Thursday, February 4, 2016

Number 28

Film: Wilson
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

When I was about eight years old, my father taught me a memory trick and had me memorize the American presidents in order. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, Carter was president at the time (he’s 39th). Woodrow Wilson, the subject of the film Wilson was the 28th president. He was the man in charge when the U.S. fought to stay out of World War I and then was in office when we entered the war. Wilson is thankfully not a full-life biography of the man. It covers the end of his tenure at Princeton, his governorship of New Jersey, and then his eight years in office.

And, I hate to say it, but that’s really it. Wilson (Alexander Knox) is tapped by local Democratic machine politicians to run for governor after a failed attempt to democratize certain aspects of Princeton. Wilson is immediately accused of being just another part of the machine, but he manages to get elected almost because he seems to stand against party politics. And, for a wonder, the man is one of those rare people who can’t be bought. As governor, he stands up against the corrupt politics, and it’s not too long before he’s being considered for a run for the presidency.

He gets elected. His first wife dies tragically. He gets remarried. Under difficult circumstances, he gets re-elected on a platform of having kept us out of the war, and shortly thereafter gets the country involved in the war. At war’s end, he creates the idea of the League of Nations, and makes it a part of the peace treaty, and sees it shot down by Congress. Stumping for it nationally, he suffers a stroke, and in the election in 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding is elected instead of the Democratic nominee, and the League of Nations idea is shot down completely, at least in the U.S. Roll credits.

And that, more than anything, is the big problem here. This isn’t about political intrigue. It’s not a political thriller in any way. It’s just political history. I didn’t know Wilson’s first wife died in the White House and didn’t realize he remarried, but really, that’s about the only thing here I wasn’t already aware of going in. I imagine that this was viewed as something like American history being brought to the masses, but the history being told was fairly recent (25 years or so), and much of the audience would have remembered those years and events pretty well.

This is literally a film where everybody stands around and talks, and they do this for about 2 ½ hours. Oh, there’s some archival footage of American troops going off to war, but that’s over quickly and we’re right back to people standing around talking at each other. Political maneuverings aren’t really that interesting in cases like this, especially when we’re given a candidate that is going to be shown to us completely warts-free.

On the plus side, Alexander Knox at least looks a hell of a lot like Woodrow Wilson. I also like that Thomas Mitchell has a large role as Wilson’s assistant Joseph Tumulty, and I find it mildly amusing that Tumulty refuses to call Wilson anything other than “Governor,” even when the man is eight years in the White House.

There was an opportunity here that was completely missed, though. The history is something anyone can learn with a quick spin through an encyclopedia (and could have in 1944 as well). There was a chance to really show Wilson the man rather than Wilson the president, and while we get a few scenes of Wilson singing around the piano with his daughters, shots of him playing golf, and a few moments of the most unromantic wedding proposal in history, and nothing else. I know virtually nothing about the world of Wilson thanks to this movie that I couldn’t have gotten from a Who’s Who biography.

That’s disappointing. I can’t suggest that Wilson isn’t a well-made or even a well-acted movie, but it’s drop-dead boring. Honestly, I’d have rather watched a documentary on the man than this sanitized version of his political career. I’m sure that I’ve missed some solid points to be said in the film’s favor, but I was frankly bored with it, and I found it difficult to care. Woodrow Wilson deserves better, and so does the audience.

Why to watch Wilson: Woodrow Wilson was a pretty good president.
Why not to watch: It’s too long and far too dull.


  1. I've always been fascinated by history of the various presidents so I've tried to see all the films of their lives, especially the ones that aren't named Lincoln or Kennedy. They were great men with fascinating lives but they've been so microscopically analyzed how much new can be unearthed and learned? The problem seems to be when the less renown chief executives are profiled the film makers seem to struggle with how to present them. For instance Tennessee Johnson which profiles Andrew Johnson has so much inherent drama at its fingertips but still manages to be flat as a pancake.

    That said it took me years to track this down and while it was certainly a handsome film with excellent work by the performers it has practically the same thing befall it that the Johnson film did, it was merely a procedural through the highlights of Wilson's life.

    The craziest aspect of that is the film was a pet project of Darryl F. Zanuck who poured an enormous amount of money into it, which does show on the screen-it's a very rich looking film, and it flopped hard. He venerated Wilson so much that he didn't allow any humanity to creep into the narrative so Wilson ended up more saint than man. A real pity because they is so much story there to be explored. It was probably too soon for Edith Wilson's near assumption of the presidency while Wilson was incapacitated to be portrayed but there was a ton of other incidents that were ignored.

    I didn't hate the film, mostly because Alexander Knox worked hard to do what he could to make Wilson more than the plaster saint the movie tries to paint him but I would never watch it again.

    1. I won't disagree that it's pretty to look at or that it's pretty well acted. It just doesn't do anything but simply show the history, and while I like history just fine, there was an opportunity here to show us Wilson the man, and it was completely lost.

      You're right--this is less a biography than a veneration. One almost expects to receive a complementary "Saint Woodrow" medallion after the film finishes.

  2. You are I are pretty much aligned on this. I called it a movie that isn't really a biography but simply something that dips a toe in various events in Wilson's career with no depth. I also noted it was big on flag waving, but that was understandable considering it was made in 1944.

    And echoing the other commenter - I was really hoping to see more about his incapacitation and his wife's role in government. As it's told now, because we did not yet have an established procedure for a President being unable to serve, power never passed to the Vice-President. Instead, his wife functioned as go-between, often making decisions for him and so it's not an exaggeration to call her the de facto acting President during the end of his second term.

    1. Yeah, there was a lot that could have been investigated here that was instead left on the altar of patriotic worship. A huge missed opportunity, especially for all of the money that was evidently dumped into it.

  3. I thought this was one of the most boring movies I have ever seen. And so long! It would not end.

    1. I admit, at an hour in I was starting to regret the choice yesterday.

  4. Maybe it would have been more interesting if the filmmakers had acknowledged that Wilson was a racist dick that reversed the federal government's policy to hire African Americans. Birth of a Nation was shown at the White House before its general release and Wilson called "history written with lightning." And Woodrow Wilson is one of the historians quoted in the film.
    Wilson's post-World War I policy of "self-determination" was only for white people.

    1. Wilson's racism is, admittedly, ignored. As I said above, it's a warts-free biography, and it's less biography than it is hagiography.

  5. I had forgotten that I left a message two years ago about what a racist rat bastard Wilson was.

    TCM showed the film a few days ago, so I finally broke down and DVRed it and watched it in two sections. I didn't really find it boring; I guess I've now seen enough movies that are longer than they need to be that it's pretty rare for me to get bored.

    Or maybe it was the nice sets or the costuming or the acting (a lot of good actors trying their best here!) or maybe I just love this period so much that I don't need an actual MOVIE o keep me interested.

    Also I developed another one of my crushes on obscure actresses because Ruth Ford (who played Margaret, the daughter with the glasses) is so darn cute.

    Other bits of business that kept me going:

    Thomas Mitchell as Joseph Tumulty, Vincent Price as William McAdoo and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Henry Cabot Lodge.

    The very weird scene where Wilson and his first wife went to the vaudeville show and there was a very strange comedy act with an actor in blackface dressed as Teddy Roosevelt dressed in his Rough Rider garb leading a dog dressed as a lion. He kept saying "Bully!" (You get used to blackface popping up in old movies from time to time but it's not usually so gratuitous and random.)

    This movie is just about the only movie from the period that mentions the Lusitania and then gets it right by noting that the US didn't get into the war until almost two years later (because of Germany announcing unrestricted submarine warfare and also for trying to get Mexico to attack the US). I can think of two films right offhand (Yankee Doodle Dandy and Night and Day) that show the sinking of the Lusitania as the direct cause of US entry into World War II. I know there are more.

    Overall, I didn't have any trouble watching Wilson, but I can't say it doesn't deserve its bad reputation more than a little.

    1. I don't honestly know how bad its reputation is. I think it might be (might be, mind you) more accurate to say that it doesn't have much of a reputation. Like, aside from the people who commented here, I don't know anyone who has heard of this film, let alone seen it.

      It just comes across as so desperately dull to me.