[1944] Wilson

wilson-1944As far as biography goes, Wilson mostly skates through the life of President Woodrow Wilson; Wilson the academic; Wilson the politician; and Wilson the projection of war patriot and reluctant isolationist.  Projection here is important: the film acts as a highlight reel of President Wilson’s career, pointing out leadership qualities that contemporary leaders during World War II continued to draw inspiration from. Wilson was released in 1944, toward the tail end of the Second World War, and about on the same timeline (looking back) that Wilson decided to formally join the war effort in Europe. The team behind the film intended this film openly as a propaganda piece, calling for the “good ol’ days” of simple leadership through strife. This type of communication is transparent by nature. It is not trying to hide the fact that it attempts to immortalize a character with, some might argue, a checkered record on issues outside of his demonstrated wheelhouse.

The too-big word for this type of frame is hagiography, which is often used in a religious context. Gospels and prophets get hagiographies in religious texts and scripture. This type of tunneled biography will frame and reframe at will to obtain the desired effect and it is almost always used to spin or project positivity and goodness. There is nothing outwardly wrong with this approach to monument-building. Wilson attempts no greater feat than ignoring the racism and orthodoxy he brought with him to the Office of, first the Governor of New Jersey and then to the President. But this also makes no difference in telling the story. It is not a problem that Wilson skirts this issue, but it also ensures that, outside of a war effort of contemporary magnitude and breadth as World War I, the film does not hold up under the quasi-strict scrutiny through a modern lens.

Alexander Knox (a Canadian, so a double proxy) presumably plays Wilson straight as the movie requires: this is not an analysis into the man’s life or his choices, but rather a report on the circumstances that crafted his approach to policy and politics. Adding a layer of depth, for which Knox’s capabilities would have allowed. As an adventure-leaning star and writer, he could have played up supposed abilities had they been required. But the restraint to which Knox allowed the writing and mission stand up is admirable, true to purpose, and stoic. This level of stoicism matched both the mood in gestalt and reflected the type of film favored in Hollywood at the time and the type of film Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to make.

Another testament to the writing parameters and Knox’s ability to convey this character is the fact that the film was adapted from non-film media. This writing team presumably exhumed texts and photos of President Wilson, written both by and about him, but to capture mannerisms would be challenging as no known video exists; there are selected audio recordings. The fact that source material was mostly non-visual, and certainly non-film almost adds to the greater allure of, for all intents and purposes, sanctifying President Wilson above and beyond what a modern President would deserve, require, or desire. This, plus a generational shift (Silent to Greatest) almost adds mystery to President Wilson as a screen character, and allows the writing team to do with the projection of Wilson what they would.

In a way, 1944’s winner, Going My Way, achieves a similar effect within the context of war as does Wilson. Instead of promoting the effort, Going My Way instead diverts the fear and uncertainty to a feel-good story with wholesome songs and the comfort and familiarity of Bing Crosby. Perhaps The Academy thought that the film-goers in 1944 responded more to this level of blissful diversion than to square-cornered propaganda. Nineteen forty-four, too, was a particularly strong year, with the Crosby film beating out Wilson, as well as Double IndemnityGaslight, and Since You Went Away. The latter is a more on-the-nose look at family, home structure, and the fringe effects of war on domestic development during the War. It is all too possible that The Academy did not want to conflate the two issues – macro-level Leadership with micro-level Domesticism – and made the choice to award Going My Way the top award for its merit and message.

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