Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mr. Dave Goes to Washington

It’s been almost 25 years since an amiable fable called Dave appeared on the nation’s movie screens. Dave, which stars Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, takes a basically light-hearted look at the U.S. presidency. It’s a Capraesque take on the notion that a man of the people is a vast improvement over most career politicians. What’s striking in 2017 is how much the film resonates with the facts of the administration in today’s Washington. At a time when the rumblings about impeachable offenses are growing louder,  it’s very pleasant to see a movie in which skullduggery gets punished and American ideals prevail.

In Dave, the protean Kevin Kline gets the opportunity to play two roles. The first is that of President Mitchell, a man capable of delivering idealistic speeches that delight his supporters. Mitchell, who looks a great deal like the first President Bush, may have a presidential air, but he’s at base a cold-hearted skunk who’s too busy canoodling with his secretary (Laura Linney) to want to show up at ceremonial events. That’s why the lookalike Dave Kovic, a gentle everyman who runs a temp agency, is recruited to stand in for him at smile-and-wave events. Things take an unlikely turn when President Mitchell suffers a massive stroke in flagrante delicto. The conniving chief of staff played by the wonderfully sinister Frank Langella sees this as a prime opportunity to install Dave permanently in the White House. The idea is that Dave, playing the role of the president, will serve as a convenient puppet, with Langella’s character pulling the strings.

Needless to say, the worm turns. It’s not long before Dave discovers that he has a mind of his own, and that he’s in a position to use his new-found power for the good of the common man. In entertaining kids at a local homeless shelter and then throwing his support toward an expensive but idealistic jobs bill, he wins widespread public approval, as well as the affection of a First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) who has long been disgusted by her philandering spouse. Of course Dave’s time in the sun cannot last. Langella is up to no good, and there are some excellent plot twists and turns before order is restored and happy days are here again.

Most real-life Washington DC power brokers obviously enjoyed the concept of Dave, because many of them appear on camera. Such 1990s politicians as Senators Tip O’Neill, Paul Simon, Howard Metzenbaum, and Alan Simpson are interviewed about the doings of the fictitious President Mitchell by real-life journalists like Robert Novak, Sander Vanocur, and NPR’s Nina Totenberg. The late Helen Thomas asks sharp questions at a presidential press conference. Jay Leno tells political jokes, and Larry King provides acerbic commentary. The real power structure, in other words, supports the fantasy.

That was then; this is now. What struck me about Dave is its conviction that a man with no political experience is better equipped than many political regulars to make important decisions. We’ve just been through an election in which voters chose as the nation’s leader a political novice who relies on his gut instincts rather than a well-formulated sense of policy. Of course, through much of Dave, the novice is putty in the hands of a behind-the-scenes manipulator bent on subverting the system for his own gain. Though Dave ultimately wises up, he knows better than to think he has all the tools he needs to run a nation. Though the film ends on a predictably upbeat note, the system stays intact. In our own world, let’s hope that remains so.

No comments:

Post a Comment