Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 may raise the temperature of political discourse when it opens this week. But partisan as it is, it’s not the first movie designed to roil the waters of an American presidential campaign.
PT 109, the story of then president John F. Kennedy’s wartime heroics and the only feature to ever represent a current White House occupant, was perceived as a trailer for the 1964 election when it was released during the summer of ’63. Thirty-two years later, Bill Clinton’s re-election drive kicked off with Rob Reiner’s fairy tale The American President, in which Michael Douglas played an airbrushed, Hillary-free, fab-dad version of Clinton. (Written by Aaron Sorkin, The American President eventually mutated into television’s The West Wing, which for the last five years has kept the Democrats in the White House by other means.)
Although it’s reasonable to assume that this Oval Office romance fired the imagination of a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, the money shot of the 1996 campaign was undoubtedly the exploding White House in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day—a movie endorsed by both candidates but especially Bob Dole, who emerged from a matinee screening in a nearly empty L.A. cinema to raise his thumb and intone, “Leadership. America. Good over Evil.” As noted in these pages, Emmerich has made a contribution to the 2004 campaign with The Day After Tomorrow, which, given its eco-disaster thematic, inexplicably seems made to order for a rematch between Bush and Gore.
The inventor of the election-year statement was John Wayne, who unleashed the two-fisted McCarthyite anti-Communism of Big Jim McLain in 1952 and timed his Cold War version of The Alamo to coincide with the 1960 campaign—though its evocation of a threatened fortress America was less in tune with the rhetoric of Wayne’s boy Richard Nixon than that of his bête noire JFK. Released during the summer of 1968, The Green Berets was another election-year special, although by the time it opened, Wayne’s target Lyndon Johnson had effectively abdicated, leaving Big John unrivaled as America’s reigning authority figure.
Wayne’s movies were either issue-driven or allegorical. But there is another tradition of election-year movies that present virtual candidates. Frank Capra’s 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was so effective in casting Gary Cooper as a boyishly altruistic millionaire that the star’s fans attempted to jump-start a movement to secure him the vice-presidential nomination; Capra’s 1948 State of the Union advanced Spencer Tracy as a more seasoned aspiring plutocrat. Robert Redford’s 1972 vehicle The Candidate and Robert Altman’s even more prankish HBO miniseries Tanner ’88 both managed to garner real followers, if not votes, for their imaginary candidates. Indeed, it was thanks to The Candidate‘s satire of image politics that a good-looking if dim-witted law student named Dan Quayle decided to follow his electoral destiny.
Released two months before Election Day 1992, Tim Robbins’s Bob Roberts covered both bases by putting forth a candidate who combined the worst traits of rivals Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. The 1992 campaign’s key movie, however, was Oliver Stone’s JFK, which, opening wide as the primary season got under way, served to usefully evoke the Democrats’ most important icon—eagerly seized upon by candidate Clinton as his personal avatar. An even more dramatic appropriation occurred during the post-Kennedy 1964 campaign, when Democratic campaign operatives—already portraying Republican candidate Barry Goldwater as a trigger-happy warmonger—excitedly briefed each other on the release of the nuclear-disaster thriller Fail-Safe, which imagined a situation in which a series of mistakes and technology failures lead to thermonuclear war.
Fail-Safe was a plea for political responsibility, but only once has a Hollywood movie attempted to direct a newly elected president. Gabriel Over the White House (1933), orchestrated by media lord William Randolph Hearst, with appropriate press blitz, to open on the day of Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, detailed the transformation of an infantile, backslapping pol into a patriarchal, ascetic dictator—a vehicle for divine will, who suspends Congress, declares martial law, conscripts the unemployed, summarily executes bootleggers, and strong-arms the European powers into paying their war debts, thus ending the Depression with a millennial Pax America.
While this particular fantasy regime never came to pass, the most decisive intervention, before Moore, was Capra’s State of the Union, which told the story of a philandering businessman (Tracy) who reconciled with his estranged wife in the course of running for president as a moderate-to-liberal Republican. The film climaxes with a prime-time radio address in which the candidate hijacks his own campaign (“I’m paying for this broadcast”) to stage a triumphant tactical retreat into plain talk. In April 1948, the movie was previewed for President Truman. According to campaign aide Charles Alldredge, the president practically levitated in his seat at the spectacle of this outspoken candidate appealing directly to the people. Alldredge believed that State of the Union confirmed Truman’s resolve to run for the office he had inherited. Truman had the movie screened on the presidential yacht and then again at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Thanks to the law of unintended consequences, State of the Union reasserted itself some eight presidential elections later. During the New Hampshire primary, candidate Ronald Reagan cast himself as Tracy by employing the actor’s forceful protest—slightly modified to “I’m paying for this microphone!”—to prevent a supporter of rival George Bush from cutting him off in a televised debate. So decisive was this grasp of Hollywood logic that The Washington Post‘s Sidney Blumenthal felt that with a single one-liner, Reagan had “seized the moment and the nomination from Bush.” The rest is showbiz history.