depicting the presidency give various slants on White
celluloid presidency: Hollywoods spin on the White
The Orange County Register
The president strides purposefully into the Oval Office.
Hes tall, strong-jawed and handsome. Take that back,
hes short, ruddy and avuncular. No, hes black.
And hes got a gun. And a dozen long-stemmed roses.
And hes dressed in a flight suit. OK, now hes
in Air Force One, battling nasty terrorists. Or piloting
a fighter jet, blasting away at murderous aliens from
the far side of the universe ...
Anyone who has paid even scant attention to the movies
or network television over the past decade probably recognized
a few of the fictional presidencies that have been foisted
on us in the name of entertainment. We all want our chief
executive to be heroic, decent and supremely capable.
But when it comes to the dictates of genre and story line
and the sometimes quirky predilections of Hollywood's
creative community the leader of our country, when
fictionalized, can assume many forms: Stallone-ish action
figure, romantic demigod, frumpy Everyman, wise elder
As the primary season begins to heat up, and Americans
again fall into that familiar, quadrennial pattern of
wondering who might lead them, lets take a look
at some of these alternative-universe presidencies to
see what they tell us about ourselves.
President as regular guy
One of Hollywoods favorite folk tales involves the
unexceptional person who stumbles into exceptional circumstances
and surprises everyone by his success, including himself.
Applied to the presidency, there are two good examples.
In Head of State (2003), Chris Rock plays
Mays Gilliam, a scrappy Washington, D.C., alderman who
is inexplicably picked by the Democrats to run for president
when the partys candidate dies. Initially hes
set up to fail, but with the help of his sly-fox brother
(Bernie Mac), Gilliam outwits the Washington elite. He
comes across as a raw, honest populist who can cut through
the political bull. The nation, of course, loves him.
But Rocks lightweight directorial debut pales in
comparison to Dave (1993). Kevin Kline plays
Dave Kovic, a kindly, low-key temp-agency worker who happens
to be a dead ringer for the unlikable POTUS. The president
is sidelined by a stroke, Dave steps in, and, voila! The
countrys thorny problems begin to improve, along
with the first ladys sex life. The regular-guy coup
de grace occurs when Daves buddy, loser-y accountant
Murray Blum (Charles Grodin), stops by 1600 Pennsylvania
Ave. in his grubby subcompact car to solve the nations
This genres appeal is obvious. Who hasnt entertained
the fantasy that if those nincompoops inside the Beltway
could just step aside, normal people could fix whatever
ails the republic in a couple of eight-hour shifts?
President as hottie
The Kennedy White House introduced a new notion: That
the president need not be a white-haired elder; that he
could, in fact, be babe bait.
On film, there are several examples of presidencies that
seem ripped from the doodlings of Harlequin Romance writers.
The most obvious, of course, is Rob Reiners The
Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd, a popular
leader and a widower trying to raise a daughter in the
White House. When he falls for lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade
(Annette Bening), the media goes wild and the public
has second thoughts. The movie also tackles some serious
issues (gun control, mainly), but its an Aaron Sorkin
script, after all. The creator of The West Wing
loves romantic sparks and whip-smart dialogue.
But after The American President, the most
compelling portrayal of a leader whose persona woos all
is John Travoltas work as the fictional
Jack Stanton in Primary Colors (1998). Based
on Joe Kleins best-selling book, the story concerns
a handsome Southern governor who must deal with a sex
scandal during his White House bid. Hmmm, sound familiar?
Travolta brilliantly captures Clintons, oops, I
mean Stantons irresistible combination of magnetism,
folksiness and sex appeal.
President as macho man
Many of us want a leader whose brave words are matched
by his actions, and the Oval Office has been occupied
by several distinguished military men. Hollywood has taken
the he-man presidency to extremes several times.
Independence Day (1996) gives us Bill Pullman
as President Thomas J. Whitmore. After a vast alien space
flotilla decimates his military and pulverizes his White
House, Pullman decides its time to get personal.
The ex-fighter pilot gives a hammy St. Crispins
Day speech, then dons his flight helmet to blast away
at the intergalactic bad guys.
More plausible, if no less testosterone-stoked, is Harrison
Ford as President James Marshall in Air Force One
(1997). When a group of terrorist thugs takes over the
presidential jumbo jet, Marshall snaps into commando mode,
deceiving them into thinking he's escaped from the plane,
then launching a stealthy counterattack. Who knew what
a blessing it would be to elect a former soldier and Medal
of Honor winner?
Some depictions of real presidents have dwelled on their
physical prowess. Tom Berenger gave a virile and thoroughly
believable performance as Theodore Roosevelt, surely Americas
most macho first man, in the made-for-TV movie Rough
Riders (1997). As the film graphically shows, Roosevelts
pre-White House adventures make Winston Churchill look
like a wimp.
Within the realm of Western democracies, Americans seem
to be unique in their desire to imagine a chief executive
who can back up his words with a stiff uppercut to the
jaw. Perhaps, its a byproduct of our turbulent history
or a symbolic physical manifestation of the presidency,
which is inherently more powerful than the parliamentary
systems top post, the prime minister.
President as Yoda (or Gandalf, if that first image
The most pervasive characteristic of screen presidencies
is portraying our leader as a wise and circumspect man
(never, alas, a woman) who dwells above the fray, sees
the big picture when others dont, and always makes
the right decision.
There are several examples of real-life presidents who
are given those qualities on film: Gary Sinise in the
title role of the 1995 TV movie, Truman; Jeff
Daniels as George Washington during his decisive military
campaigns in The Crossing (2000); Bruce Greenwood
as President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in
the gripping drama Thirteen Days (2000).
But the best current example of the genre is undoubtedly
the long-running NBC drama The West Wing.
Martin Sheen plays President Josiah Bartlet, a stoic New
Englander whose Democratic administration is distinguished
by his steady hand, strong sense of ethics and tough but
Bartlet is human, hes prone to fits of pique. And
the Bartlet administration is decidedly to the left of
any presidency in memory. Creator Aaron Sorkin is not
afraid to wear his politics on his sleeve.
But among Washington insiders, even the shows detractors
admit that there has never been a more detailed or realistic
look at the daily pressures, rivalries and contests that
preoccupy the White House. Measured against the din of
those petty events, Bartlets wisdom becomes more
remarkable with each passing episode.
actors as Bill Pullman (Independence Day),
Chris Rock (Head of State), Martin
Sheen (West Wing) and John Travolta
(Primary Colors) have set the standards
for the presidential candidacy.