The Greatest Fake President Of All Time
America loves movies about make-believe commanders-in-chief. Maybe we should elect one of those?
The absolute best fictional movie President of the United States is Tom Beck from 1998’s disaster movie Deep Impact. There were two giant killer space rock movies that year, the second one being Armaggedon, a testosterone-soaked guitar lick of a flick about a gang of swaggering salt-of-the-earth oilmen who selflessly volunteer to save the world from a massive asteroid. Deep Impact, which came first, is the thinking man’s Armaggedon.
President Beck is played by Morgan Freeman, at the height of his charismatic powers. As President Beck, Freeman is all grace and strength, with a twinkle in his eye. He wears his considerable authority casually. But he’s trustworthy. In the movie, a planet-destroying comet is hurtling towards Earth. Everyone freaks out. President Beck, however, doesn’t even sweat.
Our fictional movie presidents, except for the occasional evil or dimwitted one, all exemplify the positive traits we want a president to have. I think that’s why the president pops up as a character in so many movies. Americans like choices, even if they’re wishes.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of historical dramas about actual presidents. Critics love them. They win awards. These biopics are sometimes critical, sometimes reverential. Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella have both delivered Academy Award-nominated portrayals of Richard Nixon, Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and Langella in Frost/Nixon.
One of my favorite low-key portrayals was Bill Murray as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson. And I’m not even mentioning the many TV movies and mini-series depicting commenders-in-chief, although one standout is HBO’s excellent John Adams.
But the fictional president movie is far more popular. In these films, presidents are epic heroes (or hapless clowns, like President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove. But that is a scathing satire and, while it is a classic, it is not a crowd-pleaser. Too much truth.)
In pop culture, the President of the United States is, at once, a dorky father, an alpha male, and a sort of demi-god. He’s got a cool plane. A famous house. The world’s mightiest military is his to command. A natural big-screen leading man. The fantasy isn’t that far off from what real-world voters want, though. If the actual job were a casting notice it would read “Male, 35+, Caucasian, with one notable exception. Must be uniter, healer, destroyer.”
It is ironic that a country that fought a war against the whole concept of a king would eventually crave one. Do we the people really, deep down, want a Zeus in a suit? A Mega-Daddy? That’s a little on the nose for the patriarchy, if you ask me.
I once dreamed of being president but mostly because I wanted a bulletproof car. Not, I should note, for any selfless reasons. But anyone can grow up to be president, right? If America had a marketing PowerPoint presentation this pitch would be an entire slide: “Anyone can grow up to be President.”
That’s a lie, of course. A very pretty lie. But I didn’t know that at the time. The president was basically a movie character to me, anyway. Literally: My earliest memory of a president, fake or not, is from the campy superhero classic Superman II. The unnamed president nobly surrenders on behalf of Earth to evil Kryptonian General Zod. As he kneels he says “Oh, god.” “Zod,” is the response. That guy was as real to me as Ronald Reagan.
I suppose that’s why I connect with fictional presidents. The worst thing a fake president can do is be in a crap movie. But when an actor pretending to be the most powerful person in the world says or does the right thing, it expands my imagination and my idea of what I should want from a president.
To be honest, I don’t want much. But that seems to be too much these days. Mostly, I just want a president who acts like we’re all on the same team. Who speaks for all Americans.
In Deep Impact, Morgan’s President Beck gets to deliver a series of scene-stealing speeches to the American public and the world. In one speech, he explains to the nation that a huge comet is going to smash into the Earth, but don’t worry because America has a plan. Then, later, from the Oval Office, he explains to terrified people that the plan failed and probably not everyone is going to survive. He is firm, no-nonsense, and merciful. No bullshit.
President Beck then looks into the camera and delivers the following in a smooth and steady baritone:
“I wish… No, wishing is wrong. It’s the wrong word right now. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is, I believe in God. I know a lot of you don’t, but I would like to offer a prayer for our survival, mine included. Because I believe that God, whomever you hold that to be, hears all prayers, even if sometimes the answer is no. So may the Lord bless you, may the Lord keep you, may the Lord lift his divine countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
Amen, President Beck.
Morgan Freeman’s performance is the most believable special effect in a movie that features a primitive CGI tidal wave swallowing poor ol’ pre-9/11 New York City. If you haven’t seen the film you may want to click away right now because thanks to some last-minute heroics, the world is only partially devastated, which gives President Beck an opportunity to give a stirring “we will rebuild” speech.
Sure, there are other fictional movie presidents that are cooler, more badass, or suave than Beck. There’s Bill Pullman’s President Whitford, the man who bravely led the final battle against alien invaders in 1996’s Independence Day.
In The American President, Aaron Sorkin’s pre-West Wing fairy tale, Michael Douglas plays a principled president who is, also, single and sexy. And who can forget Harrison Ford’s President James Marshall fighting terrorists on a hijacked Air Force One? Each of these movies is iconic in their own way. Each popular during their day.
But Freeman’s president is still the best and here’s why: he’s boring. He doesn’t fly a jet fighter. He isn’t a dashing romantic leading man. President Beck doesn’t growl “get off my plane” before dispatching a criminal mastermind. He is, simply, intelligent. He doesn’t panic. He’s deliberate and kind and human. A tremendous responsibility rests on his shoulders (remember: comets!) and he knows he has a job to do. So he does it, without fanfare.
I guess I just want a real-life president who is boring. Does the work. Man or woman, actually.