Hypothetical Film Festival #5 – Presidents on Film

In honor of Honest Abe’s birthday I whipped up an eclectic list of great films in which presidents (both factual and fictional) are key characters in the stories.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, dir. John Ford)

Henry Fonda portrays a pre-presidential Lincoln in this John Ford classic. Ford chooses to focus on a fictionalized case from the future president’s days as a lawyer. During an Independence Day celebration a man is murdered and two brothers are blamed. Lincoln takes the case and fights against popular opinion to prove that these men are innocent. Along the way he impresses the young debutante Mary Todd and showcases his Solomon-like wisdom. The film is a highly fictionalized account and a mish-mash of events that occured years apart. It’s still a great film that showcases a kind of president who doesn’t feel the pressure to act before looking at the facts and using reason.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962, dir. John Frankenheimer)

This is the granddaddy of all political thrillers, directed by one of the most overlooked craftsmen in American cinema. During the Korean War, a group of American soldiers are drugged and taken to a Communist Chinese lair where they are brainwashed. One of them, Raymond Shaw, is programmed to be a sleeper agent. Back in the States, Shaw’s mother (played by Angela Lansbury) has married a McCarthy-esque senator who is making a bid for the presidency. Secrets are revealed that slowly, but surely, connect Shaw’s experience in Korea with the political goings on in America. An amazing achievement that was originally pulled from release after the Kennedy assassination.

Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)

Classic. Simple as that. While the president isn’t THE main character is one of three played by the brilliant Peter Sellers. The highlight of his role as President Merkin Muffley comes when he must dial Russian Premier Kisov and let him know that he’s accidentally order the launch of a nuclear strike on Moscow. Muffley’s deadpan “my bad” tone raises the film into the comedic heavens. In addition, this is one of the sharpest satires ever made and it was very ballsy on Kubrick’s part to release a film about global nuclear destruction a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the height of the Cold War. This would be the equivalent of someone making a comedic film in 2003 about bumbling terrorists onboard an airplane.

The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)

Robert Redford stars in a film that encapsulates the disenfranchised feelings of many people towards politics in the 1970s. Redford plays Bill McKay, the son of a legendary California senator, who is lured into running as the Democratic candidate for the Senate against unopposed, popular Republican. Yes, there really isn’t a president in this one, BUT it so perfectly tells the story of a campaign in the modern American system it very well could be. McKay was happy working as a pro bono lawyer for low income communities, and only agrees to run because he is guaranteed he won’t win and it will give him an opportunity to have a larger platform for the liberal issues he finds important. However, McKay ends up being more popular than expected and he finds his values being whittled away.

Warm Springs (2005, dir. Joseph Sargent)

Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon star as the young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in this HBO original film. The picture tells the story of FDR as he was coming to terms with his debilitating polio (in 2003, a study was done that suggested he was actually suffering from Gullian-Barré syndrome). He travels to a well-known therapeutic hot springs in Georgia where he struggles more with his humility than with the disorder. So much attention is paid to details here with the entire film being made on location at the actual Warm Springs, as well as Branagh driving the same car that was modified for FDR. A great picture about a wonderful president at a dark time in his life.

Idiocracy (2006, dir. Mike Judge)

The most accurate prediction of the future in our country. We also get two presidents for the price of one: Terry Crews an an ex-pro wrestler prez and Luke Wilson as the dim-witted time traveler who wins the following election. If you haven’t seen this unfinished masterpiece from the creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, let me fill you in. Luke Wilson is the dumbest man in the modern Army, he’s put in a cryogenic capsule to test the technology, forgotten about for 500 years, and wakes up in a world where he is now the smartest man alive. He must tackle such issues as “why won’t the plants grow?” (Spoiler: They’re watering them with Gatorade). It’s not the smartest satire ever written, but damn its funny.

The James Dean Trilogy – Giant

Giant (dir. George Stevens)
Starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo

James Dean’s final, and in my opinion, greatest performance casts him as the antagonist Jett Rink to Rock Hudson’s Jordan Benedict. Giant sought to redefine the Texas landscape and in terms of subject matter was a very forward thinking film. Not only does it address the wealth and power associated with the oil industry, it also deals with interracial relationships and interracial children in an extremely positive way.
Told over the course of over two decades, Giant follows Jordan Benedict as he marries Leslie (Taylor) and slowly loses his oil empire to family ranch hand Jett Rink. When the patriarch of the Benedict family dies, Rink only asks for one small patch of land as repayment for his years of loyal service. For years he works to drill it, with Jordan and his family finding his efforts humorous but ultimately pathetic. Finally, Jordan finds what he’s been looking for and puts all his effort into usurping the Benedict’s place in the upper crust in Texas.
Dean’s role role is very much a supporting one in this film, his first real secondary role. Hudson and Taylor’s relationship and the growth of their family is the primary plot concern. Once Jett discovers the oil he comes into much greater focus in the overall story. Dean’s portrayal of Jett is masterful; he’s an inarticulate man who understands working the ranch and being an oil rig worker best. This earthier character type plays foil to Jordan Benedict’s refined Texas aristocrat. Both men fit the Western archetype, with Jett being the rougher around the edges type.
James Dean’s finest moments occur in the scene where he zooms up the Benedict house to gloat about his discovery of oil and his grand finale, a drunken fifty-something man who wealth has done nothing to heal his anger and hatred. The first sequence showcases the bombastic skills of Dean; while his motivations are extremely petty you can’t help but feel ebullient with him. The latter scene is my favorite piece of acting by Dean and Daniel Day-Lewis’ final moments in There Will Be Blood owe everything to this performance. Having struck up a relationship with Benedict’s barely legal daughter, Jett has revealed himself a lecherous old man trying to numb the hollowness inside him by consuming disgusting amounts of whiskey. In the conference room at an oilmen’s convention, he stumbles about mumbling things under his breath, knocking over tables and has a final, violent confrontation with Jordan Benedict.
James Dean was never to act again. Before his final two films were released, Dean was taking a drive in his Porsche Spyder with a friend, received a speeding ticket, and two hours later collided with another car while speeding again. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. I remember being angry after I saw Giant that there were no more films with this actor. That couldn’t be right, he was so good and there were so many things he could have done.
I like this commercial produced by a life insurance company that theorizes what it would have been like if he had lived, and think its a good way to cap this essay series:

Weekend Trailer Roundup

The Eclipse (dir. Conor McPherson) – a very non-exploitative looking ghost story from Ireland

Mother (dir. Joon Ho-Bong) – South Korean psychological thriller from the brilliant mind behind The Host.
Mystery Team (dir. Dan Eckman) – From the brilliant comedic minds behind Derrick Comedy, one of whom is Donald Glover, former writer of 30 Rock and current star of NBC’s Community. This one look damn good.
Afterschool (dir. Antonio Campos) – A disturbing murder mystery at a prep school. Something about the cinematography and ambient noise is incredibly eerie.
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (dir. Oliver Stone) – Stone’s stock has fallen in the last decade, W. was a huge disappointment. Here’s hoping he recaptures some of what made him great in the late 80s.


Sundance Film Festival – The History

Right now the 2010 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing in Park City, Utah. American films of all sorts are being rolled out every day till January 31st. For the blog, I’ll be looking at the general history of Sundance here in part one, and then in part two I’ll look at some of this year’s films that I’m most excited to see.

The Sundance Film Festival began in 1978 as the Utah Film Festival. At the time there was no prominent American filmmaker-only festival in the existence and the hope was that this small gathering in Utah would provide a focal point for the iconoclastic film being made at the time. The festival was originally held in Salt Lake City and its biggest event was the awarding of the Frank Capra Award, given to filmmakers who worked outside the mainstream Hollywood system. The first year it was awarded appropriately to Jimmy Stewart, who worked with Capra on It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
In conjunction with the festival, the Sundance Institute was formed, named for Robert Redford’s iconic character and chaired by the actor. The Institute provided young filmmakers with funding for their projects. It was Redford’s involvement in the program that raised the prominence of the film festival. In 1981, the festival moved to its current location of Park City, suggested by director Sydney Pollack due to the resort and tourist nature of the area.
Originally, the festival only dealt in incredibly obscure films but in the late 80s and early 90s, a few young directors gained a large amount of attention. Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotapes hit the festival in 1989, followed by a huge year in 1992 with the debut films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi). Even Wes Anderson’s short film, Bottle Rocket (the basis of the later feature) debuted in the 90s at Sundance.
As Sundance grew in prominence, many argue that its dedication to burgeoning filmmakers waned. Big money is to be made from distribution sales at the festival now, especially in 2001 when Mariah Carey’s Glitter debuted. Many independent filmmakers saw Sundance as becoming more interested in the business and paparazzi side of things. In response, the rival Slamdance festival started in 1995. Slamdance has discovered its own fair share of talent, including Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), and Christopher Nolan (Memento).
Up Next: A Look at 2010’s Sundance line up

What’s to come

Posting from Gate C3 in the Nashville International Airport

Updates are gonna be few and far between till around Jan. 12th. Will be in the sunny winter sun of San Juan, Puerto Rico for the holidays. I will try to find time to write up and post my 10 favorite films I saw in 2009 (Remember, they can be from any year, simply films I had never seen before 2009). Will also, finish up the three part look back on my “decade in love with movies” in 2010.

As for 2010, I am already thinking about some new things to write up for this that go beyond the standard single movie reviews. You can be looking forward to:

– Director Retrospective – John Sayles (Have never seen a film by this man, but his name comes up often, figured I could take you through my thoughts on his work).

– One new hypothetical film festival every two weeks

– Going to pick a genre of film and do an indepth analysis of it (open to suggestions)

– Three part essay on the Sundance Film Festival

– A look at the James Dean Trilogy (East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant)

– And Obscure Classics, beginning with the overlooked sequel to Rocky Horror; Shock Treatment

Hope everyone has a great Xmas and New Year