Our national cinema, when we need to show that something is important, that will rock us deep to the core, we always go for the presidential seal. Once things get all the way up the chain to the Commander-in-Chief you know that’s where the buck is going to stop. But what does it mean to have the highest office in the land (well, here in the ol’ US of A that is) used so freely in our national storytelling?
Recently while watching the movie Air Force One I couldn’t stop wondering what the founding fathers would have made of Harrison Ford’s portrayal as president James Marshall. Would a bunch of dudes who were so eager to create a new form of government where no one branch would be more in control than another have appreciated this portrayal of the head of state as a man of action, able to single-handedly defeats terrorists on board, fly the plane itself for a bit, and then perform a dramatic escape in air via zip line to another plane? The events themselves are patently absurd – if we had a presidential candidate that buff I’m guessing the election would have been decided in an epic arm wrestling match. But leaving aside those improbabilities, why was it important to make fictional American president the hero?
When you look at the history of actors who have played fictional presidents it seems like there was a hands-off policy at either portraying or making fun of the office until after Nixon. There are a couple portrayals in the 30s (including the most bizarre Gabriel Over the White House in which divine intervention converts a fat cat into a benevolent fascist with a little help from god) and a few more in the 60s (Dr Strangelove) but seriously, after Nixon, the gloves are off and the president transitions from wimpy buffoon (Being There, Escape From New York) to in-your-face catchphrase-spouting dudes (Air Force One, Independence Day) to everything in between (Dave, Americathon).
Is the United States the only nation that does this, that creates fictional versions of its top official for entertainment purposes? Occasionally, yes, an international spy thriller will need various heads of state to give the nod or order the plot further into motion, but are their European movies whose leaders are taking names and busting heads of CIA task forces who dare threaten them?
And at the very least, what could the rest of the world make of so much Hollywood product dedicated to projecting our elected officials as heroic stoics or power-mad? Once you compare these cardboard toughs with the actual candidates running for office in any election year the disconnect is so great that it wouldn’t be hard for outsiders to assume American citizens are clueless to their own delusions. We want Arnold Schwartzenegger, or at the very least Morgan Freeman, but in the end would settle for Tom Hanks.
In the end I don’t think it does us any good to focus so much time and energy on this idea of a president being as integral to our entertainment as they are to running the country. In fact, I would rather our politicians quit trying to manage their images in appearing “presidential” and instead focus a little more on the real heroics of making things work.
I don’t imagine Hollywood would make a movie of that. Not enough ass-kicking going on.