Film and the American Presidency (Web Exclusive)
Edited by Jeff Menne and Christian B. Long. New York: Routledge, 2015. 294 pp., illus. Hardcover: $148.00.

Reviewed by Isabelle Freda

At a time when the very concept of what is required from an American president has been thrown into question by the bizarre and unpredictable behavior of President Donald Trump, this anthology of essays on what the editors call the “co-articulation of the cinema and the presidency” could not be more timely. Although written well before Trump entered the Oval Office, his presidency is a perfect example of the wrong actor cast for the role. Film and the American Presidency helps us understand how the cinematic template of the presidency has long remained intact due to the historical depth and ideological power of what we might call the presidential mise en scène, basic plot structure, and of course, cast (Congress, the news media, and the public, both real and imagined). Trump, who refuses to learn the script that, with some variation, every modern president before him had followed, nevertheless continues to benefit from the American public’s basic respect for the institution. The presidency enhances the image of the man who takes office, as Menne and Long note, and the body politic continues to find its confirmation and reassurance in the physical body of the sovereign—indeed, the American president embodies popular sovereignty. There is, in short, something cinematic about the presidency that, as the editors suggest, draws techniques and strategies from Hollywood and vice versa.

As Menne and Long argue in their introduction, the presidency and film have come together in myriad ways throughout American history. All too often, however, presidential historians and political scientists overlook the relationship between film and the presidency, an oversight no doubt engendered by disciplinary rivalries among scholars. While this oversight is understandable, it remains curious that such a powerful juxtaposition has been ignored in historical debates about political power in the post-Cold War era. (Communications-oriented analyses, such as those by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, are something of an exception.) This collection displays the range and the power of cinema studies’ theoretical and historical approach to film and visual culture and its intersection with historical events.         

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012).

A sample of some of the wide-ranging studies found in the book’s first section includes the chapter by Charles Musser, who examines the role of the media between 1892 and 1896, during the campaign of William McKinley, when the emphasis shifted from public policy to personality. Tom Gunning provides a fascinating account of how the image of the historical Lincoln became transformed into the cinematic persona seen in D. W. Griffith’s 1930 Abraham Lincoln and John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. Essays on Woodrow Wilson’s Administration, the use of film for propaganda, as well as additional essays on Lincoln, complete the section. They provide a strong reading of what remained, at least through the 1930s, the most powerful popular images of the presidency.

The book’s second section is dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt, who took Lincoln’s place as a beloved figure even as he invoked his legacy. FDR was the first modern president and his integration of radio and film into his communication strategies was crucial to his success and to his extraordinary popularity. Jonathan Auerbach’s chapter discusses two early films from the Thirties—Gabriel Over the White House (1933) and The President Vanishes (1934)—which conveyed a troubled body politic in the run-up to FDR’s election, drawing on the medieval doctrine of the king’s two bodies, in which (here) the body of the president (who represents popular sovereignty) is equated with the body politic. Given FDR’s central role in shaping the modern presidency and his influence on subsequent generations of presidents and citizen­–moviegoers, devoting a section to his influence is particularly valuable.

Walter Huston as the president in Gabriel Over the White House (1933).

The “post-classical” section is preoccupied with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon. Jeff Menne’s study of the space program, LBJ, and The Right Stuff is exemplary of the section and the book itself, tying together presidential representation, the ideology and imagery of the space program, and the cinema. His chapter is joined by others that look to Nixon, the nuclear bomb, All the President’s Men, and a study of the relationship between the Kennedy Administration and The Manchurian Candidate. Indeed, what anthology like this would be complete without discussion of those two classic films?

“Beyond Reaganite Entertainment” is a section that includes Susan Jeffords’s insightful analysis of the interplay between the legitimization of anger by George Bush after 9/11 and the cinematic portrayal of presidential anger in post-9/11 films. Elucidating the way that the terrorist “other” is inscribed across cinematic narratives, pitting the president (and his team) against terrorists, Jeffords shows how difference is established between the quiet and determined anger of the president and the externalized, violent, and uncontrolled anger of the terrorists. While righteous anger is deemed an appropriate reaction by the president and the United States, Jeffords explains, it is not for anyone else—no righteous anger by Iraqis about the American invasion, or by Chileans about the 1973 coup, or by Iranians about the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh. This analysis of the relationship between presidential actions and cinematic portrayals of presidents allows a broader analysis of what Jeffords calls our “culture of anger.” An examination of racial politics in the years preceding Obama’s presidency provides an opportunity for Diane Rubenstein to analyze the series of Lincoln movies (for example, Lincoln, Saving Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and My Life as Abraham Lincoln) that emerged during the Obama Administration.

Day-Lewis as President Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012).

The study of the mise en scène of Washington comprises the final section of this anthology. One of its chapters—devoted not to presidents, but to an actor associated with fictional White Houses—examines Anna Deavere Smith’s roles in films dealing with the presidency. Christian Long provides a fascinating account of the manner in which Washington is portrayed in film as a city of abstract space, a labyrinth of secret tunnels providing those in power both access and escape.

Film and the American Presidency covers both those presidents who have integrated cinema’s power into the executive office’s repertoire (Wilson, FDR, JFK, LBJ) or who themselves have been subjects of films. The book’s glaring omission of Ronald Reagan is surprising, especially since his presidency provided a template for the employment of cinematic devices. While the editors address Reagan in some detail in their framing discussion, he nevertheless seems to be the black hole around which all else turns—perhaps now more than ever since Trump seems to regard the presidency as a Reality TV show in the same way that Reagan viewed his time in office as an interminable Hollywood movie. We need to revisit the 1980s and ponder what allowed Reagan to reach the presidency and how that has affected our history ever since. The challenge for film scholars is to extend their theoretical and historical analyses beyond the realm of Hollywood and to clarify the ways in which cinematic representations of the presidency have a profound impact on our culture, politics, and history. For the moment, Menne and Long’s anthology represents an invaluable contribution to this project.

Isabelle Freda teaches film studies in the film studies and production program at the Herbert School of Communication, Hofstra University, in New York.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1