What We Learned about the Election in This Summer's Movies

From the multiplex to the stump: It's caped crusader versus community organizer, and the end is nigh

We've seen this movie before—sort of.

Once upon a time, a hugely unpopular president tied to a baffling, unpopular, and apparently interminable war halfway around the world could not run for re-election. New faces appeared upon the screen. A well-liked if elderly soldier, paired with an aggressive young partisan, took on a high-brow, highfalutin' orator from Illinois, whose undeniable eloquence and evident intelligence inspired both loyalty and suspicion. It was the election of elections. The fate of the planet hung in the balance.

Such were the parameters of the 1952 presidential contest, the first national election in which television would play a crucial role and the last one before 2008 with neither an incumbent president nor a sitting vice president in the race. Harry Truman—the Democratic president that Republicans most love to praise—occupied the White House. American boys were pinned down in Korea. And General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied forces during World War II, was pitted, along with brand-new senator Richard Nixon, against Adlai Stevenson, first-term governor of Illinois. John McCain was 16; Barack Obama's mom was 10.

Those were the Latter Days. There was Communist aggression without and red subversion within; American scientists hastened to beat Stalin in developing a weapon of mass destruction 100 times more powerful than the Model T dropped on Hiroshima. American forces subjected North Korean installations to the heaviest air attacks since World War II. Congress voted $52 billion toward a worldwide network of bases. In late June, air-conditioned theaters in 10 large American cities hooked into a closed-circuit telecast of the latest civil-defense procedures; three days later, the CBS news show See It Now televised a simulated nuclear attack on New York City. And on the last two Saturday nights in July, routine air traffic was directed away from the Washington, D.C., airport as F-94 jets blasted off to defend the nation's capital against an armada of mysterious radar blips.

But these are also the Latter Days. Because, barring some cataclysmic cosmic intervention, either an African-American or a supposed Manchurian Candidate—held captive by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years and running with a mysterious young woman as his vice president—will be inaugurated next January.

How do we know that the end is nigh? Hollywood told us so—then and now. Tension was apparent in the titles of 1952's summer movies: Red Planet Mars (Commies or God broadcasting from outer space?), One Minute to Zero (GIs doing whatever it takes to win in Korea), High Noon (one man standing alone . . . because he's right!). And now? Well, according to Hollywood, a black man in the White House signifies disaster. In The Fifth Element (1997), with the entire universe under threat of obliteration, there was Tommy "Tiny" Lister; in the more provincial Deep Impact (1998), with a meteor hurtling toward earth, our leader was embodied by Morgan Freeman. Lou Gossett presided over the Christian-fundamentalist Armageddon of Left Behind: World at War (2005), as Danny Glover will over the multi-cataclysms of Roland Emmerich's upcoming 2012. And who can forget Dennis Haysbert, who served two seasons as president in the nonstop terror world of 24 (2001-03)? Certainly not John McCain. He informed Entertainment Weekly that Haysbert's David Palmer was his favorite fictional (heh-heh) president.

John McCain made his bones as a happy participant in the most destructive air war in human history, but he's not a product of Vietnam. His mentality was formed during the Cold War, pre-Elvis.

Perhaps 16-year-old McCain caught Red Planet Mars—the movie that dared to ask the question "Is the Man from Nazareth the Man from Mars?"—when a student at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. The most visionary of the anti-Communist films, Red Planet Mars was also the first Eisenhower film. Shot during the winter of 1951-52, this vision of divine intervention opened a few weeks before the world's first televised political convention nominated "the spiritual leader of our times" on the first ballot. The movie's president is a former military commander played by an actor who strongly resembled Ike. Moreover, Red Planet Mars anticipated Eisenhower's worldview, as had recently been reported in Time magazine, that America was a civilization built on religious beliefs now challenged by "a civilization built upon the godless theory that man himself has no value."

This summer's ruling apocalyptic fantasy was less ideological and less grandiose. Opening over the July 4 weekend, Pixar's Wall-E projected an unaccountably optimistic vision of human extinction in which a solitary robot trash compactor—its name an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class—single-mindedly organizes the endless detritus of an abandoned world. For much of the movie, this endearing protagonist is the earth's last vestige of humanity. The descendants of the planet's former inhabitants drift through space in a giant shopping mall, too bloated to do anything other than drink their Happy Meals and watch TV. Could that be us?! New York Times columnist Frank Rich saw the movie with an audience of innocent children and was impressed by their rapt attention: "The kids at Wall-E were in deep contemplation of a world in peril. . . . They seemed to instinctually understand what Wall-E was saying [and] at the end they clapped their small hands. What they applauded was not some banal cartoonish triumph of good over evil but a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out."

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