November 6, 2012

Casting the President

Print More

Every four years, Americans play casting director for the most anticipated role of all. (No, not Christopher Nolan’s newest cerebral thriller. Everyone knows that is going to Christian Bale.) They decide who plays the part of President of the United States.Follow the metaphor with me, if you will. While, in theory, the position is an open call to any actor, you already know a candidate from a top talent agency is going fill the role (*cough* political party).Like everything in Hollywood, there’s a President typecast. Looking presidential can get you far. Broad shoulders, steady eyes and a strong jaw come to mind. Romney’s primary motivation throughout his campaigns must be that he looks so right for the part.When casting a biopic about real presidents, there are natural limitations. Regardless, over 50 actors have portrayed Lincoln and everyone plays Nixon — from Anthony Hopkins to Frank Langella to John Cusack in the upcoming The Butler.  However, it is the fictional presidents where the fun really is. Entertainment is truly the best gauge of popular opinion and the public’s mindset. (This is always my justification when I’m on Netflix instead of working on my paper).There is a real dichotomy in the portrayal of presidents in television and film. In a way, it reflects the polarized view of the role of government in America. There are good guy presidents, and then there are bad guy presidents.There are moral presidents who carry the burden of many on their broad shoulders. Then there are bad presidents who come to power via Machiavellian foul play. The best of the good, the idealized liberal concoction propelled by the score of Aaron Sorkin, is President Josiah Edward Bartlet. The Democrat from New Hampshire is what progressives dream about: a Ph.D.-wielding intellectual with righteousness coursing through every syllable he utters. Martin Sheen’s sturdy and piercing Jed Bartlet stares down Congressional filibusters and throws scriptures at homophobic television personalities. He is kind of a rock star, but nothing compared to the world of action movies where we hold our leaders to a higher standard. In Independence Day, President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) hops on a jet to fight aliens. Harrison Ford’s James Marshall does what everyone essentially wants from their POTUS: He kicks ass in Air Force One. Morgan Freeman’s voice alone qualifies him access to the nuclear code in Deep Impact.Of course, we also have our evildoers who made it to the highest office in the land. Our bad presidents often have the same broad shoulders, strong jaw — but there is an evil gleam in their eyes and an ominous camera angle that lets us know otherwise.In The Day After Tomorrow, Vice President Cheney — sorry, I mean “Raymond Becker” (Kenneth Walsh) who happens to look startlingly like the former veep — does not buy into climate change research and smirks at a call to action. Cue global warming-induced, apocalyptic storms resulting in a mass exodus to Mexico. Don’t worry, moralistic Hollywood makes Cheney amend with a humbled speech to the world following the destruction.Television just loves its conspiracy theory presidents. 24’s President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) goes from asinine to full-on villainous. Prison Break’s Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig) seizes power through ties to an elusive covert organization. Don’t you hate it when power is not in the hands of the people, but that of select power brokers? In a subtler version of evil, Love Actually casts a sleazy President Billy Bob Thorton (who must be known for other things, but was at one time Angelina Jolie’s husband). In everyone’s favorite romcom, the British have their chivalrous Hugh Grant-ish Prime Minister stand up against the bullying American.Politics are unfortunately a shallow game. A well-tailored suit or sleeves rolled in exactly the right way can make all the difference to an undecided voter, apparently. Back in the day, press respected President FDR so much that they never took awkward photos of him struggling in his wheelchair. They allowed him to keep his powerful image. Today’s media is not so kind, and a candidate’s image is far more carefully constructed for your convenience. Of course, there is so much more to deciding on the next President. You want your leader to be a reflection of your values and dreams for the future. You want them to be able to deter aliens and avoid harassing British household staff. And, if that is too much to ask, at least they should look like they could.

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar