Every so often, around Presidents’ Day, you’ll see lists of “Best Movie Presidents”. Well, if you look in the right places, you might. Dramas at the level of the federal government serve us in place of tales of palace intrigue (without a king or nobility, we have to have something), and have served Hollywood well when it comes to story ideas.
Glossing over the fact that the realities of government do not make for good cinema, there have still been plenty of movies – both good and bad – in the genre. And when anyone starts making lists or doing rankings, there are going to be some that are overrated and underrated as a matter of course.
OVERRATED: James Marshall (Harrison Ford), Air Force One (1997)
This one seems to always wind up at or near the top of any ranking. It’s a nice, well-constructed action-suspense movie, and Harrison Ford is, as always (well, at least when he was young enough to still be convincing), a fine action hero.
But that’s the crux of the matter here. He’s an action hero, not a president. The movie is pretty much a knock-off of 1992’s Passenger 57, which itself was pretty much “Die Hard (1988) on a plane”.
Other than a few standard boilerplate comments about “Terrorism is Bad”, he doesn’t really do any presidenting. What “political intrigue” there is comes in the subplot about invoking the 25th Amendment, the one about presidential succession and incapacity.
That’s actually a good issue to bring up. The president is missing, possibly in the hands of our enemies. Using the 25th Amendment to make the vice-president into the Acting President is something that should be considered; it would presumably unlock certain legal and military powers that could be extremely useful in the situation.
The movie, alas, makes it look like some officials in the government are plotting a coup.
Speaking of coups…..
UNDERRATED: Jordan Lyman (Frederic March), Seven Days in May (1964)
You have to feel a little sorry for President Lyman. Aside from being stuck with a wimpy name, he’s just managed to negotiate a sweeping nuclear arms reduction deal with the Soviet Union, and everyone – Congress, the military, the press – thinks he’s been taken for a sucker. And unbeknownst to him, his own chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Matooon Scott (Burt Lancaster) is plotting a coup!
The idea is a bit far-fetched – but so is the idea that terrorists would manage to seize control of Air Force One. It’s what you do with the idea that matters.
Here, Lyman has one week to uncover the plot, and stop it without violating any laws or doing anything ‘anti-American’.
It’s a very well-made and tense drama, even though it relies a bit on a deus ex machina resolution. John Frankeheimer directed it; Rod Serling wrote the screenplay from a best-selling novel. The cast is great – in addition to March and Lancaster, supporting roles are played by Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner.
Even though the movie is firmly set in the height of the Cold War, its great writing makes it surprisingly relevant today:
President Jordan Lyman: Dammit, Ray, we could’ve had our paradise. Yes, by God, we could’ve had full employment, whopping Gross National Product, nice cushy feeling that we’ve got a bomb for every one of theirs. But just as sure as God made the state of Georgia, there’d’ve come one day when they’d’ve blown us up, or we’d’ve blown them up. My doctor worries about my blood pressure. You know who that gentleman is down there with the black box. There are five of them… you know that one of them sits outside my bedroom at night? You know what he carries in that box: the codes. The codes by which I, Jordan Lyman, can give the orders sending us into a nuclear war. Instead of my blood pressure, Horace should worry about my sanity.
President Jordan Lyman: The next step should be to your liking, Chris. Esther, call the Pentagon. Tell General Scott I want to see him right away.
Esther Townsend: [on intercom] Yes, sir.
Christopher Todd: I think it’s time we faced the enemy, Mr. President.
President Jordan Lyman: He’s not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they’re not the enemy. The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott.
President Jordan Lyman: [to reporters at a televised press conference] There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.
[president exits; reporters stand and applaud]
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, that was the President of the United States.