The Butler isn’t like any other movie I’ve gone to see this summer. It’s more serious, more grounded and of course, based on a true story.
Now, that’s a moniker that obviously always has to be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t know anything about the real Cecil Gaines, but the portrait of him painted by Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and Forrest Whittaker is beyond compelling. His wife Gloria, played incredibly by Oprah Winnfrey is a complicated incredible woman. His two sons, one killed in Vietnam and the other a noted civil rights activist and congressman are also well drawn, as are Cecil’s coworkers in his job at the white house.
The movie is structured phenomenally, as Cecil reflects on his life while he waits to meet with President Obama. He was born on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia, and after a tragic day, where his mother is raped and father killed by the youngest son of the white family that owns their means of making a living (and by extension, them) he’s pulled out of the cotton field by the matriarch of the family and trained to be a servant. He runs away as a teenager and winds up working in a hotel in North Carolina, then at the Excelsior Hotel in DC and then the White House.
He was hired during the Eisenhower administration, and Gaines works until The Reagans are in there. It’s clear that Gaines deeply respects the men he serves and that he believes that they have the country’s best interest at heart.
Seriously, this movie is nicer to Richard Nixon than my crazy Republican grandfather, and really hates LBJ. To be fair, Nixon was a power mad paranoid criminal, but I doubt anyone would ever accuse him of being a racist. LBJ was a noted racist.
Saint John of Massachusetts (a sarcastic moniker that my mother and I use for JFK) is still surrounded by that golden glow that will follow him throughout history, although they do talk about his pill popping. (Everyone always talks about the womanizing, never the pills). And (rightfully) his awakening about the Civil Rights movement comes mostly from the unseen voice of Bobby Kennedy.
The performances are outstanding, and like I said, the structure of the movie is intriguing. Rather than follow a straight narrative, it’s told through moments. Cecil has a brief conversation about school integration with Eisenhower (played powerfully and with nuance by Robin Williams) not long before Eisenhower sends the National Guard in to Little Rock. He reads Madeline to Caroline Kennedy as The Freedom Riders burn in Alabama, mixes Nixon a martini the night before he resigns. To be fair, the movie doesn’t make it seem like Cecil Gaines talked these great men into doing the things they did, more like, he happened to be the guy in the room while they were contemplating.
But when that guy in the room is a man like Cecil Gaines, who refused to be broken by the Jim Crowe era south, sent both his sons to college and served his country for fifty years? (Also quietly fought for equal pay in the White House, something not achieved til Reagan.) That’s when it’s something special.
The actors portraying the presidents and first ladies were well chosen, if a bit unexpected. Williams in particular as Eisenhower was fantastic. James Marsden’s JFK was eclipsed my Minka Kelly’s Jackie (I’m a little obsessed with Jackie Kennedy right now, but she did a really good job.) Liev Schrieber as LBJ was intense and funny, John Cusack played Nixon as a man, serious and driven (like I said, the film was kinder to him than I ever expected. I say this not because it was a big part of the movie, just it was shocking. Hollywood is never kind to Nixon.) And the Reagans, while I still think having Jane Fonda play Nancy was a huge gimmick, she can rock the suit and the attitude, and Alan Rickman plays Ronald Reagan as a man conflicted, but by then Cecil no longer is.
WInfrey’s performance as the woman left behind is especially powerful. Gloria Gaines is an alcoholic housewife, who kicks the bottle, has an affair, and stands by her husband and children. Cecil’s fellow butlers Carter Wilson and James Holloway are excellent foils for him. Wilson, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. is a bit of a clown, who comes through for his friends, and Holloway by Lennie Kravitz the first of the three of them to speak up.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, and I was captivated by the performances and small moments. Strong also wrote Game Change which I still haven’t seen, and played Jonathan on Buffy, so there’s that. I also didn’t see Precious which was Daniels’s biggest outing. But I enjoyed their work here, so I’m interested in maybe checking out what else it is that they do.
Different batch than I’ve seen before! (Some carry over from Gatsby)
Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney’s acquiring the rights to Mary Poppins from P.L. Travers looks like it’ll be fun, if only to see Jason Scwartzman and B.J. Novak play the Sherman brothers and watch two of my favorite actors ever, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson play off of one another.
Captain Phillips looks incredible. I’m glad Tom Hanks is doing his thing again.
If Julia Roberts wins anything for August: Osage County and Juliette Lewis gets ignored even I will give up on awards shows. Although probably not.
Rankings: This was a tough one because it was so different from the others, but I think I was fair.
1. Pacific Rim
2. The Great Gatsby
3. Kick Ass 2
4. The Butler
5. Man of Steel
6. The Wolverine
7. Iron Man 3
8. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
9. Despicable Me 2
10. Star Trek Into Darkness
11. Monster’s University
12. After Earth