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Its Prophetic Own: The President’s Analyst

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Its Prophetic Own: <em>The President’s Analyst</em>

Forty-one years down the line, and I think The President’s Analyst has aged slightly better than The Manchurian Candidate. John Frankenheimer’s classic of prototypical American paranoia anticipated (or seemed to anticipate) the Kennedy assassination freakily enough to necessitate its withdrawal immediately afterwards, but The President’s Analyst never bothered anyone besides Hoover’s F.B.I., who showed up knocking at Robert Evans’ office to demand cessation of production, then bugged his phones in revenge when he didn’t. To most, it didn’t seem like anything more than amiable, non-threatening satire. Big mistake: as anti-corporate a film as Gremlins (the alleged Christmas family comedy which ended in the trashing of a department store under red and green flashing lights), The President’s Analyst evaded attention by tackling a target (corporate greed) way before it was fashionable. What might have seemed like a cop-out in the anti-LBJ/Vietnam years now seems dead-on.

There’s a good bit of tedious spadework required to get there: the first half-hour of The President’s Analyst is as lame as a contemporary SNL sketch, extending one joke too far. Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) is the last word in au courant psychiatry, c. 1967, banging a gong between sessions to clear his mind, demonstrating his up-to-dateness by being comfortable with every last sculpture in the Whitney. (Coburn being Coburn, he’s not entirely on-board: he wipes his eyes in discreet disgust when his patients aren’t looking.) Chosen as the President’s personal shrink (writer/director Theodore J. Flicker wisely avoids showing his fictional chief—a clue as to which way the misdirection is headed), Coburn loses it bit by bit: first from the flashing red lights that go off at any time and place to announce the president’s in need of him, then when he starts noticing all the spies around him. Like the old joke goes, he isn’t paranoid: everyone really is out to get him.

The first half-hour dabbles in mild paranoia and oh-those-crazy-agencies jokes: the “FBR” and “CEA,” respectively. (The stand-out is a serious monologue, delivered directly to the camera, from CEA agent Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) on “the day I learned about niggers”—delivered straight to the camera, beating Medium Cool to the punch by two years.) Things take a sudden turn for excellence when Coburn makes a run for it—first hiding out with a couple of proud New Jersey suburbanites (William Daniels and Joan Darling) who proudly announce themselves as good liberals: “We’re for civil rights. We’ve done weekend picketing.” (So much for the same year’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner changing everything.) Then it’s off with a hippie band—all the while being pursued by seemingly every Cold War pawn in the book, including the competing American agencies.

This is where the twist comes: this is a movie in which every government agency is ultimately ineffectual, and everyone seems to know it besides the agency bosses. The Soviet agent, one Kropotkin (Severn Darden), is on BFF terms with Masters, and the two effectively team up to save Coburn. Ideology? Forget about it, shrugs Kropotkin: “Every day your country moves closer to socialism and mine moves closer to capitalism.” It hasn’t quite worked out that way, at least the former part, but it’s as appropriately cynical a contemporary response as any. Coburn manages to turn the tables on his would-be Soviet captor through rote psychoanalysis (“All my life I’ve been miserably unhappy,” Kropotkin marvels, “but I always thought it was my Russian soul”); counter-culture and psychedelia will save the world. All forces bond together, finally, against the ultimate enemy: The Phone Company.

It would, perhaps, be irresponsible to suggest that corporate greed is responsible for 100% of the ills of daily life. But it’s tempting: walking out of a screening of Michael Clayton, I heard one man tell his viewing companion, “Things like that happen every day and we don’t even know about it.” I doubt there’s as many contract killers in Westchester County as either he or Tony Gilroy thinks—but it’s tempting, and who knows. The finale of The President’s Analyst puts all the blame there: it suggests, quite literally, that America is run by a bunch of soulless corporate robots. And I can’t say I disagree. Forty-one years late, The President’s Analyst has come into its prophetic own.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.