How presidential action movies ruined our politics
As we celebrate the nation’s birthday, we can all admit something is very wrong with this country, isn’t there?
The current political climate has become our default entertainment format because COVID-19 shut down production on everything, and no one wants to sit in a crowded theater as a deadly respiratory disease sweeps the countryside. On top of that, this person is leading the country:
The Agony Booth has posted a series of articles called Movies that Predicted Trump, and feel free to check those out; they’re all pretty good. So whatever your social views, we’re not very fond of the guy. I could go into the issues that I personally have with the guy, but I don’t have the time nor the mental wherewithal. I write about movies for this website, so this article is about movies… mostly.
One of the more shocking things about the Trump era is not just his outlandish behavior, but how his behavior, his confrontational nature, and his sheer inability to let things go are seen as features, not bugs. People look at this mess of a human being and that’s what they want a president to be.
How did we get here, gentle readers? And what do movies have to do with it?
Movies and TV, meet reality
Whether we like it or not, movies and TV shows affect our perception of the real world. Movies are like legends and myths of the modern era. It reflects how we see the world, or how we want to see the world. I’m not a super-realist when it comes to fiction; I understand that fiction doesn’t have to conform to reality entirely. But at times, the lines blur.
Why do you think so many people in this country are shocked—shocked—that police have committed injustices against citizens, particularly people of color, and that there’s a toxic subculture that’s formed in many police departments? Might it have something to do with all the TV shows that show the cops as attractive, ultra-tough, unimpeachable good guys? Good guys who occasionally have to break the rules, by the way, to get the bad guy?
This is how our politics got us to where we are today. This isn’t about Movies that Predicted Trump, but rather about movies that convinced people that Trump is what they want in a president. One of the many defenses of Trump by his partisan supporters is “he fights”. He fights everyone, apparently. Leaving aside the fact that Trump looks like he’d lose a slap-fight with the Pillsbury Doughboy, the sad fact is about 30% of the country want a president who’s a “fighter”, “fights” or who is tough.
Fourth of July with President “Badass”
Independence Day is not a very good movie. It’s not a complete atrocity, and it’s not even schlockmeister Roland Emmerich’s worst film. It’s just not very good and it’s very dumb. But there are a lot of people who like the film unironically, so much so it got one of those long-awaited sequels I’m always bitching about. People like Will Smith in his prime and at his most WillSmithiest (I get it). And people think the movie is funny (I don’t get it). But one thing that people do love is that speech by the president of the United States, as played by Bill Pullman.
One thing that changed in the ‘90s was movies’ willingness to portray the president of the United States as a fictional character. Of course you had The West Wing, but before that (and maybe I’m misremembering), I always remembered movie presidents being an off-screen presence. It was as if the office was such a fixture of American life that we couldn’t bear to trivialize it by featuring a fictional president. When we did, it was always a cameo or a supporting role.
The ‘90s saw this change, and while I’ll get to other examples in a moment, Independence Day is probably the biggest example. It made the president not just a character in the story, but a main character, and the hero besides. From the very beginning, President Thomas Whitmore (yeah, he actually has a name) is portrayed as a dynamic leader of rare courage. It’s established that he was a fighter pilot in the Gulf War, he refuses to leave the White House when the aliens first show up because he doesn’t want to contribute to a panic, and of course, who can forget that speech? That corny, over the top, completely meaningless because it’s about a fictional battle that wasn’t real speech?
But right after the speech, we get the coup de grace when the president of the United States, the guy who has an entire security detail specifically charged with ensuring his safety, throws on a jumpsuit, hops in an F-18, and leads the last fighter pilots America’s got in a climatic assault on the alien spaceship.
Here’s a tangent for you: Anyone remember the remake of Battlestar Galactica? The first few seasons were great, but one of the best things they added was the character of Laura Roslin, ironically played by Mary McDonnell, who plays President Whitmore’s wife in Independence Day. In Battlestar Galactica, Roslin is Secretary of Education until the Cylons attack. With the entirety of the line of presidential succession wiped out, Roslin becomes president, and now she’s the leader of the survivors of humanity.
It’s a nice piece of realism for a sci-fi series. Like police officers having to do paperwork and sign a statement after they shoot three armed thugs to death and throw the main bad guy off a ten-story building, there are real world consequences that movies and shows tend to gloss over that can actually make a story more interesting. The character of Laura Roslin is the exact opposite of the usual “bold man of action leader” archetype people picture in stories like this. She’s a career educator and bureaucrat who in an emergency becomes the leader of the human race.
Back to Independence Day. Here’s a hypothetical for you. If President Bill Pullman (that’s what I’m calling him from here on out; and admit it, so will you) gets zapped to death by aliens, but the humans still win, who’s the president then? They mentioned earlier in the movie that the vice president was killed offscreen when NORAD was destroyed, and the only other cabinet member we meet on camera is the asshole Secretary of Defense (played by character-actor-mostly-cast-as-assholes James Rebhorn) who never told anyone he knew aliens existed. And he was fired earlier that day.
Yeah, it seems cool to have a president flying around in a fighter jet, but being commander-in-chief of the nation’s military is only a fraction of what the president does on a regular basis. Even if you go back to the beginning of our constitutional republic, there were four cabinet departments in Washington’s first administration (War, since replaced by Defense; Justice; State; and Treasury). So war and military matters were originally a quarter of what the president did. The government has grown with the population and has added several more functions as the country matured.
And yet, many people watch this movie, with its corny speech and completely inferior to Star Wars fighter sequences and say, “That’s what I want in a president!” But flying around in a fighter jet is not the job of a president. It’s in the job title and the name of the branch of government he’s in charge of. The job is to preside over the executive branch, and execute the laws faithfully, not lead troops into combat.
It’s true that several former military members went on to be president (Washington, Jackson, Grant, and Eisenhower were all generals; Bush Sr. was a naval aviator) but all of them, when assuming the office, hung up the uniform and became what a president is supposed to be: an executive and manager. This is why you don’t hear stories in history class about Abraham Lincoln leading a bayonet charge during the Civil War, or George H.W. Bush flying a fighter in the Gulf War. Presidents set policy, and they have an apparatus of several agencies to carry it out. You don’t want an action hero; you want someone who can make decisions and delegate tasks to be carried out.
President Solo or President Jones
The dynamic of president as action hero was further expounded upon in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1997 film Air Force One. Harrison Ford, as President James Marshall, decides to avoid leaving Air Force One in an escape pod (which the real Air Force One doesn’t have, by the way) when terrorists led by Gary Oldman seize the plane, because he doesn’t want to leave his family. With Oldman and company unaware that he’s still there, the president takes on the hero role in one of many films based on the “Die Hard on a…” concept.
It’s a much better movie than Independence Day, and it actually bases its president-as-action-hero drama in more real world politics. The terrorists want the rogue leader of their nation released from a Russian prison, and the movie’s plot is tied to diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States. There’s even a pretty decent effort behind Oldman’s menacing performance, to show the viewer how outsiders might view U.S. foreign policy, especially when it’s their country on the receiving end of it.
But my favorite part from a political nerd’s perspective is the conflict between Vice President Glenn Close and Secretary of Defense Dean Stockwell as to who’s in charge in this situation. Stockwell insists that since their response is mostly military, it’s his baby, but it’s explained by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, of all people, that technically the president is incapacitated, so the line of succession falls to Vice President Close. It’s a nice touch, as this is a conversation that would have to take place if the movie’s scenario actually played out.
But nobody paid money to see that. They paid money to see President Harrison Ford shoot terrorists and tell Gary Oldman to “get off my plane” before his neck is broken by an errant parachute. Once again, he’s President Harrison Ford, and that’s what put the butts in the seats. And while the film makes an effort to ground the movie in reality, it’s still Harrison Ford, and he’ll always be Han Solo and Indiana Jones to us. And no one cares about Han Solo’s stance on economic stimulus or what Indiana Jones thinks about soft power in foreign policy.
I know movies aren’t supposed to be complete reflections of reality. I’ve heard that many times. And yet, despite that excuse, movies still find a way to affect our perception of the real world. My father, who’s a criminal defense attorney, has said the CSI franchise has been a boon to defense cases because people just assume that every crime scene will be rife with DNA evidence that can be found with all sorts of black lights. I would even argue that it took so long to take down all the confederate monuments because Hollywood never portrayed the Confederacy and slavery as unquestionably bad until they released Roots in the 1970s. The list of movies that feature confederates or a Johnny Reb type as the “good guy” goes beyond Gone with the Wind.
And the presidential badass action hero archetype is still with us today. Even Obama got in on it. Whether it was Jamie Foxx playing the first black president who fired a rocket launcher from a limo driven by Channing Tatum in White House Down (there’s Roland Emmerich again) or the delightfully insane creation that is Barack the Barbarian:
This urge to have a “tough guy” or “strongman” as a leader is a small holdover from our days as cavemen. When you might have to beat members of another tribe to death to defend your waterhole, you want the biggest, toughest guy leading your tribe. But society has evolved since then. And while toughness is still a good characteristic in a leader, there are many other qualities that are necessary for leadership in the modern world. Problem is, those qualities don’t come across in action movies.
If you want an example of how a movie can make fiction more engaging by rooting its story and world in reality, look no further than Star Wars. George Lucas borrowed almost as much from history as he did cinema. The look of the Jedi Sith (especially Darth Vader’s helmet) and their use of swords was based on samurai from Meiji-era Japan and monastic orders of knights. The Empire was clearly based on Nazi Germany. And Lucas and his editors watched several documentaries about World War II being fought in the air. These touches make the universe feel more real without having to overdo the worldbuilding.
The examples of great storytelling that have roots in the real world are legion. Even Sherlock Holmes had real-life inspirations. I could make a hacky “listicle” about the misconceptions movies have helped to propagate, but I’d rather just remind everyone to not believe everything that you watch. The world can be complex, and most problems can’t be solved by an action hero with ready one-liners shooting a bunch of people. So while there should always be room for escapism, don’t vote for who you think would look cooler on a movie poster, or who you think would do better in a fistfight. One, you’re probably wrong, and two, it’s a shitty way to pick the most powerful person in the world.
Now that I’ve written about how movies about action hero presidents have twisted our politics, I can confidently say that conservatives are right about one thing: It really is all Hollywood’s fault!