Last month saw the debut of “White House Down,” the second “bad guys somehow manage to successfully invade the White House” film of recent months (along with March’s “Olympus Has Fallen”). Racking in poor reviews and limited box office, “White House Down” was not what one might call a buena vista—unsurprising, given the fact that the film proposes that eight rejects from “Duck Dynasty” can take the Oval Office. In “Olympus” we’re at least given the benefit of a ground invasion by ticked-off Koreans.
What’s intriguing about both films, however, and a number of other recent efforts, is the rather direct and critical parallels being made to President Obama. Only the George W. Bush era offers a similar sustained analysis of a sitting president, and surprisingly these most recent efforts are far more critical.
Mr. President Goes to Hollywood
Despite standouts like “All the President’s Men,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” our fascination with the president as a film and television character is relatively recent. During the Reagan and Bush I years, beyond a few historical pieces like “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “North and South” (1985, 86), one has to turn to B-films like “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai in the 8th Dimension” just to find mention of a president.
Then, in 1991, Oliver Stone released his Kennedy-conspiracy thriller “JFK”; a year later Bill Clinton won the White House, and suddenly the genre of presidential stories exploded. Over the course of his eight years there were historical films (“Jefferson in Paris,” “Nixon,” “Amistad,” “Thirteen Days”); science fiction (“Deep Impact,” “Independence Day”); suspense thrillers (“In the Line of Fire,” “Air Force One”); comedy (“Mars Attacks!”, “Dick”); satire (“Primary Colors,” “Wag the Dog”); and above all, idealistic political fairy tales (“Dave,” “The American President,” “The West Wing”).
With its whip-smart president surrounded by the nation’s best and brightest, “The West Wing” was clearly influenced by early perceptions of the Clinton White House. But the show began in 1999, not long after the bloom was off the Clinton rose. And while certain characters—particularly press secretary C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney)—were said to have been drawn from real life figures, Martin Sheen’s Irish Catholic uber-liberal President Jed Bartlet clearly was not.
Bush II: Hollywood (Does Not) Strike Back
It is no secret that the George W. Bush administration was often under fire for the choices he made. Yet much of that critique came via journalists, columnists and politicians. Few Hollywood stories took on Bush directly, with one major exception: for the entirety of George W. Bush’s presidency FOX’s paranoid “24” told nightmarish campfire tales inspired by the attacks on September 11. And from its inception until its end, the show always provided a forum for conversation about (and usually promotion of) the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies and worldview. Presidents were almost always main characters; indeed, “24” was the first modern program to present an African-American president. As David Palmer, Dennis Haysbert played the straight man to Kiefer Sutherland’s lunatic Groucho, a sober statesman wrestling deeply with the moral dilemmas posed by these new political realities.
Other presidents followed, like Charles Logan, a Shakespeare-lite villain, or Allison Taylor, an anti-torture Republican. None ever functioned as a stand in for Bush himself, and the show never truly critiqued the choices of the Bush Administration. Time and again, the idealists were brought to admit that in the current state of the world, compromise was inevitable.
The Obama Era
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a platform of restoring those very ideals, of insisting that fundamental change was possible. And for most of Obama’s first term Hollywood more or less left the office of the presidency alone.
But suddenly now the genre has exploded again, with presidents galore (and even a-gore): “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Lincoln,” “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Iron Man 3,” “Scandal,” “1600 Penn,” “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down” were all released since the start of 2012.
And unlike seemingly any previous era, many of these stories directly reference the sitting president. “Lincoln” is the story of a president from Illinois who struggles to bring together radically opposed points of view to pass the 13th Amendment. ABC’s hit show “Scandal” features a president who is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Harvard Law School. The president in “White House Down” is an African-American academic who believes he can achieve total peace in the Middle East and a complete pullout of U.S. military. “The Dark Knight Rises” involves a violent Occupy Wall Street-type movement that the president is unable to put down. And in “Olympus Has Fallen” the thoughtful African-American Speaker of the House must take the reins after the president is taken hostage.
Even more striking, with the exception of “Lincoln,” these films almost universally present their presidents as ineffectual, naïve, often little more than a patsy. Foxx’s President Sawyer handles a gun as though Foxx is still playing Ray Charles. Morgan Freeman—Hollywood’s go-to actor for gravitas, wisdom and class—likewise is forced to spend “Olympus” wringing his hands, indecisive. You can see Freeman chafing against the script at times, searching for some way of bringing depth or backbone to his character.
Meanwhile on television, ABC’s red-hot “Scandal” stars Tony Goldwyn as President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, a romantic idealist so disconnected from political realities he isn’t aware that the election was bought for him by his political-animal staff. (“Scandal” has become known for audacious shark-jumping twists, but its greatest trick is to make audiences ignore the fact that its forceful, smart protagonist is in love with a whiny teenager of a president. I daresay there has never been a characterization of a president as wholeheartedly weak and pathetic as Grant.)
At the end of “White House Down,” Jamie Foxx wins the day and the Middle Eastern countries agree to sign his treaty. But we never really believe that ending, any more than we believed he had a legitimate plan in the first place. Nor do we believe in “Scandal” that Grant is right to stay an idealist, no matter how many times the pragmatic, luminescent Olivia Pope tells us so, or that Morgan Freeman should be president, or that minor character presidents like William Devane in “Dark Knight Rises” or William Sadler in “Iron Man III” have any real idea how to solve the problems of the world. If someone said “Yes we can,” we’d laugh them off the stage.
How many times did Obama allow himself to be outmaneuvered by Republicans uninterested in playing the game by his standards? How well has his political idealism served the nation? For as charismatic and inspirational a figure as he is, it may very well be that his real political legacy will be to convince people that Hillary was right, that spending time trying to overcome our differences with this Congress is nothing but a sucker’s game. Maybe that’s the real story of the NSA scandal, too—that President Obama has learned his lesson.
When Obama was elected, many hoped for the country of Sorkin and Jimmy Stewart. But the truth is, Sorkin knew he was telling a fairy tale. Perhaps Hollywood has finally realized the same.