Wilson (1944)

Director: Henry King
Screenwriter: Lamar Trotti
Cast: Alexander Knox, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Charles Coburn, Thomas Mitchell, Cedric Hardwicke, Ruth Nelson,
Nominations: Picture, Director – Henry King, Actor – Alexander Knox, Original Screenplay, Cinematography (color), Editing, Art Direction (color), Score (drama/comedy), Sound, Special Effects
Wins: Original Screenplay, Cinematography (color), Editing, Art Direction (color), Sound

I noticed that I have a tell when writing about a film I’m not a fan of.  At some point the phrase “…that’s not to say [name of movie] is a bad film…” (or something similar) will pop up, usually after a slew of criticisms that would otherwise indicate that the movie is, in fact, a bad film.  However, as I’ve written before, I like to take a more optimistic approach with movies.  Even bad films can unintentional value, so I try as best as I’m able to find something in any movie that I can appreciate and think about.  Fortunate, Wilson isn’t a bad film; if anything, it’s an earnest film—a really, really earnest film.

There’s an inherent obstacle that bio-pics have to overcome in order to be successful with audiences: they must present their subjects—typically larger than life and historic persons—as human beings with admirable qualities and understandable flaws.  What you’ll see happen, though, is that the filmmakers are in such awe of their hero and idolize them to an incredible extent that they only focus on the positive aspects of the person’s life, ignoring anything that might make the person appear less than appealing.  Now, not every bio-pic needs the main character to be, for example, Larry Flynt (as in The People vs. Larry Flynt [Milos Forman, 1996]), but the character shouldn’t be utterly perfect.  They can be redeemable despite their shortcomings.

The biggest issue with Wilson is that there is nothing wrong with the film’s Woodrow Wilson.  In fact, there’s so much not wrong with him, that there are numerous scenes in which other characters discuss how great he is.  The film is an unabashed love letter to the 28th president of the United States.  And it can get boring and monotonous to sit through two and a half hours of watching someone be saintly and good, and whose only character flaws are his wife dies, he has a stroke, and he doesn’t get what he wants one time.  (The first two are tragic, to be sure, but aren’t really descriptive of who Wilson is.) On the whole, none of that is particular interesting and it’s disappointing that no attempts were made to dig deeper into one of the better presidents in U.S. history.