U.S. Presidents on Film
I’ve got a piece up on MSNBC today about portrayals of U.S. presidents on film — to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone’s W. Here’s a quick synopsis of some of the films I had to watch for the piece.
Worth the time:
1. Thirteen Days (2000): Focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), special assistant to the president, whose biggest worry, at the story begins, is his son’s report card and Jackie’s party list. Then the world nearly ends. Watch the film and you can count the ways it nearly ends: If JFK had listened to the Joint Chiefs or if he had listened to Dean Acheson or if Bob McNamara hadn’t come up with the quarantine alternative or if General LeMay had gotten his way (“The big red dog is diggin’ in our backyard and we are justified in shooting him!”) or if the Russian ships hadn’t turned back or if the administration hadn’t come up with the plan to ignore Khrushchev’s second letter in favor of his first…well, then you might not be reading this. These days, almost everyone on the right, and a few on the left, invoke Neville Chamberlain as the diplomatic bogeyman. Get bullied and World War II results. JFK and his team repeatedly invoke The Guns of August: the book about how misunderstandings between countries led to WWI. Presidents reading. Imagine that.
2. Path to War (2002): John Frankenheimer’s last film, about how, step by step, LBJ got us involved in Vietnam. What’s intriguing about this version of history is how early the designers of the Vietnam War, particularly Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin, shining), realized a victory wasn’t a sure thing. There’s a powerful scene, just after McNamara talks with his aides about how many losses we’ll probably sustain for such-and-such a period, when a Quaker, Norman Morrison, sets himself on fire outside McNamara’s Pentagon office to remind everyone what a loss of a life is. Ultimately the film is a semi-sympathetic portrayal of Johnson. He listened to the wrong advice, probably against his gut instinct, and stuck us there for 10 years and lost his (and our) Great Society along with 50,000 American lives. It’s another example of the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, getting involved where they shouldn’t, and against their own better instincts, because of a combination of hubris and the fear of appearing weak. Helluva cast: Baldwin, Michael Gambon (as LBJ), Donald Sutherland, Philip Baker Hall (who played Nixon in Secret Honor), Frederic Forrest and one of my favorite character actors, Bruce McGill, who plays CIA Chief George Tenet in W.
3. The Day Reagan was Shot (2001): A surprisingly good Showtime film from the early 2000s. Actors who have to play well-known figures should study Richard Crenna here. He merely suggests Reagan, he doesn’t imitate him. The film is sympathetic to Haig, too, who is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who would go on to play Dick Cheney in W. What I learned: Reagan came close to dying that day in 1981; and the federal government was more or less in chaos; and the White House was unable to even secure outside lines when they needed to. The usual bureaucratic pissing matches are fun to watch: FBI vs. Treasury; Haig vs. Weinberger. The film is both comic and scary. At one point, for example, the “football,” or the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes, goes missing.
4. Secret Honor (1984): I first saw this when it came out, or at least when it came to the University of Minnesota in January 1985, and I wondered if it would hold up. Does. It’s a one-man show, all Phillip Baker Hall, bless him. Nixon, drinking in exile, lurches between defending himself and attacking, vituperatively, profanely, his many enemies. “I was just an unindicted co-conspirator like everyone else in the United State of America,” he rails at one point. As for that secret honor? According to Altman’s Nixon, the people that put him in charge, the Committee of 100, wanted him to continue the Vietnam War, to nab a third term, and to use China against the Soviets and then “carve up the markets of the rest of the goddamned world.” Nixon fell on his sword rather than let this to happen. So Altman’s take was similar to Stone’s later take. Both imply that while Nixon may have been a bastard, the people behind him? Man, you don’t want to go there.
5. Nixon (1995): I got stuck with the director’s cut. Interestingly, the reinstated scenes on an HDTV show up blurry, or blurrier, so let you know exactly what was cut. And why. Because most of these scenes focus on that Oliver Stone paranoia of “the system” being like a “beast.” They deserved the cutting room floor. That said, the theatrical version is quite good and fairly sympathetic to Nixon. So interesting. Hollywood gives us sympathetic Nixons and LBJs but coldhearted Thomas Jeffersons. Love Anthony Hopkins in the title role, but Joan Allen (sorry, darling) is way too sexy to play Pat Nixon. Money quote: “People vote not out of love but fear.”
6. The Crossing (1999): An A&E film. A little slow but a fascinating look at the low point of the American Revolution. It’s the moment when, out of desperation, we went on the attack, the surprise attack, and salvaged our last chance at independence.
1. Truman (1995): Gary Sinese is great but it’s a dull, conventional film (from HBO) about the man who, we’re told time and again, was “as stubborn as a Missouri mule.” Sample line from a speech during his 1948 whistle-stop tour. “I am for the people and against the special interests.” Hey, me too! In the end, too much life to be portrayed in too little time. And, sorry Gore Vidal, but no mention of the creation of the National Security State in 1947. Yeah, big shock.
2. Jefferson in Paris (1995): One gets the feeling the filmmakers wanted to suggest the leisurely pace of 18th century society, as Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon, but here it just comes off as dull. Nolte’s Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, is a remarkably cold and hypocritical man.
3. Wilson (1944): Another reluctant president. Another pure man. The only presidential biopic to be nominated for best picture. Also helped kill the presidential biopic since it bombed at the box office.
4. The Reagans (2003): Before Josh Brolin played W., his father, James Brolin, played Reagan. All in the family. Good quote from Republican operatives in 1964 talking amongst themselves: “His lack of political knowledge, c’mon fellas, just makes him seem more a man of the people!” Republicans have been following that script ever since: Reagan, Quayle, W., Palin...
5. Sunrise at Campobello (1960): Former Navy secretary and vice-presidential nominee FDR contracts polio but makes his political comeback at the 1924 Democratic Convention. From a popular play, but onscreen (sorry) it just sits there.
6. Abraham Lincoln (1930): D.W. Griffith’s last film. Ponderous, folksy, monumental, dusty. Like Truman in Truman, Lincoln is portrayed as a man without ambition. Here’s an idea of what the film is like: At one point, late at night, Lincoln (Walter Huston) paces in the White House only to stop and proclaim: “I’ve got it, Mary! I’ve found the man to win the war! And his name is…GRANT!” And that, kids, is how presidential decisions are made.
7. DC 9/11: Time of Crisis (2003): The worst.