History has not been kind to Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. He was, in hindsight, a bit of a murderer, a slaveowner, and the architect of the Trail of Tears — so it might sound confusing to say HBO’s miniseries starring Sean Penn as Jackson will be the best presidential biopic yet. But that’s where the “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” adaptation, which begins production in 2016, is heading. Here’s why.
Watching great men do great things is incredibly boring
Great Man biopics have practically become the new superhero films: Watching the arc of a great man’s life — his arbitrary darknesses, his inevitable redemption and triumph — rings with a certain level of sameness. Much like superhero movies, the Great Man biopic rarely questions his greatness, or perhaps goes so far as to gloss over the bumps, as when The Theory of Everything brushes past the fact that Stephen Hawking left his wife for his nurse after that grand romance.
Does that make him a bad person or diminish his accomplishments? Of course not. But biopics are infinitely more interesting when they don’t sweep the messy parts under the rug — and Andrew Jackson’s life is far too messy to sweep.
Andrew Jackson was an actual lunatic
Andrew Jackson might have been an asshole, but he also rivals Teddy Roosevelt for Most Unbelievably Badass President. He makes this guy look like Michael Cera.
Aside from casually killing a man in a duel for insulting his wife — and walking around with a bullet in his chest for a while like a gangster, Andrew Jackson once nearly beat his would-be assassin to death with a cane when the man had the misfortune of firing at him and missing. If you come to kill Andrew Jackson, you best not miss.
He also allegedly once said, “I have only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” His regrets were that he didn’t add even more people to his lengthy hit list. He also married a woman who was already married and fought for her honor when it created a scandal. Love Jackson or hate him, his life was far from dull.
Because history is truly a rich, fucked-up pageant
Jackson had some policies that make this guy look like a good president.
He was terrible at banks and committed several human rights violations, which is why several people are advocating for his removal from the $20 bill. Remove him from money all you want; just be sure you don’t forget him. History isn’t about cherry-picking what’s pleasant and easy to swallow; history is learning a lot of no-bullshit stories about fucked-up men and learning from them — which you can’t do if you gloss over the unpleasant parts.
Because Sean Penn is perfect casting
Sean Penn is a very good actor who crackles with intensity.
He’s also, by all accounts, a bit of a lunatic himself: Stories constantly surface of his hair-trigger temper and willingness to beat someone up if need be. He won’t even have to go method to play Jackson; it’s a match made in heaven!
It’s understandable why nobody has gone near Jackson in recent years, but with Sean Penn at the wheel, even people who have grown tired of Great Man biopics can find some merit in this one about a non-great but nonetheless legendary man. Now bring on a long-awaited Teddy Roosevelt biopic next.