Gary Sinise does a stupendous job in bringing President Harry S. Truman back to life in HBO’s Emmy-winning biopic, Truman.
I’ve been meaning to revisit the film for quite some top after making a stop in Kansas City just over a month ago. When I was there, I made a stop at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. I meant to watch the film a few weeks ago but then October 7 happened. It’s also been hard being able to watch much of anything in my apartment to tell you the truth. Thankfully, this was a rewatch so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. For what it’s worth, I am very surprised that an HBO film is not streaming on Max. Not only is it not streaming on Max but it’s not even available to buy or rent digitally. In fact, I had to borrow the film from the public library. My previous viewing came as a Netflix rental!
It’s interesting to revisit the film after watching Oppenheimer this past summer. The film does what it can for a 1995 TV movie–which is that it depends on archival footage when discussing the bomb. They don’t ignore the fact that some scientists were advocating against using the bomb. The film offers a glimpse at what President Truman was thinking in the days before dropping the bomb. It’s hard to say what Japan would have done had the two bombs not been dropped but I’m not here to debate the politics or ethics of it all. What I can say with full certainty is that one can probably make a film just focusing this period of the Truman administration. But that being said, we don’t get as much of an in-depth focus as we should.
Truman’s family had Southern leanings but he used his administration to advocate for equal rights. He established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. It’s not without some fallout, which is briefly depicted. We later see a foreign policy briefing where they discuss Israel and their declaration for independence. I’m including as much of the dialogue as I can from the scene but I’m curious as to what the McCullough biography says about it.
General George C. Marshall Harris Yulin): “We’re closer to war in Europe than in anytime since 1939. To recognize the Jewish state, the Arabs will attack. The Jews don’t have an army. We’ll have to protect them–with what? We don’t have the men, we don’t have the weapons. We can’t take what we do have out of Europe.”
Deputy Secy. of State Dean Acheson (Remak Ramsay): “Stalin would view the creation of a Jewish state as a perfect opportunity to try and drive a wedge between Iran and the West.”
Gen. Marshall: “This is a foreign policy briefing, Mr. President. What is Clifford doing here?
Truman: “He’s the White House counsel. He has to be here, General.”
Gen. Marshall: “Excuse me, sir. I believe Mr. Clifford’s interest is in the Jewish vote.”
Truman: “Well, now. Wait a minute. Let’s just see what he has to say here. Clark?”
Clark Clifford (Tony Goldwyn): “No matter what the State Department or anyone else thinks, we are faced with the actual fact that there is to be a Jewish state. Recognition of that state would embody everything that this country represents. Not only the establishment of a friendly democracy in an unstable part of the world with no democratic tradition but the creation of a safe haven for people whose suffering is so vast as to stupefy the human mind.”
Truman: “Well, George, he’s right…and you’re right and Dean’s right.”
Gen. Marshall: “Well, sir, I must tell you that if you allow politics to determine foreign policy than we’re at a vote and I would vote against you no matter. I have nothing more to add to this. Excuse me.”
One, I’m glad that they include this scene in the film. Maybe it’s because I’m biased. It’s an important meeting and probably among the most important moment’s in Truman’s political career. The United States was one of the first countries to recognize Israel’s independence and there’s also an exhibit at the Truman Library and Museum. Clifford suggests that Gen. Marshall resign. Interestingly enough, Marshall was serving as Secretary of State at the time with Dean Acheson as the Deputy Secretary. Marshall would later resign shortly thereafter but then Truman would later appoint him as Secretary of Defense.
Tom Rickman’s script is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough. Rickman makes the mistake that so many biopic screenwriters have made. Instead of a narrow focus, he focuses on much of Truman’s adult life. This includes Truman’s beginnings, his career in Washington as a Senator, Vice President, and President. It certainly features fine acting, a great makeup job, and HBO was a perfect home at the time. Could one have made a theatrical feature film during the same era rather than a TV movie? Probably. In any event, the film was deserving of its accolades in an era that did not feature as much competition as now. If there’s a miniseries about a president right now, it’s likely to air on History Channel than anywhere else.
There’s no denying that Gary Sinise does a marvelous job in Truman but the story would be better told as a miniseries than a wide-ranging biopic.
DIRECTOR: Frank Pierson
SCREENWRITER: Tom Rickman
CAST: Gary Sinise, Diana Scarwid, Richard Dysart, Colm Feore, James Gammon, Tony Goldwyn, Pat Hingle, and Harris Yulin