President's On-Screen: Does Art Imitate Life?

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Presidential candidates — and often presidents themselves — sometimes have trouble living up to the images of heroic commanders-in-chief on the big screen. In honor of Presidents Day, film critics Shawn Edwards and Julio Martinez discuss how fictional characters relate to the true American political experience.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a past president tells us what he believes and how that moral code guides him. Also, we re-broadcast our chat with senior songwriter, Jill Scott. But first, as we've been saying, it's President's Day and a cast of candidates have spent the last year auditioning for that role before an eager audience of American voters.

Many of our favorite American presidents have been on screen. There's Harrison Ford as President Jack Ryan on "Air Force One", Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett on the "West Wing" and Michael Douglas looking for love as President Andrew Shepherd in "The American President". The most presidents we've seen on screen have been heroic, brave, noble and handsome. Some wags might say a little different from what we get in real life. Today we'll talk about the role of the president on screen and in our popular imagination. With us to talk about this is Shawn Edwards. He's the film critic for Fox Television in Kansas City. He joins us from KCUR in Kansas City. Also with us is Julio Martinez. He's a theater critic and host of "Arts in Review" and radio station KPFK in Los Angeles and he joins us from NPR West. Gentlemen, thank you both.

MR. SHAWN EDWARDS (Film Critic, Fox Television, Kansas): Thanks a lot.

MR. JULIO MARTINEZ (Host of Arts in Review): Thank you.

MARTIN: Julio, let's start with you. How has film and television depictions of the President changed over the last, I don't know, let's say 30 or 40 years.

Mr. MARTINEZ: Well it's — you mentioned the word heroic and that does seem to be the theme. Two great films of sixties about the presidency, "Advise and Consent" and "Seven Days In May" show the president actually as we know them today, as sort of being in the background, guiding the people who did do all the action in the course of the plots of the film.

Today we do have a Harrison Ford who actually goes mano a mano with the villains. And he played a character who was a former war hero, so I guess there is a parallel to McCain. We seemed to want to have proactive, heroic figures, when in essence, the presidency is really just one third of the triangle that runs our nation.

MARTIN: Shawn, why do you think that is? Why do you think that sort of the president as action hero as opposed to kind of more the corporate executive figure that we're used to from earlier years? Do you think that's what Americans want from presidents in real life?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well number one yes. Americans do want a heroic, strong, tough guy, very stern president in real life. But one of the reasons why presidents are represented that way in feature films, is because in the movies they're the hero. And they're the guy we look up to. So they match the leading man's status that we're used to seeing on the big screen, which is handsome, tall, strong, very competent.

MARTIN: I see. Who — we're in the thick of the campaign season. Let's play a little game here. Which movie president do you think matches up with each of the current candidates?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well there's that natural parallel with McCain. He's a former war hero. The Harrison Ford character was a former war hero.

MARTIN: Let's play a short clip for everybody who is not a student of film businesses as usual. Let's play a short clip of Harrison Ford on "Air Force One". (Soundbite of movie, "Air Force One")

MR. HARRISON FORD (Actor)(as President James Marshall) Get off my plane.

MARTIN: You heard that pivotal thunk where he…

Mr. EDWARDS: I love that clip.

MARTIN: …finishing off the gang of terrorists who've hijacked "Air Force One." Julio I hate to break it to you but John McCain is not tall.

Mr. MARTINEZ: Yes, I know.

MARTIN: What do you think it is — what is it about Harrison Ford you think, that makes him presidential, that makes people want to cast him that way?

Mr. MARTINEZ: Well, he's a handsome, rugged figure. You believe that he could be an executive that can run a corporation that is the United States. But at the same time, he has a history. We know of him as "Indiana Jones" and doing great physical things. So there's a natural affirmation that this is the character that he is playing.

MARTIN: Shawn, your turn, what about Mike Huckabee? Is there an on-screen president who reminds you of him?

Mr. EDWARDS: You know what, I know Mike Huckabee is a Republican. But when I these of him, I think of the John Travolta character from "Primary Colors" who in that movie was actually a Democrat. But Mike Huckabee sort of has that aw shucks, sensibility about himself. But when it's that he can still come across as intelligent and straightforward and sort of like this commanding figure. So that comes to mind for me, is "Primary Colors".

MARTIN: Okay. We've got two candidates would make history if either won the White House. Hillary Clinton as the first female president, Barack Obama as the first African—American. Julio, who is the on-screen version of Hillary Clinton?

Mr. MARTINEZ: The on-screen representation, probably closer to the "Air Force One" character Glenn Close played, who actually was Vice President.

(Soundbite of movie, "Air Force One")

Unidentified Man ("Air Force One"): Is he saying what I think he's saying?

MS. GLENN CLOSE (Actress): (as Vice President Kathryn Bennett) If we're going to act, we have to act now.

Unidentified Man: It's too risky.

Ms. CLOSE: (as Vice President Kathryn Bennett) The president is up there with a gun to his head.

Unidentified Man: He's asking us to do that, to Air Force One?

Ms. CLOSE: (as Vice President Kathryn Bennett) He's not asking. Your Commander in Chief has issued a direct order. Do it.

MARTIN: Shawn what about television has promoted these folks before the movies have I guess?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yes, I like the TV series "Commander in Chief" in which the president was played by Gina Davis, although I don't think any of her characteristics matched Hillary Clinton. But that was a ground-breaking television show, because I like the way they presented the presidency with Gina Davis. I mean I liked a lot of her characteristics. She was strong, should was stern. but she doesn't come across in the same manner as a Hillary Clinton. So I wouldn't compare those two. Except for…

MARTIN: Well why not? Their politics were similar. They were both progressives, so.

Mr. EDWARDS: Sort of. I just thought that Hillary Clinton seems to be a little bit stronger, more stern than that character in that television series.

MARTIN: But she was older. She was definitely older.

Mr. EDWARDS: That's true. Now that does play a big difference. I mean the age difference does make a big difference in how the character comes across and how they were to conduct it there, you know, the off, the Oval Office…

MARTIN: And again, I also think it's fair to say that Gina Davis didn't campaign for the job in "Commander in Chief" right? She was the vice president and…

Mr. EDWARDS: That's true.

MARTIN: …became president because the president died in office. So it isn't sort of analogous. I think there might be a difference when somebody actually has to go out earn it on her own.

Mr. MARTINEZ: There is a presentation of a president as a woman that Gina Davis had down. And also the Glenn Close character. They kept their voices low.

(Soundbite of movie, "Air Force One")

Ms. CLOSE: (as Vice President Kathryn Bennett) I'm going to go out there and I'm going to take the oath of office. I'm going to run this government and if some Islamic nations can't tolerate a female president, then I promise you, it will be more their problem than mine.

Mr. MARTINEZ: One of the things against Hillary Clinton that has come up is the fact that, as she gets excited, her voice keeps getting higher and higher, which one psychologist said is grating against the male psyche.

MARTIN: Interesting. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're talking with film critic Shawn Edwards and Julio Martinez about how on-screen presidents reflect and influence, possibly influence the political attitudes of Americans. Shawn, the most visible African—American on-screen president, I think for this generation is David Palmer. He served in the White House in the early seasons of the Fox hit, "24". Let's play a brief clip of that.

(Soundbite of "24")

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): (Agent Jack Bauer) Mr. President, its Jack Bauer.

Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (Actor): (as President David Palmer): You threaded the eye of the needle.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (Agent Jack Bauer) Yes sir. I wanted to thank you for advising me under on this situation. Mr. President, you saved my life.

Mr. HAYSBERT: (as President David Palmer) Well I'm sorry it came to this.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (Agent Jack Bauer) Me too sir. I just wanted to let you know that I was helped.

Mr. HAYSBERT: (as President David Palmer) I'm glad. This is probably the last time we'll ever speak. Jack you do understand when you hang up, for all intents and purposes, Jack Bauer is dead.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (Agent Jack Bauer) I understand that sir.

MARTIN: That was actor Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer and Keefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on "24." I'd like to ask both of you. This is the kind of thing I think we can only speculate about. But in the past, the idea of a black president was always treated as a joke in films. Do you think that this serious and respectful treatment somehow shapes our consciousness of what's possible Shawn.

Mr. EDWARDS: Okay, in reference to the fact that African—Americans as president has always been treated as a joke isn't actually true. In the history of feature films, there've been five African—Americans that have portrayed the president of the United States on film, Morgan Freeman, James Earle Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., Tom Tiny Lister and Chris Rock. A couple of those were jokes, but the Louis Gossett, Jr, James Earle Jones and Morgan Freeman presidents were actually presented pretty seriously. But it is the Dennis Haysbert presidency on "24" that I think really set the tone and made it palpable for most Americans to think that there could actually be an African— American in the Oval Office and just made it totally acceptable for Barack Obama to run for the presidency this year.

MARTIN: Julio, do you think that — what's your take on whether voters get their idea of what the president should be from the movies?

Mr. MARTINEZ: In the movies and in television, you see the president doing something that you don't see in real life, being an active leader of the free world. In real life, they become part of this big corporate structure. And hopefully they lead well, they advise well and they make good decisions. But it's in the movies, it's in television that you really see a president being like King Henry V, saying once more into the breech, boys. You know, being a real leader and that is the image that I think candidates try to evoke as well.

MARTIN: Does either of you have a favorite on-screen president? It doesn't have to be somebody you'd personally vote for, just a character that you found really compelling, Shawn?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh yeah I have a couple. My number one favorite is Billy Bob Thornton as the president in the movie, "Love Actually" from 2003. I just love the way they portrayed him as this gung-ho sort of cowboy, high-spirited, America's the toughest country in the nation, and I can do what I want as he faces off against Hugh Grant, who is the prime minister of Great Britain. And you know, he goes into his office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he basically does what he wants because he is the president of the United States.

(Soundbite of film, "Love, Actually")

Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (Actor): (As The US President) It's great scotch.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARTINE McCUTCHEON (Actor): (As Natalie) Well, then. I'll be going, then.

Mr. THORNTON: (As President) Natalie, I hope to see much more of you as our two great countries work toward a better future.

Ms. McCUTCHEON: (Natalie) Thank you, Sir.

Mr. EDWARDS: You know, at the opposite end of that, I really got a hoot and a big kick out of Jack Nicholson as president in "Mars Attacks!" Every time I watch it, you know, I'll fall on the floor with laughter. It's great. It's a great movie, great performance.

MARTIN: Okay. Julio, what about you? Do you have a favorite?

Mr. MARTINEZ: Well, I have a couple of them. I'll avoid my youthful references because they're really dated. Frederic March was really my favorite president of all time in "Seven Days in May," but that's in 1964.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. We'll try to dig deep into the archives for that one.

Mr. MARTINEZ: Yeah. Martin Sheen. To me, I thought he did the most believable portrait I've ever seen of a person who is slowly weighed down by the immensity of the job, and he believably carried it off.

MARTIN: Hold on. Let's play a short clip of that. This is Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlett.

(Soundbite of "The West Wing")

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN (Actor): (As President Josiah Bartlett) I want to speak.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Say it out loud. Say it to me.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Bartlett) This is more important than re-election. I want to speak now.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Say it again.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Bartlett) This is more important than re-election. I want to speak now.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Now we're in business.

MARTIN: This is - the scenario here is that the character is changing his mind about taking the easy way out of a political conflict. So Julio, you raised this character. Politicians and politicians, there's a reason it's kind of a -we have ambivalence about that term. You know, Some people, they don't want to be called a politician even though, you know, and sometimes it's a position of, you know, high honor, great responsibility and terribly important.

But there ever any real-life person who could possibly match the charisma of an on-screen president like that? Are we inevitably going to be disappointed by real life?

Mr. MARTINEZ: Of course we're going to be disappointed.

Mr. EDWARDS: There's no way that you can match that.

Mr. MARTINEZ: You know, put three cameras in the Oval Office after whoever becomes our next president, and let's watch them on a day-by-day basis, and maybe we'll come to some conclusion whether they have that kind of charisma. But we're not allowed to see them being the real person. We get the soundbites or the press conferences, and that's a whole different persona.

Mr. EDWARDS: So not only that, you've got to keep in mind, whether you're watching a television show or a feature film, they're being written, they're being edited, and real life doesn't necessarily work like that.

MARTIN: Well, gentlemen, thank you both so much. Shawn Edwards is a film critic for Fox Television in Kansas City. He joined us from KCUR in Kansas City. Julio Martinez is a theater critic and host of Arts in Review at KPFK in Los Angeles, and he joined us from NPR West. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thanks a lot.

Mr. MARTINEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Happy Presidents Day.

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