Upcoming HBO Movies About Lesser Presidents
Which White House minor-leaguers merit the prestigious pay-cable treatment?
When it comes to canonical American presidents -- the secular saints, the ones on the currency -- the TV/film well is just about dry. Daniel Day-Lewis bet a long shot last year to take the definitive Lincoln portrayal away from Sam Waterston in Ken Burns's Civil War; Paul Giamatti owns John Adams; and portrayals of George Washington (Kelsey Grammer; Barry Bostwick) seem to rely on the idea that, as a lad, George did not chop down that cherry tree -- he incinerated it with a blast of overacting.
If HBO knows what's good for it, then, it'll step away from the FDRs and the JFKs, and stake its prestige claim on lesser-known, poorly regarded chief executives instead. Setting itself apart from a horde of basic-cable history lessons, live-action versions of the boring filmstrip your substitute teacher put on so she could go down to the teachers' lounge and smoke, is going to mean using some of the deeper cuts on our proud nation's album of Commanders-in-Chief.
In chronological order of their presidencies, the next handful of HBO prexy-pics we expect to see:
Monroe: The Man And His Doctrine
Subject James Monroe (#5)
Ideal Star Michael Weston.
Essential Story Beats Monroe introduces the Monroe Doctrine to Congress in response to revolts in Latin America against Spain and Portugal…but while the doctrine is named for him, it's John Quincy Adams (Bradley Whitford) who formulated it and consulted with England on its implementation. Who will take the credit -- and can a young country forge ahead as a diplomatic force?
Why This Film Might Get Made Monroe witnessed much of the drama of the country's birth, although he didn't play his own main role until decades later: he met his wife at the Continental Congress in New York, and his daughter had the first White House wedding; he presided over the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" with bipartisan appointments. Any five- to ten-year cross-section of his life would yield interesting plots (and droolworthy costuming opportunities). The Missouri Compromise also came about during Monroe's administration, and filmmakers with current political axes to grind will find no shortage of parallel issues in the Monroe era.
Why It Might Not Monroe wasn't exactly an enlightened figure; he was a slaveholder who didn't have much respect for his "property," and an anti-Semite, and he's also responsible for bringing the scourge of Andrew Jackson upon the Native Americans. Weston isn't terribly well known and may not be up to the nuance this role would require in order for viewers to not hate the subject.
Rough And Ready
Subject Zachary Taylor (#12).
Ideal Star Eric Roberts.
Essential Story Beats Taylor's successes in the Indian campaigns and the Mexican-American War, particularly in defeating General Santa Anna's (Benjamin Bratt) superior force; Taylor's resistance to his daughter Sarah's (Claire Holt) forbidden romance with one Jefferson Davis (Jensen Ackles); his reluctance to campaign for office, or even to resign his military commission until weeks before his inauguration; his bizarre-even-for-the-time demise thanks to cherries and iced milk. Or…was it poison?
Why This Film Might Get Made Roberts works cheap, acts at the top of his lungs, and could turn the project into a camp classic -- or the creators could spin it as a conspiracy-theory/murder mystery about a White House poisoner. I would totally watch either.
Why It Might Not Taylor's presidential tenure was short and only semi-sweet; broadening the film's scope to his military exploits is probably how the man would have preferred to be remembered, but doesn't put him on the right side of history very often (and the equine-actor insurance bill would be astronomical).
From The Shores Of Lake Erie
Subject Millard Fillmore (#13).
Ideal Star Eddie Izzard.
Essential Story Beats Fillmore ascended to the presidency thanks to the weak stomach of his predecessor, Taylor, and did not gain a second term; a more interesting plot -- and one that might pair well with/dovetail into the Taylor movie -- is his presiding over the Senate while it debated the Compromise of 1850, which merely postponed the inevitable secession. The arguments went on for months, and at one point involved Senators Henry Foote (Matthew Bomer) and Thomas Hart Benton (Ciarán Hinds) drawing pistols on each other.
Why This Film Might Get Made If it focuses on that narrow span of time, it could turn into awards bait -- it's an important piece of American legislation that also prompted a great deal of yelling.
Why It Might Not Centering it on Fillmore himself could strangle it in the crib.
Subject James Buchanan (#15).
Ideal Star John Cleese.
Essential Story Beats The many ways in which Buchanan qualifies as the worst president ever, according to polls of historians and journalists.
Why This Film Might Get Made Cleese's experience in Monty Python material like Life Of Brian makes him the perfect star for a project with a similar take. Buchanan's ineptitude at preventing financial panic and civil war doesn't quite rise to the level of patented HBO antiheroes like Tony Soprano or Nucky Thompson, so a humorous angle is likely the only successful one -- but at the same time, a review of the run-up to the War Between The States could do well as A Serious Feelm.
Why It Might Not ...He sucked, kind of unrelentingly. Could be a tough sell when it's time to write checks.
Reconstructed: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
Subject Andrew Johnson (#17).
Ideal Star Jared Harris.
Essential Story Beats Johnson's impeachment is the child of many angry fathers; the primary reason, ostensibly, was his handling of the dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Ben Feldman), with whom he'd clashed repeatedly. But Johnson had clashed repeatedly with Congress as well, brokering compromises that pleased nobody and dangerously appeasing the Southern states in a misguided attempt to heal the wounds of the Civil War. Rumors persist to this day that Senators were bribed to vote for Johnson's acquittal.
Why This Film Might Get Made Harris could make the man sympathetic if anyone can, and Johnson is at the center of a number of exciting, frustrating post-Civil-War stories that continue to dwell in Lincoln's shadow. Inclusion of a boxing scene could make the entire enterprise worthwhile.
Why It Might Not Attempting to make the Tenure of Office Act intelligible could turn the movie into a failed Schoolhouse Rock joint pretty quickly.
Subject James Garfield (#20).
Ideal Star John Hawkes.
Essential Story Beats Garfield took nearly three months to die from the shots fired by his stalker, Charles Guiteau (Hugh Dancy), after a series of medical mistakes kicked off the infections that really killed him. It's all anyone remembers about Garfield today, so it's the obvious choice for a framing device: daily title cards monitor Garfield's health while occasionally mixing in a flashback to one of his few presidential accomplishments (the investigation into Postal Service corruption, for instance).
Why This Film Might Get Made A Hannibal-esque treatment from Bryan Fuller, complete with weird dream sequences and grisly wound close-ups, might also work. Garfield's presidency and illness does contain a fair bit of interesting trivia (for his comfort, aides cobbled together what may have been the first air conditioner).
Why It Might Not The film would take longer to make than the luckless Garfield's presidency lasted.
Western Swing: The End Of Warren Harding
Subject Warren Harding's trip to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, culminating in his death.
Ideal Star Michael Shannon.
Essential Story Beats Part 1: Mr. and Mrs. Harding decide their son's middle name is "Gamaliel." …Just kidding, except I do want to watch an imagining of that conversation, because: what? Anyway: Harding's last days are more interesting, not least in the hands of Shannon, who is more than up to the task of intimating an ongoing case of apoplexy both physical and emotional -- and that's exactly what happened. Harding kept giving a gazillion speeches, taking long train trips on which he couldn't sleep, barfing and complaining of chest pains, enduring boat collisions (…I know), and then collapsing of a massive heart attack. Speculation about poisoning or suicide could make for a compelling Rashomon-style narrative braid.
Why This Film Might Get Made Harding made a handful of not-horrible moves in a tenure that received wisdom tells us was riddled by scandal; it all ironically happened long enough ago to feel fresh, but not too musty or irrelevant. And Boardwalk Empire practically backdoor-piloted the thing already. As well, the Teapot Dome scandal related to government oil reserves. Timely!
Why It Might Not Flapper-tigue might have set in in HBO's executive suites.