The Presidency in Movies: Fantasy and Reality Merge

Debut of 'Primary Colors' further blurs line between White House and celebrity.

Hollywood's presidents are seldom as complex as their Washington counterparts. "Primary Colors" will change that.

In doing so, critics say this new movie will further blur the already-thin line between the nation's political culture and it's hunger for celebrity and drama.

Of late, the country's film capital has churned out fictional presidents that are either very good or dangerously bad.

In "Wag the Dog," the man's a philanderer who can't keep his hands off an underage visitor. In "Absolute Power," Gene Hackman plays a violent, opportunistic president who covers up the death of a friend's wife.

But in "Air Force One," Harrison Ford plays the courageous hero, the family man we all can count on in a crunch.

With today's release of "Primary Colors," a not-too-carefully disguised account of the 1992 Clinton campaign, Hollywood presents a more complex American president.

Candidate Jack Stanton, played by John Travolta, is lovable, charismatic, determined to do good and win the country's heart. But the film also implies he's a philanderer and an opportunist, for whom the ends justify just about any means.

For some critics, the film marks the maturation of the American audience - a recognition that it's finally ready to embrace a leader who is both successful and full of human frailties.

For others, the film simply raises to new heights the confusion around the American presidency - where the culture of politics, spin, entertainment, and celebrity have all merged, demeaning the presidency by turning it into just another matinee.

"The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is already being paid attention to as though it were a soap opera," says Michael Rogin of the University of California at Berkeley. "You can't tell which is the movie and which is the politics - it's completely interchangeable."

The movies have seldom dealt with the difficult leadership and policy questions facing the presidency. The reason, says historian Robert Toplin, is they're "death at the box office."

"The 1944 film called 'Wilson' was a disaster," says Professor Toplin of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "The audience was bored, and it cost quite a lot of money to make."

SO Hollywood stuck with uplifting biographical portraits of America's leaders and their struggles, before they reached the White House. Occasionally, presidential characters made distinguished cameo appearances or strong appeals for calm in a world facing an alien invasion.

Then came Watergate and "All the President's Men." Corruption in the Oval Office made it fair game on the silver screen.

As the public's cynicism about politics grew, so did a process of humanizing the presidency. Jimmy Carter began it by being "just plain folk." And even though he only "lusted in my heart," President Carter also crossed a cultural barrier by publicly discussing - for the first time in the context of the White House - sexual desire.

"The democratization brings the office down to man size, as opposed to man rising to the office and gaining aura and mystery," says Vivian Sobchack of the University of California at Los Angeles.

So Hollywood brought us Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and Kevin Kline's "Dave."

But there's another factor in this odd, increasingly blurry relationship between Hollywood and Washington: the media. As politicians began to use the potency of television as a political weapon, they also stepped into the celebrity culture. When that happened, the media began to use politicians and their peccadilloes as fodder to increase their ratings.

"Reagan was able in a way to escape it, because he was in this strange space as a movie star," says Sobchack. "He was just plain folks but maintained the star's aura."

President Clinton appears, at least for now, to be in a similar space. Even "Wag the Dog," the satiric expos of Washington cynicism that eerily reflected reality, didn't do much to inflame the public's indignation. Most people just got a good laugh.

Director Mike Nichols says his "Primary Colors" is about honor, the people who work in politics, and their struggles with principles and pragmatism.

And its impact? The scholarly critics contend the merging of the public's mistrust of the political world and the gossipy celebrity culture hasn't left much room for a sense of reality in the public sphere. "The result is a kind of self-perpetuating myth machine," says Mr. Rogin. "Serious issues of political consequence ... get turned into a kind of vicarious entertainment."

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