Today is Presidents’ Day and there is no better way than to celebrate some of our favorite presidents to have graced the big screen in film.
There’s a few films that stand out to me and while some of these haven’t been reviewed on Solzy at the Movies, the day is coming!
I saw this film last year during a 25th anniversary screening in 35mm at the historic Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Ivan Reitman directed the political comedy from Gary Ross’ hilarious Oscar-nominated screenplay. There are so few comedies that work in a way that this script does. The result? One of the greatest presidents ever on film!
The film holds up really well nearly 25 years later much thanks to a strong performance from actor Kevin Kline in the duel roles of civilian Dave Kovic and President Bill Mitchell. Frank Langella plays the role of Bob Alexander with such a dramatic feeling to it. It’s as if he came onto the set expecting a drama but nobody told him he was in a comedy movie. The interplay between him, Alan Reed, and Dave is just one of the reasons why the comedy works so well.
Paying an homage to the prior work of the great Frank Capra, Dave offers a fresh contemporary take on a classic trope. It’s the wonderful characters that make the film what it is and why it’s such a classic some 25 years later.
The American President (1995)
To say that The American President is a prelude to television’s The West Wing would not be an understatement. After all, Aaron Sorkin penned the screenplay to the Rob Reiner-directed dramedy starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. The film also starred Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, and Richard Dreyfuss.
The gist of the film is that President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is pursuing a relationship with environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). On the one hand, it’s okay because Shepherd is a widower. On the other hand, Wade is a lobbyist and this just reeks of scandal. President Shepherd wants a crime control bill passed into law by Congress so it’s a good thing that Wade isn’t working for one of those teams involved.
It’s been some time since I’ve seen this one, which is currently available through HBO Now and select VOD streaming services.
My Fellow Americans (1996)
This film wasn’t seen as a particularly great film when it opened in December 1996. Neither financially or with the critics. Because Jack Lemmon’s film sparring partner Walter Matthau wasn’t in the greatest health, James Garner stepped up to the plate. Not to take anything away from Garner but Lemmon and Matthau tend to bring comedy gold when they act together.
Lemmon and Garner star as a pair of feuding ex-presidents, Russell Kramer and Matt Douglas–Republican and Democrat, respectively. Kramer’s former VP, William Haney (Dan Aykroyd) is now president with an idiot of a vice president in his administration, Ted Matthews (John Heard). Given the cast at hand, there’s no shortage of comedy. There’s the serious side of things with the political bribery, assassinations, and assassination attempts! Remind you, this film was billed as a comedy. Maybe the film would have been better suited as a comedy thriller?
With everything going on in the United States today, this one is worth revisiting.
Primary Colors (1998)
I’m going to watch this one later today after missing out during the 20th anniversary year. What can I say–awards season kept me super busy during the final quarter!
Mike Nichols directed from an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Elaine May. The two were comedy partners going back to their days with The Compass Players (predating The Second City). This was one of a few films in which they teamed up as director and screenwriter.
Primary Colors was a hit with the critics but the film bombed at the box office. Perhaps because of how close John Travolta’s performance as Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton was to then-President Bill Clinton. At the end of the film, Stanton had been elected president with Emma Thompson by his side as First Lady Susan Stanton.
Finally we have Steven Spielberg’s biopic of my fellow Kentucky native, Abraham Lincoln. I’m going to be watching this one again today. Daniel Day-Lewis owned the role of the nation’s 16th president. It’s no surprise that he took home just about every acting award. After all, Spielberg’s Lincoln was an outright critical and financial success. The film took home 40 wins in 130 nominations. Day-Lewis accounted for 17 awards!
Tony Kushner’s script was based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Where this film went right is focusing on a narrow point in time rather than extend the film over a 20-30 year period. This is where biopics truly become make or break. In this case, the focus is on passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. To do this, Lincoln needs Republican Party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to help win over the conservatives. As for the Democrats, Lincoln works with Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to win their support.
Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) of Pennsylvania prefers actual equality to that of legal quality. He tones his rhetoric down if it means getting any type of bill passed. As we later learn, this cause is important to him because he’s in love with a person of color, Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson).
As with any historical biopic, the film was not without criticism.