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Hail to the Cinematic Chiefs
President George W. Bush should consider “W.” a compliment. Director Oliver Stone is merely giving our 43rd president what few of the preceding presidents have ever gotten: a feature-length, theatrical biopic.
How rare is this? According to IMDb.com, every president has been featured in at least something in the movies or on TV, with Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan bringing up the rear with one appearance each. Fillmore turned up in the 22-minute short, “The Monroe Doctrine” in 1939, while Buchanan, the man who didn’t free the slaves, never made the cut until he was voiced by David Gergen in the 2000 PBS documentary “The American President.”
Abraham Lincoln, no surprise, tops the list, with 210 portrayals in movies or on TV, followed by George Washington (119), Thomas Jefferson (81) and Ulysses S. Grant (73).
“W.” is George W. Bush’s 67th appearance as a character, tying him, believe it or not, with John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt for sixth place, and putting him within easy reach of Franklin D. Roosevelt (69) in fifth place. Not to mention far outpacing his father, whose 19 appearances have been either comic or cameos.
Of course, the same can be said for most of those 67 George W. Bushes running around. They’re either cartoonish (“Frank TV”) or cartoons (“Li’l Bush”). Even one of the few times he was played seriously, in the 2003 Showtime film “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis,” he comes off as so heroic — barking lightning-quick orders at Donald Rumsfeld, facing down a submissive Dick Cheney — as to be absurd.
So it is with most presidents. We’re either constructing myths for the purpose of solemnity or deconstructing them for the purpose of comedy. We thrust presidents on pedestals (“I cannot tell a lie”) and then mock what’s on that pedestal (“Who’s this pompous ass who claims he cannot tell a lie?”). What gets lost in between is history.
The Special Guest Star: Hanging with Shirley Temple and Harold and Kumar
Overall, there are four basic roles presidents play on film: the special guest star, the romantic, the key figure in an event, and rarely, very rarely, the star of their own life story.
Let’s start with the special guest star. These are movies about someone else — generally people like us — and the president turns up sometimes to validate (think Franklin Roosevelt at the end of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), and sometimes to act as catalyst to the main action in the film.
Lincoln encouraged railroad expansion in John Ford’s silent film “The Iron Horse” and off they went. Dwight Eisenhower insisted on using test pilots as astronauts in “The Right Stuff” and off we went. Sometimes the film’s plot is propelled less by presidential edict than by assassination or near-assassination: Think Lincoln in “Birth of a Nation,” Kennedy in “JFK,” and Ronald Reagan in the surprisingly good Showtime movie “The Day Reagan was Shot.”
But most often, when our presidents turn up in a guest starring role, they act as a kind of deus ex machina. They swoop in and resolve conflicts. So Lincoln commutes the death sentence of Shirley Temple’s Confederate father in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Teddy Roosevelt prevents the deportation of the titular heroine in “My Girl Tisa,” and Bush smokes pot and helps Kumar get the girl in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.”
The Romantic: Thomas Jefferson slept here... and here... and here
Then there’s the long tradition of presidents as, of all things, romantic figures. One of the first presidential portrayals, from 1914, was called “Lincoln the Lover,” and concerned Lincoln’s doomed relationship with Ann Rutledge. Even a son of the South could sympathize.
Which is exactly the point. Are presidents too stone-like? Monumental? Divisive? Here’s a way to dust them off and get women in the seats.
Other heartthrob presidents include Andrew Jackson, who was tempted by a tavern girl in “Gorgeous Hussy” and fought to save the honor of his wife in “The President’s Lady”; and Thomas Jefferson, who needed the comforts of his wife to write the Declaration of Independence in “1776,” then coldly romanced both another man’s wife and his own slave in “Jefferson in Paris.”
Television, meanwhile, has given us the feel-good romances of the Roosevelts (“Eleanor and Franklin”), Eisenhower and his secretary (“Ike”) and the Reagans (“The Reagans”). Apparently some people can’t get enough of this stuff but for me it’s like kissing your sister. Romance is the last thing presidents are for.
The Key Figure: Humanizing the president
As for portraying a president, or a future president, as the key figure in an event? Past films did this OK (“Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Sunrise at Campobello” and “PT-109”), but all of these portraits are halfway to myth. They obscure more than they reveal.
Give me the recent versions: John Travolta’s dead-on Bill Clinton (but not Clinton) running for office in “Primary Colors”; or Jeff Daniels’ George Washington turning the tide of the American Revolution with a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost in the TV movie “The Crossing.”
In fact, the two best films that humanized the men in the Oval Office, and made you feel the overwhelming pressures they feel, are both from the last 10 years. In “Thirteen Days,” Kennedy resists the Joint Chiefs’ demands to bomb Cuba back to the stone age and chooses instead Robert McNamara’s quarantine alternative that ultimately saves the day. Meanwhile, in HBO’s “Path to War,” it’s Lyndon Johnson who disastrously listens to McNamara and never finds the alternative that would allow us to extricate ourselves from Vietnam.
You watch these films and wonder why anyone in their right mind would want the job.
The Star: Lincoln, Johnson, Wilson, Nixon... W.
Which leaves biopics. TV has given us tons — “Kennedy” “George Washington” “Truman,” “John Adams” — but to return to our original question: How many theatrical biopics of U.S. presidents have been made? Let’s tabulate since the advent of sound.
In 1930, D.W. Griffith directed “Abraham Lincoln,” with Walter Huston, in the lead, playing both folksy and chiseled in stone. It’s an abysmal film. In 1942, MGM gave us “Tennessee Johnson,” a triumphant biopic of Andrew Johnson, now regarded as one of the worst presidents ever.
Two years later, Darryl F. Zanuck finally released his pet project, “Wilson,” which received a best picture nomination but flopped at the box office. Even Alexander Knox, in the lead, seems dwarfed by the immensity of Zanuck’s White House.
Fifty years later, Oliver Stone gave us “Nixon,” a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a man trapped between the Quaker ideals of his mother and the dirty tricks necessary to succeed in the world.
And that’s it. No George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. No Roosevelts, Kennedy or Reagan.
But now a W.
“W.” is straightforward and almost breezy. It intercuts Bush’s life story with the story of how we got involved in Iraq, and Josh Brolin, in the lead, gives a complex portrait of a simple man.
Each president’s life contains elements of tragedy. So Lincoln was assassinated and Woodrow Wilson couldn’t get the League of Nations through Congress and Nixon’s vindictiveness undid what good he did. The tragedy of “W.,” Stone makes clear, is that our 43rd president screwed up the world in countless ways... and yet can’t think of one thing he did wrong.
But it’s still a compliment.
—Ask not what Erik Lundegaard can do for you; ask what you can do for Erik Lundegaard. This piece was originally published 10/15/2008 on MSNBC.com.