TCU Daily Skiff Wednesday, February 18, 2004
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Films depicting the presidency give various slants on White House ideals
The celluloid presidency: Hollywood’s spin on the White House.

By Paul Hodgins
The Orange County Register

The president strides purposefully into the Oval Office. He’s tall, strong-jawed and handsome. Take that back, he’s short, ruddy and avuncular. No, he’s black. And he’s got a gun. And a dozen long-stemmed roses. And he’s dressed in a flight suit. OK, now he’s 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 statesman.

As the primary season begins to heat up, and Americans again fall into that familiar, quadrennial pattern of wondering who might lead them, let’s take a look at some of these alternative-universe presidencies to see what they tell us about ourselves.

President as regular guy
One of Hollywood’s 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 party’s candidate dies. Initially he’s 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 Rock’s 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 country’s thorny problems begin to improve, along with the first lady’s sex life. The regular-guy coup de grace occurs when Dave’s buddy, loser-y accountant Murray Blum (Charles Grodin), stops by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in his grubby subcompact car to solve the nation’s financial mess.

This genre’s appeal is obvious. Who hasn’t 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 Reiner’s “The American President.”

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 it’s 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 Travolta’s work as the “fictional” Jack Stanton in “Primary Colors” (1998). Based on Joe Klein’s 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 Clinton’s, oops, I mean Stanton’s 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 it’s time to get personal. The ex-fighter pilot gives a hammy St. Crispin’s 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 America’s most macho first man, in the made-for-TV movie “Rough Riders” (1997). As the film graphically shows, Roosevelt’s 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, it’s a byproduct of our turbulent history — or a symbolic physical manifestation of the presidency, which is inherently more powerful than the parliamentary system’s top post, the prime minister.

President as Yoda (or Gandalf, if that first image offends you)
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 don’t, 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 fair decisions.

Bartlet is human, he’s 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 show’s 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, Bartlet’s wisdom becomes more remarkable with each passing episode.
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Such 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.
TCU Daily Skiff ©2004
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