The Presidency in Films
Hollywood was in the business of building an image of America - and of the presidency - that would unite a heterogeneous culture
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By 1948, however, Hollywood began to go for more realism. In Capra's classic State of the Union, the great humanist director explored the corrupting nature of presidential politics on a good man. Spencer Tracy is almost seduced away from his best principles but retrenches when he sees his wife being sucked down into dishonesty.Skip to next paragraph
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"State of the Union" foreshadows one of the finest films on the making of a president ever shot: Franklin Schaffner's The Best Man (1964) marks a radical change in Hollywood's depiction of the presidency.
The premise of "The Best Man" is that a truly honest man or even a truly intelligent man could never be president. Henry Fonda's liberal intellectual (but indecisive) candidate for president hasn't a chance against a hypocritical and ruthless opponent. His best choice is to subvert the bad man at the expense of his own career.
IN 1964, with the nation's citizens beginning to question what their leaders told them, several rather biting movies about the presidency were released. Stanley Kubrick's scathing satire Dr. Strangelove presented the most ineffectual president in the entire history of film. In other films of this period, the presidency was scaled back to human dimensions - usually a good man, but hesitant and a tad unsure.
In Fail Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964), Fonda starred again, this time as president. On the brink of World War III, the president must make a terrible conciliatory gesture after American bombers mistakenly blow up Moscow. As in "Best Man," Fonda's president is thoughtful. But this time he is also decisive, strong under pressure, and quietly stricken by his decision. He is emphatically human, and not particularly gifted.
Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964) offers another thoughtful president (Fredric March) who must learn to read the signs of the time, stop a coup dtat, and act immediately. This man must grow into the office, and so he does.
The presidential films of 1964 take for granted the human being in the Oval Office. No longer are these men heroes of supernatural ability. What is required of each of them is the courage to act effectively and with intelligence. The one man among them who fails to save the world is ineffectual as well as unwise.
The presidency suffered a downward slide in the 1970s and '80s. In Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986) and All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), the presidents (Reagan and Nixon) are sinister figures. As the actual inaugural footage reveals Nixon swearing to uphold the Constitution in "All the President's Men," reporter Bob Woodward types up the Washington Post story that will bring an end to Nixon's career. In both pictures, we are made to feel that the trust placed in the president has been betraye d.
That trust is still sacred.
Reflecting the spirit of the times, the movies since the 1960s point up the need, above all, for a trustworthy, decisive, wise, and even warm-hearted person in the White House.
If films of the '60s humanized the presidency, they did not rob it of virtue.
That is finally what is most odd about Stone's paean to President Kennedy. Having moved from the mythic vision of Lincoln as a saintly figure, a hero of the people and for the people, to the more modest humanity of Fredric March and Henry Fonda's solid human beings, Hollywood returns again to the mythic aggrandizement of a modern president - an aristocrat, no less.
Perhaps the difficulties of the times seem too great for ordinary politicians to set right.