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Monday, February 18, 2008

Film: Great Celluloid Presidents

Here in the United States it is President's Day, which celebrates the merging of two President's birthdays into one day that is neither of their actual birthdays but which meets the goal of maximum productivity by minimizing excess holidays and placing them, whenever possible, on a Monday.

With that kind of patriotic ferver in mind I present a sampling of cinematic Presidents, with a real one mixed in just to keep us on our toes. Can you spot the real President? Good luck!

1) Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln

One of Director John Ford's greatest films, and one of lead actor Henry Fonda's best performances. We are introduced to Lincoln in his pre-Presidential years (an origin story as the studio heads might say). Rather than stoic be-bearded stuffiness we get lanky, canny Matlock-y sharp country lawyer and yes, tragic lover. Here's a great scene in which he visits the grave of his early love.

2) Dan Hedaya as Richard Nixon in Dick

I'll take Hedaya over Anthony Hopkin's Nixon in a Tricky Dick-off anyday. In a lot less time than Oliver Stone devoted to one of our worst Presidents in his bloated opus Nixon, Hedaya captures the man's self-loathing and deep insecurity, not to mention his paranoia and vindictiveness. And it's a comedy!

3) Jimmy Carter as Jimmy Carter in Used Cars

Ah, the malaise years. The Carter presidency was marked by crises: gas, inflation, hostage, confidence. That deep well of cynicism was tapped by Robert Zemeckis' farce Used Cars. In the scene below, the guys at one used car lot mess with the owners of the other by hacking into a televised Presidential address with an ad set at their rival's lot. Part of what makes this hilarious is the use of a real speech by Carter to frame the ad.

4) John Travolta as Governer Jack Stanton in Primary Colors

For most of Mike Nichols' Primary Colors Jack Stanton is a governor running for his party's primary nomination. However the last scene in the film shows he and his first lady (a fantastic Emma Thompson as Hillary to his Bill) dancing at the inaguaral ball so this counts. Playing a character as flawed as the film he's in, you can't help loving him even as you flinch from some of his excesses and wonder where ambition meets expedience meets compassion. Yes, it's Bill Clinton in a nutshell:

5) Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest cinematic satires ever and its President, played to perfection by Peter Sellers, is key to what makes Stanley Kubrick's cold war masterpiece work. President Muffley is a stickler for protocol and finding a reasonable solution to any problem. Clearly modeled after 50s Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson, Muffley's measured approach to the insanity around him begins to seem somewhat insane itself. The "straight" version of this same scenario came out later the same year as Fail-Safe and just compare Henry Fonda's compassionate performance as the President to what Sellar's does with essentially the same material. Here's an outstanding scene in which President Muffley calls the Russian Premier to explain the hideous mistake that is unfolding:


Warpublican said...

Hey, what about Donald Pleasence in "Escape from New York" and Kevin Kline in "Dave."

I also enjoyed Bill Pullman in "Independence Day"

Slothrop said...

I have to save a few for next year..Pullman defintely has it over Morgan Freeman in "Deep Impact" and Pleasance is symbolic Jimmy Carter - hostage to crime and a crumbled financial center. Kevin Kline is very good in "Dave" but I always think of Richard Dreyfus in "Moon Over Parador" while I'm watching it...