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.
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.
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.
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…
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?
And 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…
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.