President Pets are More Interesting Than President Movies

Presidents’ Day is one of those underrated holidays like Labor Day, Arbor Day, and Pioneer Day. In the aftermath of Valentine’s disappointments we are given one day to celebrate all the of mediocrity of past greatness. Because, just like Halmark’s most pink holiday, Presidents’ Day tends to remind us of some of our biggest failures.

howl

My favorite movies about presidents are part of PBS’s “The Presidents” series. I would recommend the L.B.J. documentary above all the others…especially if you’re looking for that last little push into becoming an ex-pat. The Nixon doc is also very good. 

checkers

I was going to write a post about my favorite movies about presidents, but I realized three things: first, making lists is hard because I’m always going to leave out something good and stick The Contender in there just because I couldn’t think of anything else; second, a lot of people on the world wide web have written lists of their favorite film presidents so what would be the point of me doing it if I couldn’t think of something better than The Contender?; and third, I don’t like many movie presidents.

tige

Calvin Coolidge seems more like a cat person, doesn't he?

Fictional presidents in movies are always far too optimistically honest. Think of that one guy in the first two seasons of 24 (the first two seasons, because I didn’t watch anything after that and maybe his character died – those characters are always dying – or changed drastically – those characters are always changing drastically to move the plot along) or Bill Pulman in Independence Day, or Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact. That would be awesome to have presidents willing to sacrifice their approval ratings just to do what’s right – only to improve their approval ratings enormously. Like if 9/11 had happened and Bush reacted in that calm, reassuring way Freeman did when an astroid was about to destroy the world instead of bombing the shit out of whatever country looked sandy enough? That would be great. Although this Obama thing looks promising. Some of his speeches kind of remind me of that speech at the end of Independence Day, actually…

241782

Anyway, there are some good ones, but they’re usually about real presidents…more like bio-pics, really. A film like Young Mr. Lincoln may be a little rosy, but it’s also really really good, and makes you like Lincoln more than you already did. It’s movies like this that cement the image we have of such an iconic figure by overlapping it with another iconic figure. You know, like Baudrillard’s thing about us only interacting with symbols now. Do we really have an understand of Lincoln, or do we kind of superimpose Henry Fonda’s reputation over Lincoln’s to create some kind of hybrid?

luckyAnd then there’s Philip Baker Hall’s Nixon in Secret Honor. What a terrifying movie that is. As we watch an old man fall into drunken insanity, it’s hard to imagine that he was once our president, and that we voted for him. Twice. I watched that movie once, looked at pictures of Bobby Kennedy just to torture myself, and then slipped into a Bob-Dylan-listening depression for a few days. So I wouldn’t recommend Secret Honor if you care about politics in the 70s as much as I do…

liberty

Of course Ford had a golden retriever...

Clearly the best fictional presidents on film are parodies. Like Dr. Strangelove, Mars Attacks!, or The Day After Tomorrow. Those characters are often the best ones in the movie. I think there’s something about completely mocking the most powerful man in the world that makes us plebeians feel a little more important and clever. Because even in movies that are pretty mediocre, like Fun with Dick and Jane, the jabs at the president almost make the thing worth watching.

kingtut

6 Comments

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6 responses to “President Pets are More Interesting Than President Movies

  1. brian

    someone asked me yesterday who my favorite president was and why. i said mckinley because he was killed by anarchists. is there a movie about that? i know that doctorow’s ragtime has that in the book, but i’m guessing they cut that part when they made the movie.

    ( i heard that doctorow hated the adaptation. i guess he wrote this script and maybe wanted mann to direct it or maybe bogdonavich but it was going to be like 4 hours long so the studio stripped almost everything interesting about the book out of the script — or that’s the way my english professor explained it to me.)

    but, honestly, presidents are a bore. and movies about them are boring. and they’re all about retelling our past as a way of promoting certain ideas/ideals about our present to project those idea(l)s into the future. or something. like now it’s all about how lincoln suffered from depression or he was gay or how much him and obama have in common. we’re reimaging lincoln to fit our own needs. but that might be the point of all history.

    but dr strangelove is easily my favorite president in a movie.

  2. I’ve never read that book or seen that movie. I read City of God, though, and I loved it.

    I don’t know who my favorite president is…I like learning about them, but all of them end up being really disappointing. I like McKinley, though. In that Sarah Vowell book she talks about how he was a big reader and how he was always depressed about being president. He gave a commencement speech that she quotes all about how growing up sucks and how they’re going to have to give into the system because there’s nothing else they can do. Pretty funny.

  3. Maybe it’s just me but doesn’t “Young Mr. Lincoln” look very much like James Woods?

    Also, Coolidge looks like a Marxist supervillian in that picture. But did you know that he signed a bill granting Native Americans full citizenship? Who’s the bad guy now? Although…look at that cat. I wonder if he’s got a metal hand underneath that glove?

  4. That skin-colored glove.

  5. brian

    i’ve been watching a lot of john carpenter movies lately and remembered that one of my favorite movie presidents is in escape from la

  6. there are very few talented actors that is as versatile as morgan freeman ‘`’

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