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Monday, August 1, 2016

Film Land - Dave

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Edited by Robert Beach

As I write this, it’s August 1st, and here in America, that means one major thing: the general election is fully under way. The Republican and Democratic national conventions are finished; the candidates were chosen; in three months, we get to see who’s going to be President: the qualified woman or the fascist reality star. Understandably, such a choice weighs heavy on one’s mind as we barrel our way towards November 5th, but it also made me remember a very bizarre 1993 political comedy that’s become strangely relevant to this day and age called Dave. 

Directed by Ivan Reitman, the director of Ghostbusters, the film stars Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, and Kevin Dunn and stands as one of the best installments of the relaxed idealism that informed a lot of ‘90s political fiction such as The American President or The West Wing. What makes Dave unique amid the era and why it’s all so important right now is the film’s central hook: what if someone with no political experience or knowledge of any kind became president. 

Here’s the set-up: Kevin Kline (who you might know from A Fish Called Wanda) has dual roles as the titular Dave Kovic and the President Bill Mitchell. The idea of the film is that this President is a corrupt bastard, using his political power to line his own pockets with the aid of his villainous chief of staff, played by Frank Langella, and constantly cheating on his wife, played by Sigourney Weaver. 

Dave enters the picture as the manager of a local temp agency whose likeness to the President means he tends to get hired by the Secret Service to impersonate the President for certain functions and the like.  

When President Mitchell suffers a debilitating stroke, rather than tell the public, the Chief of Staff decides to have Dave take over impersonating the President full time while he manipulates things behind the scenes so that he can be named as the new President. Unsurprisingly, Dave eventually ends up slipping his leash and fully taking over as President and showing the world just what’s possible when an average citizen takes a crack at the toughest job in the US.

As far as high-concept comedies go that’s a pretty solid set-up, even if the film’s attitude towards the duties of the President is decidedly of its time.  For context, this movie came out in 1993, only a year or so after the fall of the Soviet Union.  This was right at the moment when the high of American hegemony had been fully cemented for the nation at large and the future seemed like an incredibly bright one. 

Our economy was booming; we were now the only functional world super power; overall, the world seemed to be fully at ease. My point is that it was a time when the idea of the presidency seemed a lot less imposing than it would during our Cold War stare-down with Russia or the ongoing rigors of the War on Terror. It’s the only moment in time where the idea of a Presidency as a job where someone could relax seemed even remotely possible to the public at large.

Though, Dave isn’t dealing with the actual duties of the President so much as he’s living the public conception of the presidency as it was perceived in the early days of the 1990s. That’s part of the film’s overall appeal actually, a child-like innocence and naiveté about the idea of the Presidency. As you grow up, you slowly become aware of how incredibly demanding the job of President is but when you’re young there’s a sense of awe and freedom about the position that does elevate it to something fantastical. 

Simply put, when little kids say they want to be President when they grow up it’s not because they hunger to lead or think they know what’s best for America, it’s because it’s a job that comes with a big house and a private plane and seemingly unmitigated power. 

That’s the vision of the presidency that Dave is focused in on, especially during the extended second act where we see Dave enjoying his new position while Frank Langella and Kevin Dunn’s secretary of communications keep everything running behind the scenes.  

This is easily the best part of the film, the stuff that explores the fantasy of the Presidency in a way that does make you nostalgic for a time in your life when you were ignorant of the terrible realities of leadership.  Also, this part is just pretty damn funny. 

Incidentally, if you’re wondering where the Vice President is in all this, he is around just kept off screen till the third act. The idea is that the VP is an honest and stand-up guy, so Langella contrives a reason to keep him out of the country while scheming to do away with him.  He’s only there to give Dave an out when we get to the third act resolution, but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

The third act is where the film is at its most interesting from a modern standpoint.  At the start of the third act, Frank Langella decides to veto the budget money meant to care for starving homeless orphans because this movie and subtlety don’t go together (seriously, Langella laughs at the poor orphans, and I’m pretty sure he’s only in this movie because he also played Dracula.) 

The heartlessness catalyzes Dave to take a look at the budget himself, and this is where he starts making decisions on actual governance.  This is where the movie honestly loses me, even though I still thoroughly enjoy it.  It’s just that this particular idea is an incredibly tricky circle that doesn’t fit into the simplistic square demanded by the fantasy of the presidency stuff.  The idea at hand is that Dave’s background outside the political class makes him a great president because he’s able to cut through the political double talk and backhanded deals that tend to inform the business of governance. 

That kind of straight talk approach fits the contextual era of the film, remember, Bill Clinton’s whole ethos at the time was that he was a lovable, relatable everyman who’d charmed his way into office, even if that wasn’t the case.  What’s more, it ‘s at least in harmony with the nostalgic, presidential fantasy as it plays into the idea the idea anyone can be president. 

Where it falls apart for me now is how much it reflects the ugly modern attitude that being qualified for a job disqualifies you from doing it.  It's something that’s become more and more prevalent nowadays but goes all the way back to Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ theory.  

People tend to miss this now, but the actual point of Campbell’s theory was that the phases he ascribed to Hero’s Journey were meant to parallel issues we as people faced through our psychological development. 

The biggest issue at the heart of that development was also the main psychology problem with being human: confronting our insignificance.  That’s why the Hero’s Journey is predicated on the idea of someone of seeming normalcy turns out to be monumentally important; it’s the wish fulfillment that you, the audience, are secretly massively important.

However, as time has gone on, we’ve slowly weeded out the parts of the hero’s journey that are meant to shepherd us through the development and doubled down on the elements that act as fantasy.  So now, rather than having the hero work and hone their craft the idea is that characters are just naturally good at stuff.  

Partially this is so to afford the lead the structure of an underdog story, wherein the villain has the “advantage” of tireless hard work while the hero is just relying on raw talent, but moreover it exists so that we the audience can slot ourselves into the role. 

The problem is that this philosophy that you don't need hard work or expertise to be every bit as good as professionals have come to infect our real worldviews.  It’s honestly become an epidemic, from the anti-vaccine movement to the now infamous Brexit quote about the British people being sick of experts to the very idea that Donald Trump or Jill Stein would make a good president specifically because they have no experience. 

That uncomfortable history of overuse and real-world impact does end up making Dave’s third act turn a hard pill to swallow, even if the film’s sunny optimism and sincerity make it go down a little easier. What's impressive is the way this entire cliché seems to have originated with Dave.  

The idea of “inexperienced genius” was a comedy standard in the ‘90s before becoming a blockbuster go-to in the 2000s. From what I can tell, it started with Dave before popping up again in The Hudsucker Proxy, The Flintstones Movie, Richie Rich, Gordy, and Chairman of the Board. 

Even with that relatively big caveat of a compromised third act, I recommend Dave.  It’s an odd film in how much its sensibility and worldview feel like that of a young child. The actual jokes and content are more adult-skewing. That’s par for the course with Ivan Reitman as it was the same set-up with Ghostbusters. 

Consequently, the film is quite affecting and really does make you nostalgic in a way that only a handful of movies I’ve experienced really can.  Maybe it’s just the extended horror show that is modern politics or the burden of now being an adult and forcibly concerned with the political reality, but either way it’s nice to sometimes retreat to a fantasy where the fact that anyone can become president doesn’t seem so much like a threat. 

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