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Great Leaders, Politics and Hollywood

The shades of US presidents, real and imagined, have always weaved in and out of Hollywood films. This year, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might be the best film ever about a US president, and Argo depicts one of President Carter’s hidden secrets that might have rescued his presidency for a second term. And then there is Zero Dark Thirty about the raid on Bin Laden, which is the only film that is somewhat related to President Obama, other than HBO’s Game Change. I suspect there will be many more to come.  It’s hard to imagine our attentions being anywhere but on these three films heading into the race, given the current political climate. But the news cycles pretty quickly. Who knows what awaits us in a few months.

Great presidents and terrible presidents inspire filmmakers. There are films about the electoral process, about the rise and fall of presidents – sinister takes on our government and idealistic ones.

The presidents with the most influential on Hollywood in recent history would be JFK, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Of those, there are two heroes and three villains, by Hollywood’s standards. This, because Hollywood is usually liberal. Republicans are villains, for the most part, which is why any major player in Hollywood with conservative beliefs is run out of town on a rail, unless their work is beyond reproach, like Clint Eastwood.

Why is Hollywood liberal? Because it is, despite its greed, corruption and lust for fame it is a compassionate bunch of misfits who made good. Misfits tend to grow up more compassionate, therefore they believe in looking out for the other guy. Republicans believe in individualism – which liberals think of as selfish and short-sighted.

That’s how I see it anyway.  To that end, most of the films about Republicans tend to depict bad guys and the films about liberal presidents tend to depict good guys. But not always. Some films  hover somewhere in between. There was great internal conflict about President Clinton because, though he was one of the most popular two-term Democrats to come along since JFK, he was dogged every day of his presidency by Republicans. No, they didn’t have the racist flag to wave but they went after both Bill and Hillary Clinton over everything. They only tripped him up once and of course, because they had nothing better to do with our tax dollars, they went after Clinton’s private sexual tryst. Because she was an intern, because Clinton lied under oath, he was then going to be impeached. It’s silly to think of it now, isn’t it? The Clintons held their marriage together (because like most realistic grownup marriages they know it isn’t just about the sex), the economy was thriving — and the only fallout was a distracted president being dogged by the republicans created a vulnerability that may have facilitated an Al Qaeda attack with box cutters. Sidebar: imagine if 9/11 had happened under Obama?

Clinton inspired many good and bad films. Eastwood made Absolute Power about him, more or less, where Gene Hackman slept with a woman who fought him during a violent sex encounter and then was killed for threatening the president.  The theme of personal life being more important than the job came up in Rod Lurie’s exceptional The Contender, where Joan Allen (thank you, Rod, for being one of the only filmmakers to make a movie about a woman in charge) is on trial for things that happened long ago in her past. Back then, you heard the word “character” a lot. That meant you didn’t have affairs. The sex thing is big in our silly government. Character, so called, was such a big deal for Clinton that he was told not to campaign for Al Gore in 2000.  A very close election that came down to a handful votes and our Supreme Court deciding the election for us.  A close election like that cost us dearly in the next eight years: two unnecessary wars that killed 6,000 US soldiers and countless innocent women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What happened to our economy, the collapse of our financial system, the subsequent bailouts and entitlement bonuses to bank executives left this country emptied out. So what did the good ol’ boys in the Republican party do? They tried to sabotage the newly elected Barack Obama, no stranger to Wall Street, but definitely someone who was not going to slip into the pocket of the power elite like his predecessor. Block Obama became their strategy and it came at  significant cost. Their plan might very well have worked, too. The American people might really have been fooled into thinking that President Obama is the reason the economy is in a recession.

Or, smarter Americans who read the news might see through the charade and see a man who has stood up to the power elite and the corrupt good ol’ boy network that controls our government. Hey, there’s a reason Potter has all the money and George Bailey is still the richest man in town.

I suspect that President Obama, should we be lucky enough to have him for a second term, will inspire many a movie about the corruption he fought against, and the racism still too hot to touch here in America. This election pits whites against blacks like no other since probably Abraham Lincoln.  The polling data suggest a major division with Romney supporters being mostly white and Obama supporters being everyone else. Romney is trying to take America back to the 1950s while Obama has his high mud boots on and is trudging forward.

The films about presidents, directly or indirectly, real or imagined that have stuck with me over the years are:

John Adams (John Adams)


All the President’s Men (Nixon)

The Candidate (Nixon/Carter)

Nixon (Nixon)

Primary Colors (Clinton)

An American President (Clinton)

The Contender (Clinton)

Wag the Dog (Clinton)

Ides of March (Clinton, Bush, Obama?)

The Manchurian Candidate (Bush)

Recount (Bush v. Gore)

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Bush)

Fair Game (Bush)

W. (Bush)

The Hurt Locker (Bush)

In the Line of Fire (JFK, indirectly)


Game Change (McCain, Obama, Palin)

Taxi Driver (Carter maybe, Reagan, indirectly, in retrospect)

Dr. Strangelove

There are plenty more films about US presidents, like Hyde Park on Hudson, The Special Relationship and more. But these are the ones that have made a deeper impact on me over the years. Today is the day we decide which direction our country will now head in. To me, there is no question about which leader is better suited to the task. But living in America means being tolerant of our differences. That’s the beauty and the horror of it all.