History lodges itself in popular memory as mythic saga; myth becomes moralizing as compact fairy tale. The Kennedy administration morphs into Camelot and then the story of a doomed Tribeca prince. This process is virtually a movie industry mandate and it’s demonstrated equally by the family-oriented animation The Iron Giant
and the teen comedy Dick—two very successful entertainments that attempt to make particular aspects of the recent American past comprehensible to those too young to have lived them.
In The Iron Giant (a movie that finally gives Warner Bros.’s animation unit a reason for being), a nine-year-old boy, a childlike robot from outer space, and a sympathetic beatnik confound the full might of what used to be called America’s military-industrial complex to save New England from nuclear obliteration. In Dick, most conveniently synopsized as Romy and Michelle’s Watergate Adventure, a pair of ecstatically simpering 15-year-old ninnies effectively destroy the Nixon presidency. There’s even a reconciliatory generational agenda: In both cases, the kids are all right and Boomerism rules.
Even funnier than it is puerile, Dick is only minutes old when bubbly Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and her nerdy friend Arlene (Michelle Williams) unknowingly create the conditions by which a group of Republican ops get caught burgling Democratic headquarters. Having blundered upon the mission’s menacing leader, G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer), while they were sneaking back home through the Watergate stairwell, the girls reencounter him days later on a class visit to the White House and then meet Richard Nixon himself. It’s no more improbable than the premise of The American President and, in some ways, a lot less fanciful. Nixon (Dan Hedaya) is first seen compulsively grousing that his new dog—which he persists in calling “Checkers”—doesn’t really like him. One thing leads to another and Nixon offers the jumping, screaming girls the job of official White House dog walkers.
As demonstrated by actors ranging from Jason Robards to Rip Torn to Rich Little, playing Nixon is a ham bone’s dream. (The only really bad impersonation was, of course, Anthony Hopkins’s.) For look-alike Hedaya, it’s the role for which he was born. Wide-eyed and mirthless, shaking his blue jowls and squeezed into an ill-fitting suit with an American flag in the lapel, this sonorous, gloomy Nixon is a joke that never stops giving. Rather than surround him with digitally resurrected playmates, as Oliver Stone did in Nixon, writer-director Andrew Fleming recruits a suitable cast of trolls to play the president’s men—with Saul Rubinek (elevated from a functionary in the Stone film) a particularly gruesome Kissinger.
High lowbrow, Dick is a mass of pop-culture detritus—teen comedy, conspiracy caper, political satire, nostalgia flick. The movie is built on the shards of old commercials and ancient TV shows and fueled by a constant infusion of ’70s pop. Andrew Fleming’s script, cowritten with Sheryl Longin, is designed to get maximum mileage out of the title pun, and his direction is aggressively cheesy. Famous news-photo tableaux are reenacted in the manner of cruddy wax museum displays. (The referenced images include a few scenes from All the President’s Men, which is, after all, one of the prime Watergate myths.) The White House is less a crime scene than a virtual garage sale.
Once the girls inadvertently bake cannabis cookies and innocently feed them to the president, they’re promoted to “secret youth advisers.” Impressionable Arlene rips down her Bobby Sherman pictures and replaces them with images of R.N. Betsy and Arlene are nonplussed by the growing investigation—asking Dick, “What’s the deal with this Watergate thing?”—but when they blunder on a suitably clunky tape recorder and evidence of their hero’s Oval Office rantings, they are actively disillusioned: “You kicked Checkers and you’re prejudiced and you have a potty mouth!”
Myth reduced to fairy tale, Dick purports to reveal the true identity of Deep Throat and the actual cause of the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes. Desecration that it is, the movie also takes pains to travesty the heroes of All the President’s Men. Bob Woodward suffers the indignity of being played by resident SNL nitwit Will Ferrell, although the preview audience with whom I saw the movie laughed even harder at Bruce McCulloch’s portrayal of fellow reporter Carl Bernstein as a maniacal leprechaun, flipping his hair for the camera as he muscles in on Woodward’s scoops. The only idiot missing in this bubblegum JFK is Forrest Gump.
In the end, the republic is saved by a couple of prank phone calls and a judicious burst of Olivia Newton-John so that, 24 years later, another young woman could all but bring it down. As always, the past is drafted to serve present needs.
Set at the dawn of the space race, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is steeped in a mythos of sputniks, spooks, and classroom shelter drills. It’s a deft, economical, and uncloyingly sweet-natured movie that even invokes the ultimate Cold War nightmare—a nuclear missile arcing out of the sky over Main Street.
Bird, a Cal Arts and Disney alum who had an early involvement with The Simpsons, has freely adapted a children’s book by British poet Ted Hughes; however, the feel is hardly literary. If anything, the movie hews too closely to the E.T. scenario. Hogarth, the nine-year-old son of a harried single mom (dubbed by Jennifer Aniston), finds, saves, and protects the humongous robot who drops from the sky—educating him as well with his collection of comic books.
The story’s a tad simpy but the character animation and action interludes are so matter-of-fact in their brilliance that it scarcely matters. Set pieces range from a storm at sea and a pursuit sequence involving air force bombers to a mess precipitated in the local diner by Hogarth’s pet squirrel and a kindred sequence with a giant robot hand scuttling through the boy’s house. With an insatiable appetite for scrap metal and an uncanny ability to reassemble his scattered parts, the giant himself is a sturdy comic conception as well as a fully realized icon—ratchet jaw and headlight eyes are encased in a bullet-shaped cranium, an imposing torso pivoting on a Tinker Toy construction. (That only the giant appears to be computer-
animated is among the many unobtrusive touches that make The Iron
Giant so satisfyingly coherent.)
If Bird appears to have logged a few hours studying Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century and the Superman cartoons of the early 1940s (not to mention King Kong and Ultra Man, among other Japanese robots), The Iron Giant is in no way derivative. Incredibly, it suggests a cartoon remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still that might have been made in 1957—a sensation promoted by the Forbidden Planet poster that Hogarth has in his bedroom, the cleverly incorporated period ad he watches on TV, and the invented “duck and cover” civil defense cartoon shown in school. The characters, angular rather than cuddly, are set against fully rendered backgrounds. At once stylized and detailed, jazzy and classic, the animation picks up where Warner and Disney left off when they cut back their theatrical cartoon units in the mid ’50s.
The music doesn’t flood the script with sentiment or canned nostalgia, and the movie is even restrained in its toilet jokes. Remarkably unassuming, genuinely playful, and superbly executed, The Iron Giant towers over the cartoon landscape.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 3, 1999