We're ready for your close-up, Mr President

From a talk on films about the presidency, given by Ian Scott, the Manchester University lecturer to the Institute of United States Studies

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In the 20th century, a medium came along that could represent politics in a whole new light, and that was Hollywood. In films about American politics, and especially presidential films, a certain set of values recur that deserves far greater attention than previously afforded it.

In the 20th century, a medium came along that could represent politics in a whole new light, and that was Hollywood. In films about American politics, and especially presidential films, a certain set of values recur that deserves far greater attention than previously afforded it.

The Hollywood presentation of real political characters ought to tell us something particular about the periodic veneration of America's greatest leaders. The presidents who have been chosen and the eras in which the biographies first appeared should convey to us the kind of ideological predisposition Hollywood has historically kept toward the nation's most redoubtable of chief executives.

The representation of America's political leaders has arguably been more successful when their symbolic or metaphysical presence has been attached to fictional narratives and concocted stories. Why? Because then presidents can act as mythological imprints whose fallibility, mistakes and political conscience cannot be exposed to withering doubt or dissent.

The clearest example of this line of thinking lies with America most venerated leader: Abraham Lincoln. In Capra's film Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the representation of Abraham Lincoln was almost immediately caught up in the adornment and adoration of the Lincoln Memorial itself. This tended to build political legacies through the prism of character and wisdom.

But other film-makers have looked to reinitiate historical drama with blatant reworkings of conventional biographical interpretations about certain leaders. Typical was Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995). Stone's film is certainly a journey of biographical destiny much in the vein of its earlier companions. The critical difference is that Nixon's destiny lies not among the pantheon of America's greatest presidential figures, but with ignominious failure and Greek tragedy. The film was about the nature and falsities of power. Ironically, the predictable backlash against Stone took the form of devouring him for not thoroughly denouncing Nixon's ways.

If films on the presidency like Nixon could afford to take more pot-shots at the institutional dynamics of the American system in the 1990s, it was because the breakdown of the Cold War order allied itself to a growing cynicism within the public about the state of American politicians.

But cinemagoers looked for hope and renewal, even an escape from political ambivalence, and they found just these kinds of budding aspirations in screwball comedies. In Dave (1993), audiences were reunited with characters which bore remarkable resemblance to the Jefferson Smiths of yesteryear. Presidents like Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) had themselves become the kind of acceptable figures that America's public were willing to vote for. After all, in an era when the singer Sonny Bono and the WWF wrestler Jesse Ventura have successfully entered politics, who could deny that Washington and Hollywood had finally become cohabitants under the same banner?

So one might suggest that ideological charm and the easy conviction of democratic values within the American polity win the day for audiences in the contemporary era. Certainly the success in the 1990s of a film like Forrest Gump promotes the sense that a detached observation of previous historical upheavals is what the public is more comfortable with now.

A tale of good versus evil remains the chief dilemma for presidential movies. It is not always possible in biographical portraits to note the symbolic vanquishing of enemies, nor provide a cleansing of institutional procedure. Yet Hollywood often demands such black and white distinctions. Which is why, ultimately, it is content with the idea of mythologising America's greatest leaders and packaging them as an iconic focus for the audience's expectations and faith in American democracy.

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