Has Donald Trump blown it? Major actors have always coveted playing the role of an empathetic U.S. president, but after Trump’s four years will anyone want that gig?
In years past Michael Douglas, Daniel Day-Lewis, Harrison Ford and even Henry Fonda have depicted admirable presidents. Even Kevin Spacey was likable as Richard Nixon when Elvis came to visit him (in 2016’s Elvis & Nixon).
To be sure, they all had their idiosyncrasies. In Dave (1993), Kevin Kline wasn’t careful enough about who was chosen to “double” him, and Douglas in The American President (1995) should have been wary about dating that lobbyist, even though she was Annette Bening. But they were good guys at heart.
None of those characters would have considered denying election results, or ignoring a pandemic, or snubbing his successor’s inauguration. There were boundaries, even in movies, about political mischief.
In Bulworth (1998), Warren Beatty briefly impersonated a Black man in one episode of his political campaign, but he championed diversity. In Wag the Dog, neither Bobby De Niro nor Dustin Hoffman really started a war with Albania even though they needed to distract attention from presidential misdeeds.
“Trump has stretched the boundaries beyond anything that an audience would believe,” observes Barry Levinson, the director of Wag the Dog. “We were looking for political comedy in our movie, but we didn’t want the Marx Brothers.”
Political comedies have always ventured into disturbing subplots and twists, to be sure. In The President’s Analyst (1967), the chief executive was so paranoid about the double dealings of the phone company (not yet named AT&T) that he hired a shrink (James Coburn) to help him cope with it. The bell heads in turn recruited the FBI to investigate the studio (Paramount) that produced it.
Intrigue has always been a key to political thrillers as well, sometimes with unintentionally comedic overtones due to casting. “Sleeper agents” were central to The Manchurian Candidate, but what was Frank Sinatra doing in the middle of it? Franklin D. Roosevelt had his poignant moments in Hyde Park on the Hudson, but was Bill Murray believably presidential? And the choice of Robin Williams to play the president in Levinson’s Man of the Year was an adventurous choice (his character, to be sure, started as a talk-show host).
Still, contrarian choices have worked well in some presidential dramas. Kiefer Sutherland was disturbingly believable as a president who didn’t feel up to the job in Designated Survivor, a durable TV series. On the other hand, the melodrama surrounding Spacey on House of Cards tended to overwhelm the plot itself – his ultimate firing received more attention than the plot.
To many critics, JFK, released just 30 years ago, was the most impactful movie about a chief executive, even though no actor playing JFK himself ever appeared. Oliver Stone’s investigative thriller focused on Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) and it in turn generated sufficient controversy to have spawned a sequel or two.
Stone always seemed stoked by controversy. He might even be up to direct the first thriller about Trump. Or will Alec Baldwin persuade him to make it a dark comedy?
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