Movies for the history books

The best portrayals of historical figures in cinema
By Elliot Chan, Contributor

Portraying a historical figure is a right of passage for professional actors. The challenge tests their limits, gives them recognition, and might even win them an Academy Award. Every year notable actors morph themselves into famous politicians, celebrities, and athletes. This year in the movie Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis will take on the title role as the United States’ 16th president. With one of the most renowned actors playing the part of one of the most revered historical figures, the star power is bound to cause a cinematic supernova. Therefore, it only makes sense to look back and mention five history- making performances.

5. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Raoul Duke was the pseudonym for gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It was Thompson’s alter ego, a character driven by a perpetual state of intoxication and in search of the elusive American dream. Depp was a close friend of Thompson prior to making the film—perhaps that was the only way to get into the mind of such a complex personality. One moment he’ll be exhibiting traits of a southern gentleman and the next he would be raging over a subject like a “manic beast.” Depp found reasonable qualities in a person that continues to puzzle the public and some might say that those Thompson traits still linger in Depp’s performances to this day.


4. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006)

In 2003, Mirren was dubbed a Dame in the courts of Buckingham Palace. Three years later, her performance in The Queen won her the Academy Award. Being the only actor to portray both Queen Elizabeths on film proves it, as she was able to bring sympathetic qualities to a seemingly emotionless figurehead, a mere image on our $20 bill. To do it all with respectable grace and dignity is a daunting feat, especially for a British decent.

3. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Whitaker’s chilling transformation into the Ugandan president ranged from subtle exchanges to dynamic teeth clenching sequences. The Last King of Scotland was far from an action movie, but Whitaker’s performance knocked me to the edge of my seat. There were close up shots where you looked into the man’s eyes and saw only the deep dilemma, the perplexity, and recognized the depth of the once too real dire situation.

2. Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi (1982)

There are films that blend historical legacy with cinematic performances forever. A quality portrayal can allow the person, the message, and the memory to span the stretch of time. Kingsley’s Oscar-winning performance was both a triumph for cinema and humanity. We may watch superheroes and aspire to have special powers, but to watch a movie and inspire to be a better person—that is truly something else.

1. Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall (2004)

Keeping the infamous YouTube Hitler meme from this film aside, this hauntingly heartfelt performance by Ganz as the Nazi dictator created a boundary many were not ready to cross: sympathy for the devil exemplified to the fullest potential. The world is used to viewing Hitler as the merciless villain upon the podium, but in Downfall we catch a glimpse of the monster cowering, whimpering, and anticipating the end. A man, a character, and a performance are a multi-dimensional configuration; recognizing those facets takes great skill and effort, but only then can an actor understand another person’s decisions—another person’s life.