Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters
This article was originally written shortly after the release of The American President (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1995). I have not updated the main article [except for one brief reference] but provided this introduction and an after-thought on the intervening years. The American President was directed by Rob Reiner and scripted by Aaron Sorkin: who subsequently went on to work on the enormously successful television series of The West Wing. My sense is that though we have seen a few ‘bad apple’ presidents onscreen (for example Primary Colours (Universal, 1998) and Absolute Power (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1997), the mainstream movie still privileges the supreme post in the USA. Of course, we now have Barack Obama in the White House – so the sacred office is no longer the preserve of the white male; we may even see a female president soon. There have already been screen female Presidents: Wikipedia has lists of the films and of the actors who played in them, it is very long. And Obama was preceded by several black screen Presidents, with Morgan Freeman establishing a special hold on the office. The Presidential Myth.
“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from…” Myths today, Roland Barthes.
Barthes’ comment describes the way that stories often maximise our pleasure whilst minimising the content we have to grapple with. It would certainly seem an apt reflection on Hollywood films, which have in so many areas produced great entertainment which avoids unsettling the audience with the harsher realities of either the recorded or imagined events. The west, the U.S. family, the civil war, the space programme… the myth presented is wrapped up so that the memories we take out the auditorium are not too disquieting. One of the most powerful myths among the many generated by Hollywood is the presidential myth. One example is appropriately entitled The American President, with President Andy Shephard [Michael Douglas] generating real comedy as he battles to enjoy an ordinary romance with career woman, Sydney Wade [Annette Bening]. These are obviously not ‘ordinary people’, but the film works hard to make them seem so, even sharing a meat-loaf dinner. It knows the Presidential Office is serious, and injects serious matters into the narrative; crime, environment, policing the world. However, the seriousness is strictly controlled, so that the only issue to get extended attention is the environmental one. Crime is just rhetoric and policing the world, with Shephard authorising a military strike against a Gaddaffi-style figure, allows the President to display decisive leadership whilst expressing human feelings but at the same time it is safely tucked away from the dramatic crisis and climax of the movie, so that viewers don’t have to worry over it. The American President bears a fairly obvious political agenda. Andy Shephard has no military record, a musical daughter and courts a successful woman, who is so liberal she even helped burn the flag in her youth – predictably the production received strong co-operation from the Clinton White House. In fact, Clinton’s State of the Union tribute to Hilary suggests he was powerfully influenced by one scene in the film. The film most likely did not get help from republican Bob Dole [Clinton’s Republican opponent at the time for the Presidential Office], who also has his shadow – as the villain. With Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Entertainment, 1995) also released over here, the democrats had a filmic edge on republicans at this point in time. But many Hollywood films have serviced one or other party. Frank Capra, the subject of one of the best jokes in The American President, was the great polemicist for the New Deal. Intriguingly, several of the films I discuss were produced by Warner Bros., strong supporters of Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Wind and the Lion (Herb Jaffe, 1975), created by the right-wing libertarian John Milius, was homage to Theodore Roosevelt. Whilst the two parties might argue over the merits of particular movies, both are tied into the myths they create. The opening titles of The American President are a montage of images – portraits and photographs of past presidents intertwined with art objects and artefacts from the White House, home and symbol of the President. They all seem to be there, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, up to Kennedy and Johnson; [thus avoiding the more contemporary dilemmas like Nixon, Ford and Carter]. When Andy and Sydney first get together, they discuss and then tour this national treasury. Sydney’s problem is how to have romance with a man who she has to call Mr President – a living exhibit in this treasury. The tentative relationship between the two encapsulates the view of the President as shared by much of the American audience. The President must be at the same time the ‘boy next door’ and the most powerful man in the world – to span the log cabin and the white house. Anyone can make it to the White House, … In one of the classic renderings of the myth, Young Mr Lincoln (C20th Fox, 1939), we are presented with homespun Abe, a man of the people, who has to rise to become the figurehead of the people. This film closes with the famous memorial statue on Capital Hill, accompanied by the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘. His passage from the backwoods to the White House is the clear expression of the US’s claim to be the open society. The associations around emancipation address a mythic moral nation which conveniently forgets the ambiguities in the practices of this Republican President and his party. A rather more contradictory view is espoused in Spielberg’s Lincoln (Dreamworks / C20th Fox, 2012), which film dwells on the manipulative and corrupt politics that were required to bring the 13th Amendment [abolishing slavery] to the Stature Book. But even here the film leaves the audience with the celebrations by liberals and Afro-Americans at the passage of the Bill and then the death of the US’s ‘greatest’ president. The ordinary side of the Presidential myth has been expressed in a myriad ways. Lincoln’s chopping wood; Teddy Roosevelt’s sporting prowess; Kennedy humping ammunition in PT109 (Warner Bros., 1963), the film about his war service – the marks of difference are carefully deleted. Andy Shephard remarks that Franklin D Roosevelt would not have been elected as President in the age of television because of his wheelchair. At the time, newsreels appear to have avoided shots of Roosevelt in his chair (in the famous Yalta photograph a rug covers his legs and chair), and in PT109 Kennedy’s chronic back problem gets no mention. These are all examples of the ‘evaporation of history’ described by Barthes. Sydney’s problem with Andy is one that all the films have to negotiate – the audience needs to both identify with the filmic hero, and stand in awe of the super-ordinary figure. The Cahiers du Cinéma article on Young Mr Lincoln discusses how that film dramatises the Lincoln figure above mere politics.
“the first scene of the film already shows Lincoln as a political candidate without providing any information either on what may have brought him to this stage….or on the results of this electoral campaign [his first – he lost]…..Lincoln’s character makes all politics appear trivial.”
The American President uses a similar approach, Andy spends much of the film wheeling and dealing for Senate votes for bills watered down to avoid offending interest groups. At the movies’ end, Andy drops his worries about image, re-election, and opinion polls and stands up for what matters, the well-being of the nation. His reward is a standing ovation in Congress, and presumably a silent one from the cinema audience. But the films also have to deal with the dark side of the myth – misdeeds, corruption and death. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Cinergi Pictures / Hollywood Pictures 1995) presented one part of this darker side. Oliver Stone has already delved into villainy with J.F.K. (Warner, 1991). Much of that film has a noirish look as Jim Garrison [Kevin Costner] investigates the hidden worlds of intelligence, contras, right-wing militias and political manipulation, seeking the truth about the Kennedy assassination. The film, not too convincingly, posits a political-military conspiracy stemming from Kennedy’s supposed preparedness to exit the Vietnam conflict. What is interesting is not how accurate Stone might be, but how the film’s twinning of these two great national disasters struck so powerfully into the US psyche, drawing strong responses, for and against, in reviews. Thirty years on the loss of the Arthurian style president (there were frequent allusions to Camelot in the Kennedy era) and the US’s only major military defeat still rankles. The problem of the loss of this mythic president has also been worked out in several movies about the presidential bodyguard. In the Line of Fire (Columbia, 1993) has Tom Horrigan [Clint Eastwood] relive the failure of Dallas in 1963 as he attempts to ward off a contemporary Presidential assassin [John Malcovich]. The film reworks past Eastwood characters, [especially Dirty Harry, Warner, 1971] as Horrigan returns to the presidential bodyguard after years on other work. Like Jim Garrison, his search parallels a psychological rerun for the US public. In an early scene the re-called Horrigan puffs and pants during escort duty for the presidential cavalcade. Through the film he returns to fitness and successfully wards off the assassin, thus seeming to symbolise the way that the US has overcome its traumas about the loss of the presidential hero. In The Bodyguard (Kasdan Pictures / Warner Bros., 1992) Frank Farmer [Costner again] failed to protect Ronald Reagan, but the film reads just as well if Kennedy is substituted, especially as it was first written in the 1960’s (thanks to Michael Johns for this insight). In one scene Farmer rescues Fletcher, fatherless son of black entertainer Rachel Marron [Whitney Huston]. This would seen to twin concerns about fatherhood and racism – powerful motifs in the Kennedy myth. The father figure returns at the end of the film as the camera tracks in on Farmer whilst a minister addresses god – somewhat over the top, but US presidents, including Nixon, have happily used the portrait of the all-time patriarch that graces the dollar. In both these films and others which feature assassins, the favoured weapon is the gun. Historically this fits the record of attempts on Lincoln, Mckinley, Kennedy and Reagan. Even so, it is hard to resist a psychological response. Uniformly male, usually [in the terms of the contemporary culture] young, they seem to offer youthful rebellion against the father. Lincoln’s memorial is the perfect embodiment of patriarchy, as lesser mortals stand beneath and peer up at the personification of the law. But in a further contradiction, these patriarchal victims can also be young in years and ‘outside’ in terms of traditional values. Writing about the two Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcom X, Philip Slater perceptively remarked:
“It is probably not accidental that these recent figures were all rather young men – not conservative father figures trying to retain power and preserve old ways, but young liberals or radicals trying to effect social change. If we make the rather safe assumption that the potential assassin has conflicts about authority, the assassination of such men satisfies both their rebellious and submissive tendencies; the assassin does not really kill authority, he kills in the name of authority.” [Slater, 1970).
The scenario works exactly in J.F.K., and also in Anthony Man’s The Tall Target (MGM, 1951). There, the attempt on Lincoln’s life portrayed in the film is organised by pro-slavery southerners, and there is a real sense of Lincoln as outsider and disrupter. In one scene passengers on a train argue strongly for and against Abe. The potential assassin is a young man with a rifle, but his mentor (Adolphe Menjou – a crucial casting choice) is both older and more established. At the closure Lincoln expresses his contradictory position with the metaphor of himself `stealing into the White House like a thief`. Yet the film is aware of the need to maintain Lincoln’s stature, dramatized by the attitude of the detective who saves him, not a supporter but impressed with Lincoln as the man. So another recent foray, Dave (Warner, 1991), has an undesirable president replaced by his look-alike, innocent, but honest in the mould of the classic Capra hero. All The Presidents’ Men (Warner, 1976) essays a similar task as the journalist heroes, in the gleaming White Washington Post offices, uncover the dark deeds of White House, FBI and Republican activists. Interestingly, we only see Nixon at one remove – on a Television monitor. Regardless of party politics or federal/state antagonisms, the presidential figure rises above ordinary political concerns. This elevation correspondingly demands the vilification of the assassin. They are beyond ordinary evil in a world of psychosis or underhand and subversive forces. The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, 1962 and Paramount, 2004) uses malevolent communist brain washing to produce its assassin [and a corporate/military conspiracy in the remake]: the earlier film has some parallels with The Tall Target secessionists. In the Line of Fire uses dissident CIA operative, as does J.F.K., where the world of the assassins is a disturbing noir world both threatening and sleazy. Given Slater’s comments, the national guilt over Lincoln, Kennedy, King and Malcom could be working out both admiration and resentment. Thus the extremity of the narrative motivations for the assassins would seem to be a displacement for these ambiguous emotions. Not all filmic Presidents are quite as patriarchal, not all assassins so demonised. In Twilight’s Last Gleamings (Lorimar, 1977 – originally released in a shortened version] the well-meaning President dies, shot by his own men, as they attempt to silence dissident military bent on exposing the partial truth about the Vietnam war. This film by the consistently liberal Robert Aldrich was savagely cut on release and is still hardly ever seen. It is possible to argue that the equally liberal Oliver Stone, despite ostensibly addressing the Vietnam War in both JFK and the Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Hemdale, 1986; 4th of July and …Heaven & Earth, Warner 1993), avoids seriously addressing the issue. JFK does attack the Washington/Pentagon establishment, but the presidency is rescued in the person of Kennedy, who retains his position above politics. The American President travels this same territory when, at the film’s closure, Andy Shephard embraces unpopular environment and gun controls because it is his responsibility as leader of the nation. The father knows best, the law is right even if sometimes misapplied. After-thought: It seems to me that not a lot has changed since the 1990s. There is the film with the occasional ‘rotten apple’: Absolute Power is a good example. But the norm is the films that valorise the President. Thus in Independence Day (C20th Fox 1996) President ‘Pullman’ leads the sorties against he alien space ships, having first stolen a rousing speech to his men stolen from William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Harrison Ford has to lecture a misbehaving Present in Clear and Present danger (Paramount, 1994) but then represents a President who can outwit and outfight Kazakhstani terrorist in Air Force One (Columbia, 1997). The Vice-President in The Day After Tomorrow (C20th Fox, 2004) has a closed mind, but ‘the office maketh the man’ and he redeems himself when the President’s death elevates him to the supreme office. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln manages the tricky feat of valorising the most famous President whilst exposing the political manipulations that he indulged in. The sort of satirical exposure typified in Oliver Stone’s Nixon remains rare. W. (Lionsgate 2008) is in some ways an inferior remake, but Stone is a Hollywood Maverick, possibly the exception that proves the rule. Sources: There doesn’t seem to be much writing specifically on Presidential films. A famous analysis of Young Mr Lincoln, was done by Cahiers de Cinema, reprinted in Movies and Methods, Vol. 1 Ed Bill Nichols, Univ. California 1976. J.F.K. has an accompanying book and was also debated in Cineaste, 1992 vol.19, no 1. Sight and Sound has discussed The American President, and Dave in September 1993 issue; and JFK, in February 1992. Presidential movies get a mention in From Personality Cult to Apotheosis in Politics and Film, Furhammar and Isaksson, 1968.
Thanks to Michael Walker for suggesting The Tall Target.