Programming note: In a couple of hours' time Mark will be joining Kat, Tyrus and his fellow Torontonian Dr Debra Soh on "The Greg Gutfeld Show", live across America at 10pm Eastern/7pm Pacific. We hope you'll tune in!
These are strange times in America, with Andrew McCabe and the senior leadership of the FBI and Department of Justice living out their own Seven Days in May fantasy, except that in the Deputy Director's cut it's already halfway to Seven Years in May. We shall leave that disturbing convergence of Tinseltown and the Swamp for another day, but on this Presidents Day weekend I thought we'd take a look at the kind of president Hollywood lefties come up with when they're given free rein to design their ideal. There was a fashion for such films during the Clinton years, when a liberal president somewhat over-endowed with all too human flaws prompted a slew of movies with presidents of Clintonian bent but shorn of his appetites.
As it happens, the first big presidential hit of the Clinton years was really a Bush holdover. Ivan Reitman's Dave (1994) is a story about a lookalike and also a lookalike story: it looks a lot like The Prisoner of Zenda, but it dumps the most potent aspects of Anthony Hope's Ruritanian adventure — a gentleman adventurer torn between honor and love, and a princess torn between her duty and her heart. Because, of course, this is Washington, not Zenda. Instead, Dave starts with President Mitchell, a Bush-like stiff, requiring a night off for an extramarital legover and the wily Chief of Staff signing a doppelgänger to cover for him at a dinner on the rubber-chicken circuit. The doppelgänger, a pliable nobody called Dave, is told it's for national security reasons. Both the President and the nobody are played by Kevin Kline, so it's fun to watch.
Unfortunately President Mitchell over-exerts himself during the sheet-crumpling and has a stroke, so the doppelgänger is prevailed upon to stick around by the Chief of Staff (conjured with dark Machiavellian relish by Frank Langella). At first, Dave is content merely to dance goofily to "Louie, Louie" with the robots at factory openings. But, before you know it, he's getting all concerned about the homelessness crisis, which a) would appear to be more of a municipal jurisdiction; and b), given that Dave's screenwriter Gary Ross is unconcerned about (a), risks having the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) start wondering what happened to the unprincipled s.o.b. her husband used to be. Complications ensue - or as the promo slogan puts it, "In a country where anyone can become president, anyone just did".
That's to say, because he had not a jot or tittle of political experience until he found himself in the Oval Office, Dave is untouched by the cynicism of the Beltway insiders, the lobbyists and the donors, and thus is a threat to their racket. Frank Langella's character sends Vice-President Nance on a tour of Africa so he can stitch him up in a fake savings-and-loan scam while he's out of the country. Yet somehow Dave's disarming ignorance of the ways of Washington comes through. By comparison with its Ruritanian predecessor, this is unambitious fare: The Prisoner of Zenda is primal - honor and duty - whereas Dave is about getting an affordable housing bill through Congress: Certainly more of a challenge, but also a lot duller. More surprisingly, not a lot is made of the opportunities for lookalike fun: You keep waiting for a big comic set-piece, but all that happens is that Kline and Sigourney Weaver sing "The Sun'll Come Out Tomorrow" and suddenly we're at the happy ending.
Almost a quarter-century later, in a country where anyone can become president, anyone eventually did. And the Deep State types reacted pretty much as Frank Langella does in Dave, except insofar as, where the original subverted Vice-President Nance, these guys bypassed Vice-President Pence and moved straight on to crippling the President. Trump is like a remake of Dave where the disingenuous non-pol is now the bad guy and all the dark Deep State plotters are the heroes.
In 2016, of course, the entire movie biz wanted Hillary in the White House. Yet, oddly enough, the last time she was in the White House, they didn't want her there at all. After Dave there was a flurry of presidential motion pictures featuring recognizable albeit idealized versions of the then incumbent. But you couldn't help noticing that, while Hollywood had no trouble offering sanitized and indeed chemically castrated variants of Bill Clinton to moviegoers, it was strangely antipathetic to Hillary.
The nearest they got to solving the problem was in Primary Colors (1998). The Bill Clinton character was played by John Travolta at his most oleaginously ingratiating, whereas Hillary was such an unsympathetic character that, as with Hannibal Lecter or the Die Hard terrorist masterminds, they had to fly in a Brit to take the role. The part went to Emma Thompson, presumably because Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons turned it down. (If memory serves, Rickman drew the line at the prosthetically enhanced cankles, although he'd totally nailed the robotic voice that tells you to fasten your seat belt.)
On the other hand, at least Hillary made it into the movie. In most other Clintopics of the mid-Nineties, the filmmakers found it easier just to kill her off in the first reel. In The American President (1995), directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin, the Clinton figure is called Andrew Shepherd, but we all know who he's really meant to be. For one thing, President Shepherd is played by Bill's fellow sex fiend Michael Douglas. This was some years before Mr Douglas gave his strange interview blaming his throat cancer on his addiction to oral sex: Apparently, unlike Clinton, he does, as Ken Starr would say, reciprocate. Also unlike Clinton, he checked into a clinic to have his sex drive treated.
At any rate Douglas gives a fine sober performance of a White House widower. Alas, he's surrounded by spinners and fixers and focus-groupsters who analyze things only in terms of whether it'll add two points to his approval rating among soccer moms in Ohio. Until, that is, a lobbyist called Sydney shows up and he falls in love. No, not Blumenthal. This Sydney is Annette Bening, playing an environmental lobbyist who stiffens President Shepherd's resolve: is that a firm set of principles in your pocket or are you just pleased see me? As it happens, both. The American President was a therapy exercise for disillusioned Hollywood liberals midway through Clinton's first term, when they were just beginning to realize he was a trimmer and triangulator who didn't care about anything except how much action he was getting. Douglas can't quite throw off the whiff of liberal condescension, but Richard Dreyfuss does such a good job as evil GOP cartoon villain Senator Bob Rumson that, as with Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, I'm sure a lot of us were rooting for the baddie.
Independence Day the following year - 1996 - took it to the next level. Bob Dole, then in the midst of his post-modern self-subverting campaign for the presidency, was persuaded to see the film in order to appear au courant with the pop-culture types, and he gave it a rave review: "Diversity, leadership, America," as he summarized it, approvingly. A few days later, he was asked to expand on this précis and examine the film's qualities in greater depth: "We won, the end, leadership, America, good over evil," he announced.
That's really all you need to know, although he might have noted the fate of the First Lady. This time the Clintonian president was played by Bill Pullman, who, unlike Bob Dole, knows how to deploy a verb and gives an eve-of-battle speech to his troops in the Nevada desert that's the sort of peroration John Wayne might have given at Agincourt. Independence Day has an unerring sense of iconography, beginning with its first eerily formal image — an ominous shadow passing over the Stars and Stripes planted on the moon. Most invading aliens would knock out, say, the electric grids, but these guys want to make a point: they zap the Statue of Liberty, they shatter the Empire State Building, and best of all they blow up the White House. It was this shot in the trailer that had American audiences cheering. Makes you wonder about the ovation they'd have got if they'd taken out the World Trade Center. At the time of the trailer, the actual film hadn't been completed, but the promotional tease was such a hit that director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer/producer Dean Devlin basically built the film around it: even before the picture was released, its signature image — the flying saucers big as cities hovering over New York and Los Angeles and plunging them into endless night — was being parodied in the trailers for the Brady Bunch sequel.
As for the movie itself, Dole had a point about "diversity". The aliens who destroy the world's great cities are eventually overcome by an array of archetypes — a black air ace (Will Smith), a brainy Jew (Jeff Goldblum), a stripper with a heart of gold (Vivica A Fox)... More irksome stereotypes — like the whiny gay — are dispatched early on. And so is First Lady Marilyn Whitmore who, in an otherwise all-star cast, winds up being played by Mary McDonnell. Like Hillary's chopper in Bosnia, Marilyn's helicopter is shot down, but by space aliens rather than Hillary's fantasy Serbs. The First Lady suffers terrible injuries and dies in a military hospital. In The American President, the First Lady's death enables the Clintonian president to get in touch with his feminine side and demonstrate how much he cares. In Independence Day, the First Lady's death enables the Clintonian president to get in touch with his masculine side, don his helmet, climb into the cockpit and jet off to vanquish the foe. But in both films only the demise of the missus can liberate the President's heroic qualities. Hmm...
On the qualities more routinely liberated in actual Clintonian presidents, well, as I wrote in The National Post almost exactly twenty years ago - February 25th 1999:
Juanita Broaddrick's rapist wasn't just a boss or a powerful, well-connected man: He was at that time the attorney-general of Arkansas, the state's chief prosecutor, the man responsible for enforcing rape law. Yet Mr Clinton's nation of deniers will still shrug: Why didn't she press charges? Likewise, when Kathleen Willey — you remember, last March's Psycho Slut Of The Month — said she wanted to slap his face, skeptics demanded: Why didn't she?
Here's why. The best film about Bill Clinton is not Primary Colors or Wag the Dog but a little-noticed Clint Eastwood thriller released in 1997. Absolute Power opens with a late-night rendezvous between President Richmond (Gene Hackman) and the young attractive wife of one of his major campaign donors. He pushes her crudely down to crotch level — the Monica position. But things get a little rough and she slaps his face — as Mrs Willey wanted to do. The president howls. She struggles to break free. He places her hand on his crotch and she grabs it hard. He screams again. At this point, the Secret Service men standing guard burst in, see this woman physically threatening their president and, as they're trained to do reflexively, shoot her dead.
That's why Mrs Willey stayed her hand.
I wish, instead of the somewhat predictably forceful Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood had cast a soft moist pre-woke New Man...
Bill Clinton's own personal favorite from this era of presidential pics was the kick-ass action thriller Air Force One, which begins with President Harrison Ford delivering a speech that's both patently absurd and unnervingly plausible: "Never again will I allow our national self-interest to deter us from doing what is morally right" - the sort of thing a finger-wagging Slick Willie might have said at the UN before sitting out the Rwandan genocide, or Barack Obama just before a mass beheading of western hostages by Isis. It sits a little more awkwardly in the mouth of Harrison Ford - and happily, by the time it's over, the craggy old thing has shot dead several terrorists; cunningly spoken fluent Russian to them; taught himself to fly the presidential jet and dodge MiG fighters; hung off the edge of the plane's open parachute bay, clinging on by his fingernails; and hung off the edge of the parachute bay a second time, with the added complication of being locked in mortal combat with a Kazakh terrorist leader while snarling through clenched teeth, "Get. Off. My. Plane."
That's probably the most famous presidential movie line of the last couple of decades, but I confess a preference for James Garner in My Fellow Americans (1996), telling his Secret Service detail to leave him alone and go rent In the Line of Fire...
~With his ever mounting legal bills from college-loan billionaire and First Amendment constrainer Cary Katz, Mark is taking to the road and joining the great Dennis Miller on tour. This coming week they'll be together on stage for the first time, starting in Reading, Pennsylvania on Friday February 22nd and continuing to Syracuse, New York on Saturday the 23rd. The VIP tickets are gone in Syracuse, but there are still a few left in Reading, and they get you not only enjoy premium seating but the chance to meet Dennis and Mark after the show, a photo with both of them, and an autographed gift to take home. We hope to see you there!
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Mark will see you on the telly at 10pm Eastern.