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

OVER the years, Hollywood's attention to the presidency has been a gauge of the public's sentiments and expectations. The films that have been made about historical presidents tend to reflect what Americans most wish for in the individual who rises to the highest office in the land.

Oliver Stone's JFK portrayed a man of uncompromising principles who would have banned the bomb, retrieved the troops from Vietnam, and secured the civil rights of all minorities if only he had been allowed to live. Director Stone's President Kennedy is a visionary nobleman who loved the common man, a Robin Hood who lived within the law.

No matter what one may think of Stone's historicism in general, or President Kennedy in particular, "JFK" projects an image of the presidency that is as reverent as that of old Hollywood. Not even the vilification of Lyndon Johnson in the same film dampens the veneration Stone invokes toward the office of president. The reverence with which the filmmaker treats Kennedy, and the extravagant lengths he goes to to assure us of Kennedy's virtues, create a mythos not seen on the big screen for decades.

Until the 1960s, Hollywood movie moguls were in the business of building an image of America - and the presidency - that would help unite a heterogeneous culture. When directors like D. W. Griffith, John Ford, and Frank Capra zeroed in on the presidency, the qualities they depicted may not have belonged so much to the real men who held office, as to ideals of the presidency held by the American public.

If Hollywood is any indication, Abe Lincoln is the most idolized of all American presidents. In Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln" (1930), Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, (1939), and John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Lincoln represents wisdom, honor, humility, dignity, and above all, common sense.

Ford's vision is arguably the most compelling of the three. Made at the brink of World War II, his "Young Mr. Lincoln" shows the young man (Henry Fonda) quietly moving toward destiny, earnestly pursuing the law and justice. He may ride a jackass into town, his sleeves may be a trifle too short, and his stove-pipe hat a bit too tall, but the gangly fellow knows that the law is really about right and wrong - and he knows the difference between them.

So when an angry mob tries to lynch a couple of strangers accused of murder, Abe appeals first to their sense of humor, then to their common humanity, and finally to their best instincts, dispersing them without incident.

When Lincoln later rescues the strangers from false witness in the courtroom, it is his peculiar combination of homespun humor, penetrating intelligence, and modest assertion of right that turns the tables on the bad guy. Ford's Lincoln is an awkward dancer, but the greatness of his soul is undeniable.

As the film ends, and the strains of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" swell, Ford links the young Lincoln with his destiny as president - a yardstick for all who come after him to measure themselves by.

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) of Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (also 1939) does measure himself and everyone else by Lincoln's example. When lost in shame and anger over political corruption, he turns to Lincoln's statue for inspiration and to his precepts for guidance.

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.

"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.

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