Presidents Under Pressure or how fictional presidents handle situations of extreme crisis in the movies "Deep Impact", "Independence Day", and "Mars Attacks!"
Term Paper 1999 13 Pages
I. The President in Hollywood’s history
A. Early Beginnings
B. Present Day
C. Back to the Future
D. Ficticious presidential characters
II. The public’s expectations of the President
A. Addressing the Nation
B. Moral Leadership
III. Reactions of the President in a situation of crisis
A. Deep Impact
B. Independence Day
C. Mars Attacks!
IV. Evaluation of the President’s performances.
A. President Beck
B. President Whitmore
C. President Dale
V. Adaptation of the ficticious actions to real-life
The President of the United States has been a subject of many movies in Hollywood history. From the earliest days of cinema, in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Fighting Roosevelts (1919) or Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), to the present day, in films such as Nixon (1990) and Dick (1999), many real-life U.S. presidents have been portrayed in the most different ways. In the years before crises like Watergate, Vietnam and the growing media coverage have demystified the presidency, most of these real- life portrayals have shown the President as a wise heroic man, almost like a saint (Edelman 323). In the years after these events, Hollywood lost its respect for the presidency discovering that the man in charge was human and that he also makes mistakes (323). Since Hollywood likes to adapt politics, it is no surprise that politics adapted Hollywood, too. The simple fact that Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 was subject for several jokes in one of the most successful movies of 1985, Back To The Future. In this time-travel film, Marty McFly (Michael J.Fox) accidentally travels to the year 1955 where he tries to find the inventor of the time machine, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), to help him get back to 1985.
After having found him, Doc Brown does not believe Marty's story. In order to find out, if Marty's story is true, Doc asks him the following question:
Doc Brown: Then tell me, Future Boy, who's President of the United States in 1985? Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan. Doc Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? Ha! Then, who's Vice President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady and Jack Bennetty is Secretary of Treasury ! Marty McFly: Doc, you gotta listen to me ! Doc Brown: I got enough practical jokes for one evening. Good night, Future Boy.
And later in the film, when Marty shows Doc Brown the recording of his camcorder, Doc Brown is amazed about this technological invention and cries out: "No wonder your president has to be an actor, he's gotta look good on television."
In the 1980s and 90s an increasing number of films with a ficticous presidential character were made, despite the fact that "politics is neither interesting nor important. What is important and interesting for film purposes are people's immediate circumstances" (Gianos 3). However, this certainly had one advantage: The depiction of an event —in the present or the future— does not have to be historically accurate any more and lies only in the hands of the creative minds. Now, we no longer get to see, how a president has reacted, but rather how he might react under certain circumstances. It is especially interesting to see the President's reaction in an extreme situation of crisis, because that is a situation that does not occur every day and that many of us rather would not like to see happening. For this paper, I am going to focus on the presidents depicted in the films Deep Impact (1998), Independence Day (1996), and Mars Attacks! (1996) and how they react differently under these extraordinary circumstances. The three films were chosen because they all do have two things in common: The President is only one of many characters. The storyline concentrates on several different people and their fates, the President being just one of them. In each film the importance of the President varies, however. This will be examined later in this paper. Second, all three films —although different in genre— tell science-fiction stories. Deep Impact is a mainly a serious disaster-drama with science-fiction elements, Independence Day is an action- adventure-science-fiction blockbuster with comic elements, and Mars Attacks! is mainly a satire of the B-movies of the 1950's and 60's.
Before taking a closer look at each depicted president, it is important to know how we as the public expect the President to react. The only way we can assess his reaction is by the way he addresses the American people. A study of presidential addresses showed a strikingly consistent pattern for all presidents, no matter which party they belonged to (Hinckley 27). The pronoun "we" is used in almost every speech. It refers either to the nation, to the American people or the presidential administration, however it is used interchangeably and frequently within the same sentence (27).
Barbara Hinckley sums up the use and the different meanings of the word "we":
"The word 'we' in effect becomes the unifier of the entire action whereby presidents simultaneously (1) invoke national pride and patriotism, (2) appeal to the American people for support, (3) show the people that they are one of them, and (4) propose and explain actions of the administration. Thus by the deliberate blurring and blending of the word 'we', administration proposals become identified with the nation and the American people" (28).
Another striking resemblance in addressing the nation can be found in the way presidents fulfill their moral leadership:
"Literally, they preach, reminding the American people of religious and moral principles and urging them to conduct themselves in accord with these principles. They quote from the Bible and make theological statements about the Deity and His desires for the American nation"
And presidents keep on preaching, although it contradicts to the principle of separation of church and state (30). But what are our expectations of how the President will handle the situation? Thomas C.Cronin examinded the paradoxes of the Presidency and some of his observations are certainly true for situations of crisis: "We demand the sinister as well as the sincere, President Mean and President Nice; [...] The public in this case seems to want a soft-hearted son of a bitch" (Cronin 54). Since leadership is also very important under such circumstances, we put our hopes solely in him:
"Only the president can give us heroic leadership. Only a president can dramatize and symbolize our highest expectations of ourselves as a chosen people with a unique mission. [...] Still, we want forceful, courageous displays of leadership from our presidents. Anything less than that is condemned as aimlessness or loss of nerve" (55).
We will now take a closer look at the three portrayed presidents. The President in Deep Impact (directed by Mimi Leder), Tom Beck, is portrayed by Academy-Award Nominee Morgan Freeman. Although his on-screen time is relatively short, he is playing the key-role for the fate of the United States. In his first press-conference, he explains the situation of the imminent threat posed by the comet to the press and the public in a calm and confident way, he knows what he is talking about. By freezing prices and wages he also takes the neccessary steps to ensure that life will go on as normal. Even though he does give an evasive answer to reporter Jenny Lerner's (Téa Leoni) final question, he assures that: „Life will go on. We will prevail." In his second appearance —an address to the nation— he informs the public that Messiah mission to destroy the comet has failed. It is interesting that it is the President who announces the failure and not the news media like MSNBC who were covering the entire mission. Once again, President Beck calmly explains what will happen next:
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- LMU Munich – Amerika-Institut
- 2,0 (B)
- Presidents Under Pressure Deep Impact Independence Mars Attacks Proseminar Representation American Presidency Contemporary Hollywood Movies