Acting Presidential


Just four years ago, Wolfgang Petersen made a movie about someone who was trying to kill the president. Fifty dollars to the first caller who can name the actor who played the leader of the free world.

Time's up. Of course you don't know, because those were the Good Old Days of presidential movies, when the president was primarily a moving target, a plot point, a reason for Hero A to kick Villain B's nefarious butt.

Petersen's "In the Line of Fire" was about a Secret Service man (Clint Eastwood) who was trying to keep a wacko (John Malkovich) from shooting ... well, who was that guy anyway? I don't know, nobody knows, the actor's mother probably can't remember his name.

Fred Thompson, who was then drawing a paycheck for his acting, got higher billing for playing the president's chief of staff.

Petersen's latest film, "Air Force One," opened yesterday. It's about a president, and someone is trying to kill him.

The twist is, this time the president is Harrison Ford, and one of the bad guys is a Secret Service man. Instead of sitting around like a lump, waiting for Clint Eastwood, the president is going to do his own butt-kicking.

Is this a great country or what? The contemporary president, a part recently reserved for second-tier actors like E.G. Marshall, Ronny Cox and, well, Ronald Reagan, is now a matinee idol. Can President Cruise or President Pitt be far behind? Let's contemplate the significance of this.

Time's up. Look, we could make up something that sounded good. We could tell you that the president's rising profile in movies is in direct correlation to the devaluation of the office. That the end of the Cold War has inspired presidential movies, just as the height of the Cold War did

("Fail-Safe," "Seven Days in May" and "Dr. Strangelove"). That the incident of two, count 'em, two, White House/sex/death/scandal movies in the last year alone is a direct consequence of the Clinton presidency, Vincent Foster, Paula Jones, et al.

But an examination of the president's role in American films released since "In the Line of Fire" uncovers only one constant: Cinematic presidents are always behind in the polls and worrying about the next election. Some are good guys, some are bad guys. Some are war heroes, some are draft dodgers. Some are tall, some are taller. All are white and male.

Hmmmm, maybe the movies are more like real life than we thought.

Using a scale of one to four George Washingtons, we rate the recent spate of presidential films (with the exclusion of "Murder at 1600" and "The Shadow Conspiracy," not yet on video).

By the way, "Dave" came out before our arbitrary starting point. Any other omissions - call your congressman.

Nixon (1995)

Plot: In what is easily the least credible of all the films screened, embattled president decides to stoop to anything to win re-election to second term. President Anthony Hopkins is moody, paranoid and given to strange monologues. He wins the election, but is forced out in disgrace after his "dirty tricks" come to light.

President's name: Richard Milhous Nixon. (As if.)

Does president have a first lady? Yes, and she has a very nice cloth coat.

Most credible scene: There is not a single believable scene in this entire film. Especially grating is epilogue on laserdisc, which suggests that "President Nixon" manages to rehabilitate his career and becomes a respected statesman in the years before his death. As if.

Bonus: Anthony Hopkins, in Hannibal Lecter flashback, bites G. Gordon Liddy's nose off.

Would you vote for this man? Well, 1996 did introduce the concept of voting for the lesser of two evils.

Rating: Three George Washingtons.

The American President (1995)

Plot: Widowed president Michael Douglas decides to date when he realizes how foxy he looks with his $200 haircut.

President's name: Andy Shepherd.

Most credible part: President's decision to date dominates media for days.

Least credible: Annette Bening's smart-cookie lobbyist throws a victory party before the vote on her issue.

Bonus: Camp David: Chick magnet.

Would you vote for this man? Yes, but I'd hate myself in the morning.

Rating: Two George Washingtons.

Mars Attack (1996)

Plot: Um, Mars attacks.

President's name: President Dale.

Does president have sleazy aide and hawkish general? Yes, Martin Short as the aide and two generals - Rod Steiger and Paul Winfield (in a Colin Powellesque part). "I told you never taking a position would pay off," he exults to his wife, minutes before he's incinerated by Martians.

Most credible part: The voice of Slim Whitman can make your brain explode.

Least credible part: The voice of Tom Jones can make the animals dance.

Bonus: President is killed as the consequence of shaking one hand too many.

Would you vote for this man? I prefer the platform espoused by Martian fighter Lukas Haas, who believes we should all live in teepees.

Rating: Three George Washingtons.

Absolute Power (1997)

Plot: Master thief Clint Eastwood sees President Gene Hackman frolicking with woman. President gets rough, she gets rougher, Secret Service men get roughest. Woman is killed, spurring most inept cover-up since "Nixon." E.G. Marshall, remembering the days when actors of his stature routinely played presidents, kills Hackman in a fit of rage.

President's name: Alan Richmond.

Does president have a sleazy aide and hawkish general? Judy Davis is Valium-deprived chief of staff. No hawkish general, but Dennis Haysbert is impressive as Secret Service man/assassin who's only slightly less focused than the Terminator.

Would you vote for this man? Hey, if you start worrying about a man's ethics, duplicity and sexual peccadilloes, you'll end up sitting out every presidential election.

Rating: One George Washington.

Independence Day (1996)

Plot: Just as the United States achieves racial unity, aliens decide to come and blow up several major cities in order to bring real estate prices down before they buy. President Bill Pullman is whisked away to Area 51, a place so secret that not even the president knows about it. He saves the world with the help of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum.

President's name: Tom Whitmore.

Does president have a first lady? Not for long.

Most credible scene: The top-secret Area 51. As Judd Hirsch says, we knew the Pentagon wasn't really spending $10,000 on hammers all this time.

Least credible: Why is Bill Pullman speaking in Alec Baldwin's voice?

Bonus: Can you say "alien autopsy"?

Would you vote for this man? Only if he supports the death penalty for Judd Hirsch.

Rating: Two George Washingtons.

First kid (1996)

Plot: Amy Carter in drag, and what a drag it is. Luke Davenport is 13 and having a miserable time as the president's neglected son. After he moons the American press, he gets Sinbad as his Secret Service agent. (Apparently, Sinbad has special training in new, state-of-the-art, anti-mooning technology.) But Sinbad wants to be on "Eagle" detail, guarding the big guy. To the shock of movie-goers everywhere, Sinbad and Luke teach each other Important Life Lessons.

President's name: In a break with the two-syllable tradition of cinematic presidents, he is President Davenport.

Presidential prototype: His indifference to his son and chronic absenteeism bring back warm memories of Ronald Reagan with the children from his first marriage.

Most credible scene: Sinbad buying doughnuts.

L Least credible scene: Sinbad, faster than a speeding bullet?

Bonus: Worst "let-me-teach-you-how-to-get-down-white-man" scene since "Silver Streak."

Would you vote for this man? Only if he agrees to a vasectomy.

Rating: One George Washington.

Canadian Bacon (1995)

Plot: President Alan Alda, disturbed by plummeting approval ratings, decides to declare war on Canada when advised it will give him boost in the polls. Enthusiastic folks from Buffalo, N.Y., take him quite seriously, but it turns out they're all pawns in a deadly game launched by evil missile manufacturer G.T. Spradlin.

Does president have a sleazy aide and a hawkish general? Yes, Kevin Pollak and Rip Torn, respectively. (Epilogue at film's end notes that Torn's character commits suicide "after discovering 'Hogan's Heroes' was fictional.")

Most credible part: Canadians are extremely polite, even when under attack.

Least credible part: A president who bases his decisions on polls? C'mon.

Bonus: Made by Michael Moore, this is the only film in the whole batch that's actually interested in politics.

Would you vote for this man? Oh my God, I think I did.

Rating: Three George Washingtons.

Air Force One (1997)

Plot: "Die Hard" on Air Force One, but with Harrison Ford as the president.

President's name: James Marshall.

Does the president have a first lady? If he doesn't, there's no movie.

Most credible scene: Vice president and secretary of state squabbling over who's in charge.

Least credible scene: The president's incredibly bold speech on terrorism that starts this whole mess.

Would you vote for this man? Let's see - he's cute, he's smart and full of one-liners. A Harrison Ford petition drive is under way in Maryland even as you read this.

Bonus: Finally, the fax machine gets its due.

Rating: Four George Washingtons.

Contact (1997)

Plot: Aliens summon Jodie Foster, after hearing that Earth has developed revolutionary 12-hour cold capsule with time-release granules.

President's name: William Jefferson Clinton.

Does the president have a first lady? Does he ever.

Most credible scene: Jodie Foster flies through space and visits another world.

Least credible scene: This guy is our president?

Would you vote for this man? May I take the Fifth?

Rating: Two George Washingtons, raised under dubious circumstances.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Plot: President Donald Moffat is upset when his friend is killed by drug runners, more upset when he finds out that his friend was in the drug trade, even more upset when he finds out that he wasn't paying income taxes on his earnings. Orders secret war. Disavows secret war. Yells at Harrison Ford, now deputy director of the CIA. Miffed, Ford decides to bring down the presidency.

Does president have sleazy aide and hawkish general? No general, TWO sleazy aides.

Real-life prototype: George Bush with verbs.

Most credible scene: Colombian drug lords are not very punctual.

Least credible: Somehow, I don't think the president asks, "Can I get you anything?" when you visit the Oval Office to discuss his impeachable offenses.

Bonus: As Tom Clancy readers know, the part of Jack Ryan technically represents Harrison Ford's first presidential role, as Ryan will assume the office when kamikaze Japanese pilots crash into the Capitol during the swearing-in ceremony. Don't ask.

Would you vote for this man? Not without plausible deniablity.

Rating: Two-and-a-half George Washingtons. (In other words, it's almost worth the price of the rental.)

My Fellow Americans (1996)

Plot: Two ex-presidents (Jack Lemmon and James Garner) are framed for misdeeds of current president. Or is the clueless vice president played by John Heard the real villain here? You try paying attention to this film, in which the one-term Republican president is cheap, the one-term Democrat president is promiscuous and the sitting president is Dan Aykroyd. Somehow Lemmon and Garner end up on the lam together, trying to evade NSA assassins.

Do presidents have names? Yes, not that it helps.

Do presidents have a first ladies? Jack Lemmon has somehow persuaded Lauren Bacall to marry him.

Most credible part: I always knew there were NSA hit men.

Least credible part: Vice president is a poor golfer.

Bonus: Eventually, it ends.

Would you vote for this man? Garner, yes. Lemmon, Aykroyd, Heard, no.

Rating: One-half George Washington.

! Pub Date: 7/26/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad