I’m struggling a bit with how I feel about THE BUTLER. It’s not fair to compare it to another film as I feel movies should be viewed on their own merits. But after seeing the devastating 12 YEARS A SLAVE and how that handled the plight of African-Americans, I was a little disappointed at how lightweight THE BUTLER felt in comparison.
I love the premise of the movie, which follows the life of Cecil Gaines who, through hard work and struggle, landed the role of one of the White House butlers and became a confidant in many ways to a succession of Presidents while the civil rights movement was sweeping the nation.
Cecil (Forest Whitaker) takes great pride in his job and holds himself to high standards; unfortunately his family life suffers because of this dedication. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) looks for intimacy in the arms of another man and his son Louis (David Oyelowo) dives into the front lines of the movement which flies in the face of what his Father wants for his son.
I felt the movie shifts focus to often and tries to do too much in it’s already over 2 hour run time. Cecil’s story alone could make a fascinating miniseries. So when you add in the father-son relationship, which after a while becomes the A-story, Cecil’s life at the White House is reduced to a series of superficial vignettes. We have glimpses of him interacting with a series of Presidents being portrayed by an all-star team of cameos which includes Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan.
The performances are quite good, especially Whitaker who will quite likely earn and Oscar nomination. I was also rather taken by Oprah’s performance. I assumed it would have been over the top because she has spent more time as a talk show host than an Actress in recent years, but it was quite the opposite. She gives a truly understated performance that is equally Oscar-worthy. Also kudos must go to the Make-Up Artists on the film. It contains some of the finest age make-up I have seen in years.
THE BUTLER is an effective and absorbing film, I just wish it were a little less superficial and more focused on Cecil himself. He was a remarkable and dignified man with a story deserving to be told. I would have liked to spend more time with him.