Watching President Obama address Wall Street at Cooper Union this past week, I must say I still felt proud to have voted for him. Though many I've spoken to claim the actual reform bill behind Obama's rhetoric is flawed -- depending on the source, it either does too much or too little -- what the President is saying about the need for fundamental change in the finance industry seems unassailable.
Beyond the speech itself, I also noticed Obama already aging in his office, and thought again of the awesome burden inherent in the modern Presidency, which lies in its essential duality: on the one hand, you are the country's most public figure -- endlessly profiled, scrutinized and judged; on the other, you occupy the loneliest and most isolating job on the planet, where the lives and welfare of millions ultimately fall on your shoulders, both now and for posterity.
Given the sheer scale and complexity of the Presidency in modern times, and the paradox which lies at its heart, it's no surprise that a host of great films have explored the nature of our country's highest office. The best of them juxtapose its intensely public and private aspects, and whether intended to scare or amuse us, put us on the inside of the highest-stakes game we know.
First, there are movies built on actual history and real-life figures. While I was annoyed and distracted by Kevin Costner's atrocious Boston accent in the more recent dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days (2002), the film still delivers a fairly taut depiction of that fateful period in 1962 when the whole world held its collective breath. A better version, however, came first: The Missiles Of October (1974), an Emmy winning TV movie which boasts two magnetic actors playing the Kennedy brothers: William Devane as the President, and Martin Sheen as Bobby (Sheen would also play Jack in a later TV mini-series). Suffice it to say, all those Emmy nominations were well-deserved. Viewing Missiles again, one can barely believe this scenario actually took place.
Though you never glimpse anyone playing Richard Nixon, one of the top films about the presidency documents how the power of the press and the determination of two young journalists brought down this occupant, who only two years prior had won re-election by the widest margin in history. All The President's Men (1976) was faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer-Prize winning book authored by these same reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The movie remains more exciting than fiction, and the stars -- Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and Jason Robards as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee -- merge seamlessly with their real-life counterparts.
For a strictly satirical take on the Nixon White House, try the divinely offbeat Dick (1999), which follows the inspired comic notion that two young teens unwittingly pierced the heart of the biggest scandal in presidential history (Watergate), and never once realized it. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams are endearing as the ditzy girls, and character actor Dan Hedaya makes even tricky Dick seem strangely loveable.
Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998), the thinly-veiled account of Bill Clinton's bumpy rise to the Presidency, is at times bizarre, even spooky, but in the final analysis irresistible, thanks to colorful characterizations from stars John Travolta (spot-on as the Clinton character), Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates. Emma Thompson, of all people, also makes for an unexpected but surprisingly effective Hillary composite. One of our finest political satires, executed by a master.
Many presidential films strictly in the fictional realm still have the impact to make us think, "What if?" Though terrorism feeds our current source of national paranoia, in the fifties and early sixties, it was the emerging Cold War, and the nuclear arms race which provided a fragile, uneasy deterrent on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
1962 saw the release of The Manchurian Candidate directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. Building to a shattering crescendo, this twisty, unnerving story of a soldier brainwashed by communists to kill the President skillfully evokes the suffocating paranoia of the Cold War and the "Red Scare". All the players are first-rate, in particular Angela Lansbury as the mother from hell. (Trivia note: Sinatra had all prints pulled a year after its release following JFK's assassination, and Candidate basically remained on the shelf for thirty years.)
Two years after the release of Candidate, director Frankenheimer scored again with Seven Days In May, about a group of right-wing generals who plan a military coup to take over the country. Beyond serving as a showcase for two frequently paired stars who oppose each other- Burt Lancaster as a power-mad general, and Kirk Douglas as the principled whistle-blower -- the movie works because the premise feels all-too-plausible. Also, the great Fredric March is on-hand, turning in a pitch-perfect performance as the embattled (but not enfeebled) President.
1964 also saw the release of the most inspired piece of Cold War satire ever put on celluloid: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove-Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. With Kubrick's genius as director and screenwriter in full bloom, and with peerless performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden, the film manages to be unbearably funny and fairly disturbing all at the same time.
My favorite serious movie in this vein is Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), in which a nightmare scenario comes to pass: through the unlikeliest of circumstances, an American aircraft loaded with nuclear warheads is headed towards Moscow, and cannot be recalled. Throughout the film, Lumet expertly uses the camera to build claustrophobia and tension. The scenes with Henry Fonda as the President and Larry Hagman as a petrified Russian translator are especially riveting. Walter Matthau also makes your blood run cold as a dispassionate, fatalistic nuclear arms expert.
Ten years later, Alan J. Pakula would blend elements of Manchurian Candidate and President's Men in The Parallax View, a first-rate thriller detailing a reporter's investigation into a secret group of political assassins who may be after a Presidential candidate. Featuring suitably tense, understated turns by Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss and Hume Cronyn, the movie's vivid sense of realism gets under your skin and holds you to the finish, subtly reviving speculation about the circumstances surrounding President Kennedy's murder.
Finally, a film that sheds serious light on the presidency- less on the nature of the office itself, more on its attainment -- is The Contender (2002), starring Joan Allen, Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges. A star making vehicle for the prodigiously talented Allen, the film portrays the disproportionate personal scrutiny imposed on anyone pursuing the highest levels of national office (in this case, the Vice-Presidency), particularly if that candidate is a woman. Rod Lurie's resonant morality play about honor and political ambition is superbly played by all the principals, with Bridges's presidential speech a particular highlight.
In an era of highly charged politics, these titles constitute timely viewing that will certainly entertain, but also offer revealing perspective on where the bucks really stops- the Presidency itself- this still awe-inspiring institution comprised of a single human being empowered and expected to lead the free world.
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