A Misguided History of Film: Presidential Edition, Part II

A sarcastic and misguided critique of landmark films released during US presidential terms.

“The Butler” (The Weinstein Company)

Co-authored with Demetrios Festa

This is a continuation of our crucial accounts of early film history in Part I, so be sure to check that out first!

15. Herbert Hoover

Contrary to common belief, Herbert Hoover did not invent the vacuum cleaner, but it’s a fitting misconception since his presidency just plain sucked. Speaking of which, it is time to discuss the Surrealism art movement.

Notable Film: Un Chien Andalu 1929

One could argue that the point of the visual art medium is to create work that looks interesting and “means something,” but now one can go to galleries to see people line up four spoons in a row. Anyway, for years, society saw a skilled painter as one who could draw a landscape that was pleasing to the eye, or if they could paint a portrait that looked like a real person. Unfortunately this standard left no room for wannabe artist with no talent. But never fear! Along came the surrealists who decided that painting real things was too hard. One of the most well-known surrealist painters was Salvador Dalí, who looked like a classic villain from a train robbery sequence. In spite of possessing extraordinary vision and technical ability, he chose to paint things that looked fake, or real-looking things that were warped. After seeing these works, one would think society’s natural reaction would be to jail the main for heresy, or at the very least take away his art supplies… but unfortunately, the church was no longer the main purveyor of art and someone had the audacity to give Dalí a camera.

In Un Chien Andalu, Dalí sought to illustrate one of his dreams. It seems that he succeeded, because it ushered in an entire generation of filmmakers that sought to be different. After all, what could be more different than random images juxtaposed next to each other? Anyway, as much as I personally despise the concept of surrealism, one thing that’s for sure is Dalí couldn’t have made any paintings while directing this feature, so there’s something to be said for that.

Verdict: A nightmarish diversion.

14. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Where do I even begin? From the New Deal to WWII, FDR changed the landscape of modern history more than almost any other president. Getting credit for leading the country out of a depression was not good enough for him. Why? Because he was determined to set the Guinness World Record as longest serving U.S. President. He succeeded here too, but just like a classmate who uses the priviledge of laptops in class to watch Youtube videos during a lecture, FDR ruined the privilege of being president for everyone by instigating the 22nd Amendment. FDR often vies with JFK for most popular presidential acronym, but he was definitely more influential, as were the titles released throughout his four terms in office. That doesn’t mean they were good, though.

Notable Film: King Kong 1933

While most associate King Kong as Hitler’s favorite movie, plenty forget that this was an iconic title that ushered in an era of monsters and screaming damsels in distress. King Kong was the biggest technical marvel of its day, featuring groundbreaking stop-motion animation and employed composite screen projections to achieve mind blowing set design that simply looked alive.

As great as this movie is, if you watch the remake from the ’70s, ’00s, or Kong: Skull Island, you’ll see that modern film technology is better and looks way more realistic, which raises the question: Why watch the original if it isn’t as flashy?

Verdict: A jewel tarnished by time.

13. Harry S. Truman

“To err is Truman,” as Harry’s critics would say. And while err he did, he also was a very consequential president and witnessed the biggest upset in an election until, well, you know. For all of the lows of his time in office, there were definitely some highs, like the beginning of the Cold War and U.S. intervention in Korea….Well I guess those are still lows. Hey at least he witnessed a Christmas classic.

Notable Film: It’s a Wonderful Life 1946

Frank Capra might be called the Norman Rockwell of cinema. He made a name for himself by illustrating not the America as it was, but as how we wanted to see it. Each character and community Capra conjured was a cunning creation that captured how great things could be. Nowhere is this more evident in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, a title that embodies neighborhood values and clear Christian doctrine.

There is something curious about this movie, though. It was critically-acclaimed when it was first released, but failed to find a significant audience, so it went forgotten for many years. In 1974, a clerical error prevented the studio from renewing the copyright, so it went into the public domain. Television stations were looking for cheap content to broadcast around Christmastime, and, voila! A classic was reborn! — That’s right ladies and gentlemen. You may have thought you were cool getting songs for free on Napster or pirating movies from Bittorrent, but you weren’t the first. The “OG” intellectual piracy was just taking advantage of someone’s copyright error.

This doesn’t really bother people as much as it should. In an unforgiving world of cutthroat film production, one that people can pour their souls into and go bankrupt, it seems a little unfair that this movie was aided by legal interference for people to actually watch it.

Final Verdict: A classic by technicality.

12. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower is a hard man to hate since he got so much done. He was a leading General in WWII, was a driving force in creating this country’s modern infrastructure, and confused a lot of today’s politicians by expanding Social Security. Honestly, by today’s standards, Eisenhower probably championed more legislation than eight presidents could in 64 years. Tremendous! He also has one of history’s most enduring campaign slogans: “I like Ike.” After sending in the National Guard, Ike… what kind of a nickname is that anyway? Ike? Wouldn’t a nickname like “Dwi” make more sense? It’s not like his name was Isaac or something. Men with power can be so nonsensical sometimes.

Notable Film: Vertigo 1958

One day, acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock was speaking with a respected colleague, Francois Truffaut, and imparted some immortal wisdom about storytelling: “What is drama but life with all the dull bits cut out.” While simple, this concept is difficult to accomplish on screen, Hitchcock always found ways to grip audiences with captivating stories fueled by perfect tension and an eye for the unexpected. The irony of this is that Hitchcock’s most enduring and influential work went in the other direction.

Vertigo was a maverick production in many ways. It showed that Hitchcock, a populist entertainer, could create a dark, unapologetic foray into deceit and obsession — a far cry from his popcorn movies. The star Jimmy Stewart was known for portraying upstanding, idealistic men, but for once chose a role of a flawed and damaged individual.

This raises the question: Are we really supposed to buy that Kim Novak would fall for a guy like that? Jimmy Stewart was only attractive because of his charisma and staunch morals- his mannerisms were, at best, an endearing quirk, certainly not enough to pull a femme fatale. The age disparity is already stretching the romantic interest, but one might believe it if Jimmy Stewart were more charming or at least had a lot of wealth. All that man had was an awkward stammer and a-ah-a creepy gaze. Sorry, Hitchcock, I ain’t buying it.

Final Verdict: Flawed characters ≠ flawed character motivations.

11. John F. Kennedy

JFK was a cool dude. His suave demeanor and mastery for the budding modern media helped him take the presidency and inspire millions to strive for a better tomorrow. The problem with this approach is that he himself couldn’t always envision tomorrow’s consequences, so when he was asked to overthrow Castro, his approach could be best summed up as: “Yeah, sure, do whateva it is you do.” However, when JFK actually cared enough to show up, he could be trusted to make the right call in a pinch, as his leadership helped us avoid disaster in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately, he was powerless to prevent the catastrophes happening in theaters every day.

Notable Film: Lawrence of Arabia 1962

Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible achievement in film. It was a massive undertaking, after all, they spent years shooting in the DESERT, for crying out loud. Peter O’Toole is transcendent as the charismatic and eccentric Briton, while also containing so many flaws and a pervading vulnerability. This is often referred to as the defining epic film, but it is quite devoid of cliches. While Lawrence of Arabia does an impressive job capturing the grandiosity of T.E. Lawrence’s adventures on the Arabian Peninsula, the hero never has a clean-cut victory and he is often humiliated through loss. Perhaps this is a masterful way of showing the moral victory in the face of historical tragedy… or maybe it’s just bad storytelling.

I would give a spoiler warning, but in all honesty, watching the first five minutes of this movie is deflating enough. It opens with the main character dying. So much for suspense. Every moment throughout the film to evoke some level of uncertainty is derailed, all because director David Lean felt that this movie would work better as some pretentious character study. If I’m going to sit through a movie that pushes four hours, I would sure like to have some doubts as to whether the hero is going to make it or not. This isn’t rocket science, people. Although sometimes I wish it was, at least watching rocket science numbers might culminate in something unexpected.

Final Verdict: An epic waste of time.

10. Lyndon B. Johnson

President Johnson was an anomaly because that he did some very good things through his policies, but in private, he really lived up to his last name. It is said that Johnson coordinated his bathroom trips with other visiting male leaders with the hopes he could show off “Jumbo” and prove that he was a bigger man. This man’s audacity was out of this world, so it seems appropriate that his time affiliated with the Apollo mission coincided with one of the greatest films ever made about space.

Notable Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968

If cinema had a king, Stanley Kubrick would have the best claim to the throne. No man had the same level of vision, innovation, and technical prowess than Kubrick. And very few filmmakers have had the level of success he had across many genres. His most acclaimed film was 2001: A Space Odyssey and it is often seen as a crowning achievement in modern cinema for its narrative leaps and for expanding the possibility of the sci-fi genre. But one thing that ought to be discussed more is this movie’s soundtrack.

One of the most memorable elements of this film is the use of classical masterpieces from the likes of Strauss to Ligeti. Plenty of flicks swipe popular songs for their soundtrack. Popular. When was the last time you heard Also Sprach Zarathustra on the Billboard Top 100? Unlike 2001, Guardians of the Galaxy proved that space doesn’t have to be droll — you can go on your own space adventure with a sick mixtape! In fact, 2001 lacks almost everything in the Guardian formula. There are no crazy fight scenes or hilarious banter, and the presence of aliens is, at best, implied. You just get the feeling like the cast was taking themselves too seriously. The only thing 2001 managed to do like Guardians was underwriting every single female character. If Kubrick had Implemented Guardian’s song formula and taken songs from 30–40 years prior, those boring zero-gravity sequences would have been so much better. In fact, let’s try it out!

I think it’s time for a remake.

Final Verdict: Needs a less celestial soundtrack.

9. Richard Nixon

“I am not a crook.” Words like these are often used by crooks or just dishonest people in general, but that’s what happens when you elect a guy called Tricky Dick. It’s hard to imagine a world where people saw Nixon as a trustworthy individual, I mean, he looks and talks like a villain out of a James Bond movie. But hey, at least he didn’t need any help from Russia to get elected? Amiright? I digress. It seems fitting that this awkward, yammering nemesis of John Lennon coincided with a decade of influential crime dramas. Maybe they inspired him?

Notable Film: The Godfather 1972

Francis Ford Coppola was one of modern masters who ushered in a new wave of cinema and what made him stand out from his peers was having such a complete overarching vision for his scripts and a hypnotic director’s touch. Everything he made after the 70s seem like they could be a public access television catalogue, but he deserves recognition for being the top talent of the most notable decade in modern cinema.

Coppola’s The Godfather is often on the shortlist of the greatest films ever made, which might have to do with most popular lists copying each other. Sure, it is stylistically perfect and the acting ensemble is unparalleled, but it perpetuates many frustrating Italian-American stereotypes. Like, that they talk a certain way and eat lots of Italian food. Also, fans of The Godfather tend to focus on Marlon Brando and his powerful, daunting monologues. What they don’t remember is is that he had a strange approach when it came to memorizing his lines… he just didn’t learn them.

If you’re going to expect someone to sit through a super long movie and praise your depiction of a mafia kingpin, why not go through the trouble of committing several minutes of dialogue to memory? Or maybe that was genius and he was just doing his best to embody a goomba.

Final Verdict:

8. Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford was a wimp. Not only did he pardon Richard Nixon, but he never once stopped Russian agents from hijacking Air Force One, so he wasn’t even the best President Ford. How can you respect a man who literally inherited the White House? That guy was the least deserving man in power until Kim Jong Un.

Notable Film: Jaws 1975

Steven Spielberg has the magic touch and has made more modern classics than just about anyone else. Before he was a household name, though, he was given the task of directing some thriller suspense with a huge mechanical shark. In spite of being a journeyman storyteller, Spielberg had all the tools he needed… well, everything except for the actual shark. That’s right, the shark didn’t work. This kind of production setback would be enough to ruin a movie and end a person’s career, but Spielberg went in a different direction — he made the movie about implying the threat of shark and building up our fear, with John Williams providing one of the most memorable, pulsating themes that film has ever seen. The rest is history. After that, Jaws became the first ever summer blockbuster, and it holds up as one of the greatest suspense films ever made next to Jaws 2, which is much better because you can actually see the shark and there’s much more Final Destination type violence.

But all of that is totally undeserved because Williams is a false prophet. We all worship his inspired themes and audience seem to think he is the Mozart of movie soundtracks. It would be more accurate to say that Williams is the Mozart of stealing. That’s right, the Jaws theme isn’t just two lazy notes over and over again. It’s someone else’s two notes! And that Star Wars theme that brings a smile to your face? Stolen.

Final Verdict: It ought to be shark bait. Ooh hah hah!

Part II Verdict: The world changed and history would never be the same. But like the damage caused by WWII and the paranoia of the Cold War, just about everything in film today can’t escape the massive impact of those terrible years.

To see how the next generations of filmmakers came up short, check out Part III.

Thanks for reading! You can check out the Movie Musing podcast for some slightly more serious analysis. Edited by Mark Febrizio, and Demetrios Festa.