When I realized that Presidents Day was approaching, I figured the timing was perfect for a “5 for the Day” on movies about American presidents. You know what though—feature films about real U.S. presidents have tended to not be that good. Television has done a much better job when it comes to telling stories about Oval Office occupants. Besides, the holiday itself had its importance sapped once they combined Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays together and decided the day would honor all presidents. Honestly, more deserve not to be honored than do. I don’t imagine there will be many fond remembrances of John Tyler or James Buchanan today. So, I decided to expand my field to both fictional presidents and politics in general—then the difficult task of winnowing down to five began. Thrillers such as the original Manchurian Candidate sprang immediately to mind, but since it was more thriller than political, I let it go. Political satires are plentiful, but I didn’t want to get overloaded with them so many worthy films missed the cut. I decided to limit myself to one satire and even though there have been better ones, I decided to go off the beaten path with my choice. All the President’s Men leaped to mind as well, but that’s more about journalism than politics. There still were painful cuts: I really wanted to include Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah, but I had to let it go. So, for better or worse, here are the five I settled on.
1. 1776: “A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake, I’d accept with some despair. But no, You sent us Congress! Good God, Sir, was that fair?” John Adams (William Daniels) sings out in frustration. Starting a list of political movies with a musical? Absolutely. Peter H. Hunt’s film version of the Broadway hit used many of the actors who had scored on stage including Daniels, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and the great Howard da Silva as Benjamin Franklin to tell a tuneful tale of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The songs by Sherman Edwards are great and the history isn’t that bad either. Most of all, it’s damn entertaining and a great reminder of the principles that led the U.S. to break from Britain. To hear da Silva as Franklin utter such great lines as “Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers” and “Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?” How many Americans would be willing to give their lives to preserve their freedoms today, with or without catchy songs?
2. Nashville: “Who do you think is running Congress? Farmers? Engineers? Teachers? Businessmen? No, my friends. Congress is run by lawyers. A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only. To clarify — that’s one. And to confuse — that’s the other. He does whichever is to his client’s advantage. Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he? Ever ask a lawyer how to get to Mr. Jones’ house in the country? You got lost, didn’t you? Congress is composed of five hundred and thirty-five individuals. Two hundred and eighty-eight are lawyers. And you wonder what’s wrong in Congress. No wonder we often know how to make a watch, but we don’t know the time of day.” So says the never seen Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker in Robert Altman’s masterpiece. As described in the film by real-life newsman Howard K. Smith, Walker is “willing to battle vast oil companies, eliminate subsidies to farmers, tax churches, abolish the Electoral College, change the National Anthem, and remove lawyers from government, especially from Congress.” Politics always lurks around the edges, even if the film itself might not be viewed as strictly political. Set as the bicentennial approached and around the attempts of a political operative (Michael Murphy) trying to arrange a massive concert/rally of country stars for Walker, Nashville really has more to say about politics and America in general than just about any other movie ever made. Even its climax speaks volumes, foretelling, in a way, of things yet to come as entertainment and politics got further blurred. My favorite song from the film has always been “It Don’t Worry Me,” written by Keith Carradine, but performed so memorably by Barbara Harris. Things might not worry many Americans, but they should and it’s a little scary that, as time passes, this country’s content to follow trivia about crazy astronauts instead of concentrating on the things that matter, but aren’t so black and white.
3. The Best Man: “Bertrand Russell… once wrote that the people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than from an intelligent one,” presidential candidate William Russell (Henry Fonda) says at one point in Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1964 adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play. Those words were written in 1960. Chilling to consider them now given what we’ve gone through over the past six years, isn’t it? The movie concerns a party’s nominating convention—you know, back when conventions actually served a purpose in selecting a party’s nominee and platform instead of becoming the weeklong prepackaged, preordained infomercials that we now get every four years. Fonda and Cliff Robertson are both good as possible contenders maneuvering for the nomination, but the standout is the great Lee Tracy in his Oscar-nominated role as the dying president whose wisdom often falls on deaf ears. Howard K. Smith actually appears as himself in this one as well. Hmmm… maybe there’s a “5 for a Day” on Howard K. Smith cameo appearances out there in the future.
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men and they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders,” Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) tells the reporter Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). “Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.” Sure, it’s fantasy, but dammit, it still works and it still gets you going as you watch naïve Jefferson Smith tossed into the vipers’ pit of the Senate and then pissing off the bosses when he actually sets out to do a good job. Watching Stewart as Smith continuing his filibuster, despite his fatigue and lack of sleep, is awe-inspiring. Too bad filibusters today don’t mean what they used to: I for one would like to see senators forced to literally hold the floor if they want to halt legislation from getting to a vote. As for the film, it never hurts to have Claude Rains playing a once-proud senator who sold his soul to the fat cats long ago, not to mention Arthur as the initially skeptical reporter who develops a rooting interest for Smith once she realizes he isn’t the phony she thought he was.
5. Dick: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” Karl Marx famously stated. Really, Watergate deserves to be played as farce, especially when compared with the conspiracies and crimes that have been committed in the past six years. Andrew Fleming’s 1999 comedy re-imagines the Nixon scandal as a broad comedy involving two airheaded teenagers (Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams) and an amazing comic ensemble that includes Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein, Dave Foley as H.R. Haldeman and Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy. Certainly sharper political satires have been made, but Dick is so clever in its premise, you are willing to let its weaknesses slide. Besides, Dan Hedaya’s hysterical turn as Nixon himself is worth your time. There have been many great actors who have played Nixons of all sorts, with varying degrees of success, but somehow, Hedaya’s interpretation as a sleazy charmer who insists that “I’ve got a way with young people. They trust me” and gets undone by a couple of dim bulbs may be my favorite Nixon of all.
Edward Copeland is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Edward Copeland on Film and the political blog Copeland Institute for Lower Learning.