Television made Donald Trump a reality star, but if he had been cast as President of the United States 20 years ago it would have been in a sitcom modeled on Veep. His increasingly awkward appearances make even Julia Louis Dreyfuss' character look exceedingly competent, and it is unlikely that a screenwriter has conjured up the comedy and cruelty that characterizes this presidency, which now leads to a finale in which unidentified troops move on protesters and we hobble through a pandemic while the president plays golf.
Before television, or in the first 40 years of film, there weren't many fictional presidents. This was partly because the films grew up with Franklin Roosevelt, who was president for so long that it was impossible for audiences to imagine anyone on the job. Paradoxically, we got fictional presidents when we voted for handsome movie star John Kennedy. Since then, large and small picture presidents have largely been divided into three types. Before JFK, the Studly president with two fists would have been unthinkable. We wouldn't have had Michael Douglas telling his political enemies to piss off on The American President, Bill Pullman telling the invading aliens to piss off on Independence Day, or Harrison Ford telling terrorists to piss off on the Air Force One get off his plane.
Notwithstanding such leaders, the archetypal standard was the moral leader of the free world. Henry Fonda was the original; In Fail Safe of 1964, he had to destroy New York to save the rest of humanity. More recently, regardless of film, Morgan Freeman has been the moral leader of the free world. He was so often God, Nelson Mandela and the voice of reason in documentaries and advertisements that the presidency is more of a resignation. Surprisingly, he only held the office in two films: Deep Impact and Angel Has Fallen.
However, even the most feverish Hollywood imagination has never envisioned a president as insane, clueless, and cynical as the one given to us by real life and democracy.
In films and on television, forgive me, moral authority trumps inexperience. Obscure employment counselor Kevin Kline showed that a little humility and compassion were enough to rule the land in Dave, and teacher Mary McDonnell showed that a bit of perspective and steel was enough to rule the galaxy in Battlestar Galactica. But moral authority can be complicated in a world where not everyone plays by the same rules, as the first African American president of the United States, Dennis Haysbert, learned on the 24th. In seven seasons of the west wing, Martin Sheen spread the goose bumps of the USA Clinton years and the ruthlessness of the Bush years. He was a philosopher-warrior who went so far as to conceal a debilitating disease and illegal assassination attempt that would stave off a 9/11 style attack. Despite his shortcomings, he was a good guy, the ultimate fantasy president for many Americans.
Sheen takes us to type three, the Nightmare President. Fifteen years off the west wing, he played an evangelical who blew up the world in the dead zone. Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove blew up the world – not out of fanaticism, but out of incompetence – and gently tried to calm its Soviet counterpart from the atomic lead. and Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks !, easily sent to be fatal by Martians with a joke hand hum. Somewhere between the poles of madness and ignorance was the cynical power couple from House of Cards, Kevin Spacey, and his wife, partner and bitterest rival Robin Wright.
However, even the most feverish Hollywood imagination has never envisioned a president as crazy, clueless, and cynical as the one that real life and democracy have given us. If Trump has a fantasy prototype, it is from the 1960s cult classic Wild in the Streets, in which Christopher Jones appears as a talentless, female rock star who exploits his base and comes to power by fighting half the country against that he has seduced others, relentlessly lets go of his raging inner child and kills his children's pets. On and off screen, it's time for grizzled old lights to make a comeback. Doesn't the aging, personable and eternally decent Tom Hanks remind you a little of someone who is now running for president?
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