President’s Day is coming up and having just discussed films appropriate for Valentine’s Day, I figured I’d make a list for President’s Day too. This list isn’t about realism. If you want realism, check out any number of good films that are more or less true to their subject. Recent Academy nominees Lincoln and Frost/Nixon come to mind as incredibly compelling and realistic political dramas. No, the films I chose below speak more about how I want politics to be rather than how politics is. And there’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Enjoy.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012)
I’m not ashamed to say that I loved this film despite a myriad of well-deserved bad reviews. Okay, I’m a little ashamed. Mostly though, I’m ashamed because it shows how petty I am. I live in an area of the country where it is not uncommon to see Confederate Flags on bumpers and belt buckles, so I am fully on board when a movie comes along that depicts the antebellum South as being run by Vampires and slavery as a means to feed them. No sympathy for the devil in this film, just honest Abe with a big ass axe and a mission of righteousness. If Gone with the Wind’s lost cause element makes you ill and Speilberg’s Lincoln is too heady, revel in this film of unabashed Confederacy bashing.
The American President (1995)
For those who believe Americans will respect a President who speaks as a fearless intellect in a sea of bottom feeding politicians, this film is for you. Michael Douglas plays a widower President whose romance with a reporter becomes scandalous when it is revealed his beloved once burned an American flag. Throughout the film, Douglas’s president worries what will become of his electoral chances if he speaks his mind, and we as the audience come to believe that intelligence and honesty are what we really want from our politicians. This is a film so charming and optimistic that it casts Michael J. Fox as the voice of conscience. The sincerity of Fox’s “They’ll drink sand” speech is so overwhelmingly idealistic that you might even begin to believe a different kind of politics is possible. But it’s not, and that’s why this film is on the list.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
This is another in the “if only our politicians were better people” genre. If this film were a Pumpkin Patch, the Great Pumpkin would surely visit it given its unequaled sincerity. In real life, the filibuster is primarily a procedural motion used to kill bills that the minority party in the Senate opposes. In the hands of director Frank Capra, the stand-alone filibuster becomes true drama as Jimmy Stewart speaks until he’s hoarse about the corruption in the Senate and the abuse of the land and people by big business. Stewart’s character has no hope of winning but believes that “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” When put against the fact that the most famously repeated use of the filibuster was to crush Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s and 60s, let’s just say many lost causes lose for good reason. Most unbelievable part: The corrupt Senator being inspired to confess his sins as a result of Jimmy Stewart’s speech. Warning: Do not watch this back to back with “House of Cards” or your head might explode from the abrupt change in attitude.
What could be better than Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson singing and signing their way to Independence? This musical gets a surprising amount right about the process of Independence: everyone hates Adams, Franklin is incorrigible, Jefferson is homesick. More than that the song sung about the triangle trade is a much needed bit of honesty for those who think of slavery as a merely southern institution. Still, it is the founders of the country singing and dancing so be wary of claiming to know much about the process based on the film alone. Also, the best parts of the film are the dispatches from “G. Washington” and letters like that exist.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
It’s a stretch to call this a political film, however, Ossie Davis does claim to be JFK. The plot finds Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) alive in a nursing home living out the end of his days after escaping stardom by switching with an Elvis impersonator 30 years earlier. When Elvis discovers that the nursing home residents are being victimized by a 3000 year old Egyptian Mummy, he enlists the help of also still alive John Kennedy (Davis) to fight one last good fight. I’d like to tease this film as I did those above, but when your film’s premise is elderly Elvis and Jack Kennedy fighting a mummy, you’re pretty much immune to petty sarcasm. All I can say is, yes, this film has a ridiculous plot, but no more so than Air Force One, and it’s a better film than Air Force One.