It is an American nightmare. The president of the United States stands in the Oval Office, all crisp, starched and presidential, and orders his staff to assassinate private citizens. Why? Because he wants to. Because he can. Because they threaten him.
The president is played by Gene Hackman. The movie is “Absolute Power.” And nothing like this has ever happened in American history, at least that we know of. But the fantasy of a bad president - one that is either evil, ineffectual or both - has captured the imagination of filmmakers in recent years. Meanwhile, the traditional image of the strong, effective president has all but disappeared.
The one exception was in 1995’s “The American President,” with Michael Douglas as a kind of idealized Bill Clinton figure. But that film had a retro, Frank Capra feel.
Then there was Bill Pullman in “Independence Day,” who on the surface seemed like a good guy. But a closer examination leads to a different conclusion.
In that film Pullman started off as a first-term president, most likely a Republican, who was down in the polls. Then the aliens came, and what did they do? They wiped out the major population centers, cities with high concentrations of liberal voters. By the time the aliens left, Pullman was a shoo-in to be re-elected, and he had a mandate for increased military spending. Use your head: Pullman and the aliens were in cahoots.
It’s easy to get paranoid with all these movies out there. Take “My Fellow Americans,” which was supposed to be a comedy. Dan Aykroyd played a young, chubby president who was not only responsible for a murder but was working to have his two predecessors - Jack Lemmon and James Garner - knocked off.
Then there’s “The Shadow Conspiracy,” in which a kindly but wimpy president (Sam Waterston) is singled out for assassination by his vice president and chief of staff. And “Mars Attacks!” with Jack Nicholson as a smarmy joke of a president. And “Dave,” with Kevin Kline as a dim-witted president. And “A Clear and Present Danger,” with Richard Mulligan as a sniveling, evil president … What’s going on?
Clearly, the essential movie myth of the presidency has unraveled. That myth held that the presidency had the power to transform whomever got elected. That myth found its ultimate expression in “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933), in which a party hack (Walter Huston) took office, got visited by an angel and went on to become one of the greatest men in history.
But with the sitting president being investigated for sexual, financial and fund-raising improprieties, it’s hard to believe that getting elected can transform anybody, except into someone who would like to get re-elected.
Filmmakers have also expanded on the idea of presidential ambition. The question movies like “Absolute Power” ask is, “What if we had a president who was as ambitious as our most ambitious politicians - but was thoroughly evil?”
The scary thing about “Absolute Power” is that it shows precisely and convincingly how such a president could fool the public. In an eerie scene on the White House lawn, Hackman commiserates with a widower and pledges to catch the person responsible for her husband’s murder - meanwhile, the president is the murderer. But who would believe it? Hackman is smooth. He looks too much like a president.
“The Shadow Conspiracy” is not nearly as good, but it is almost as scary. It shows the amazing resources that a despotic “shadow” government could have at its disposal. Charlie Sheen cannot make a phone call without its being traced. The main flaw of “The Shadow Conspiracy” is that, when the good guys ultimately triumph, the ending seems naive.
It might be the national mood. It might just be the Hollywood mood. But the ironic truth is that if “All the President’s Men” (1976) were made today as a fictional movie, no one would believe it. The audience would sit there waiting for someone to come after Woodward and Bernstein with a machine gun.