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Written by Gary Ross
Directed by Ivan Reitman
President Bill Mitchell is a no-nonsense executive with a messy personal life, cheating on his increasingly estranged wife. He employs a double to help hide his escape with his mistress and this time around he picks the uncanny doppelganger of Dave Kovic. Dave runs an employment agency in Georgetown and impersonates the president on the side. Everything is going smoothly until Mitchell has a stroke while he is with his mistress. The quick thinking and insidious chief of staff Bob Alexander persuades Dave to help them cover up this tragedy by continuing to impersonate the president. Dave does so hesitantly but quickly falls for Mitchell’s wife Ellen which complicates matters.
On the surface, Dave is a typical light comedy that perpetuated in theaters during the 1990s. The cloying soundtrack by James Newton Howard sounds like the whimsical bouncy tunes of Home Alone. The “humor” of Dave is so light as to be transparent and non-existent. I don’t think I laughed once while watching this movie. But that’s par for the course with Ivan Reitman at this point in his career. Think Beethoven, Kindergarten Cop, Junior. These are inoffensive dreck that is only going to appeal to someone through a clouded sense of nostalgia. Nothing about Dave will surprise or delight you; it is a film that will happen to you as you sit in a state of passive indifference.
Going deeper, there is a very insidious message happening in Dave. The film was released the spring of Bill Clinton’s first year in office. Not since John F. Kennedy had there been a president that could legitimately have been presented as a younger, handsome, virile type. These are traits that LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. didn’t exude. These were elements that Clinton intentionally highlighted in himself, see things like going on Arsenio Hall and playing the sax. So there’s no way around viewing Dave as a film about the possibilities of the Clinton presidency.
Secondly, Dave continues a trend I’ve noticed in films about American politics. If we go back to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise & Consent, these movies focus on the collective body politic of Washington. The president plays a part, but the Senate is positioned as much if not more critical to what makes the American government function. As we move forward through the Clinton era and into the Bush period, we’re going to find a more substantial shift to the President as the central figure rather than legislators. I would argue this has bled into the public’s perception of the way our government functions. The presidential election is hyped beyond all measure, while midterm elections continue to get short shrift.
Dave starts out under the thumb of Bob Alexander who is terrible. Why is he bad? Because he is being deceitful about the president’s actual health and is just being generally nasty. How does Dave respond? Dave, because he likes Ellen, decides to go over Bob’s head about cutting from the budget and funding her initiative to help the homeless. Eventually, evil Bob Alexander is defeated, and Dave fakes his (the President’s) death publicly so that the nice vice president can take over the executive office. But this is not before Dave announces a plan to end all unemployment, the details of which the movie doesn’t seem to be interested in sharing with us. Dave and Ellen get together. Happily ever after, right?
Films like Dave are what led to the ascension of mindless populism. I have been uncomfortable with how populism has been tossed around as a dirty word lately because it all has to do with the ideology behind the populism. The ideas presented in Dave are ones along the lines of “It’s easy to balance the budget. Just get rid of the stuff that’s not working.” Of course, the film feeds us budget items that we’ll all collectively agree are nonsense and need to be erased. Dave never once comes across the difficulty of compromise or having to choose between cutting something that is important in favor of something else he sees as important. Because he never encounters that challenge the audience is left thinking, “Yeah, these idiots in Congress are over complicating the budget. Anyone could do it.”
The movie also presents as with the morally questionable idea that it’s okay to subvert the will of the people if it is a nice guy doing it. Bob Alexander is a bad guy mainly because he doesn’t follow the line of succession outlined in the Constitution and manipulates circumstances to his purposes. Doesn’t Dave do the same damn thing? The only thing holding back Dave is he is worried that he’ll go to prison for life if the deceit is discovered. Well yeah, he should. Dave could have objected to Alexander’s proposal at the start, but he went along with it. This film fails to convince me why Bob Alexander should be punished, but Dave should get away with it, other than “he’s a nice guy.”
Dave was one of a few films that sought to mythologize the Clinton White House during his first term. Our next movie will be the other major one, The American President. What will be interesting is how that tone shifts with the second term and a darker angle emerges in these films.