a person’s life. You can make a popular movie about someone where the world has truly bought into the myth, but that doesn’t make the film very good. I particularly note “I Walk the Line” here, which both bought into the post-Rick Rubin veneration of Cash into something almost otherworldly and fabricated a story about him that fit the guidelines of a sweeping Hollywood movie. June might have indeed saved Johnny in the end, but he was a total asshole to her for most of their relationship. Among the many things the film leaves out is his relapse into drug abuse that nearly destroyed their relationship in the late 60s and 70s. Doesn’t fit the narrative. Not to mention the 25 years of consistently horrible albums between about 1968 and 1993.

You might say I am nitpicking, but that’s precisely the point. I know and care enough about Cash and country music to want a legitimate bio-pic about him, not the sanitized narrative that we were presented. Same goes for the Muhammad Ali picture. “When We Were Kings” was far more interesting and enlightening about Ali. The Harvey Milk movie was better, but that’s largely because Milk’s life was pretty cinematic, especially his assassination and what he represented to millions of people. Sean Penn never hurts either.

You might also say that Alexander Hamilton is different because he doesn’t have the same 20th century baggage of visual memories that we project on bio-pics (I found the complaints that Anthony Hopkins didn’t look like Richard Nixon annoying, if we are looking for an imitation, we really cut into the number of actors we can hire for these parts). True, but we also create mythical baggage of our past leaders, including and especially the Founding Fathers. We want them to tell us specific stories about ourselves, our past, and our nation. That Hamilton is somewhat less known to the general public than Jefferson, Washington, or Adams actually could help such a film. What precisely is that story that needs to be told from Hamilton’s life? The lack of an obvious answer makes me more curious about such a project’s potential.

And just what are the fine films about American leaders in the century of American film? The best is probably “Young Mr. Lincoln”, but that’s the kind of exercise in pure populist mythology that would be really hard to pull off anymore. I didn’t see the John Adams thing but I know people liked it. “1776?”

It’s just easier and usually makes for better films to create people out of your imagination to tell the stories you think need to be told. Real lives don’t often translate well onto the screen without a lot of problems arising.

On top of all of this, to include everything Hertzberg lists would make the film about 6 hours long or way too rushed. So maybe a Hamilton mini-series might be semi-interesting. Hard to see a successful feature film though.

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