Monday, October 13, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Dave

I first saw this movie the night of my senior prom. Coincidentally, my date's name was also David. :P


Before Aaron Sorkin cornered the market on heart-tugging political sentiment (wow, that sounded harsh, except that I don't see anything wrong with political sentiment, especially Sorkin's), Gary Ross wrote a screenplay called Dave. The protagonist is Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), a man who runs a temp agency. He also bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the President of the United States (also Kevin Kline) and occasionally does appearances for extra cash. Nothing fancy, just car dealerships, that kind of thing. He captures the attention of the some Secret Service agents, who are looking for someone to double for the President (so that he can have a rendezvous at a hotel without drawing attention).

Kovic does the job, though he gets a little overexcited and does something he's not supposed to. All he's supposed to do is wave and walk down a hall, but it's a long walk with adoring constituents on either side. This is a cool little character moment for Dave, because as he makes that walk the combination of Kline's performance and the musical score make you feel the patriotism rising in Dave's chest and by the time he reaches the end of the rope line he just can't contain it anymore and turns back to the crowd and shouts "God bless you! God bless America!" Such a great everyman moment, because my gosh, can't you imagine yourself getting intoxicated like that?

The plot thickens when the President has a stroke. Just when the White House communications director, Alan Reed (Kevin Dunn) is getting ready to phone the Vice President and do what he's constitutionally supposed to do, the Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) catches a whiff of opportunity and stops him. See, Bob has ambitions of his own, and needs the Vice President out of the way. Dave is brought in, and Bob and Alan tell him that he did such a good job they'd like to ... "extend things" a little. So Dave will play the role of the President and do whatever he's told, while unbeknownst to him Bob positions himself to become the next President.

It's interesting to watch this in a post-West Wing world. I think we know more now, through that show and of course through the 24-hour news cycle, about how things work, meaning some of the things in this movie don't quite ring true. But it's still a very cool film. A lot of the comedy comes from how choreographed and staffed out everything is surrounding the President. And there are the obligatory "instruction" scenes, where Dave has to learn people's names and how government works. There's a pretty hilarious scene where Bob and Alan are showing Dave this chart with the branches of government on it, and I'm thinking, For someone as patriotic as Dave is, he's shockingly unschooled in basic, eight-grade civics.

Probably my favorite thing about this movie is the theme of patriotic duty. Dave feels this very strongly, as does Alan. He is reluctant to sub for the President long-term, because it would be breaking all kinds of laws, but accepts eventually because he is persuaded that it's for the good of the country. Over the course of the movie, he shakes off the puppet strings and starts to do some real good. And in the end, he is happy to give the President all the credit for that, because ultimately the presidency is about much more than one man. This is in sharp contrast to Bob, whose sense of personal political entitlement is rather amazing.

One of the more memorable sequences is when Dave tries to cut the federal budget so that he can keep a Works Bill that includes funding for a shelter for homeless children (child poverty would, of course, become one of Jed Bartlett's pet political issues in Aaron Sorkin's work). He calls his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), to help him. He then proceeds to address the Cabinet and negotiate the cuts that Murray suggests, cutting through the politics with common sense.

Some fun stuff ... Part of Bob's scheme is to link the Vice President (Ben Kingsley) to a scandal. Not just any scandal, though - a Savings and Loan scandal. This movie came out in 1993, which means it must have been written in 1991 or 1992, not long after the very real Keating Five incident. I also love all the cameos in the film. Lots of films use Leno and Letterman, but Dave makes use of loads of political pundits, and even some actual political figures. Examples include Bob Novak, Tip O'Neill, Chris Matthews (who is definitely the most in-character of all the McLaughlin Group pundits), and Chris Dodd. Oliver Stone also makes a cameo, presenting his conspiracy theory to Larry King about how the guy who appears to be the President is really a decoy. Again, the time period is key here - Oliver Stone became synonymous with conspiracy theories with his 1991 film JFK.

This is a cool movie with a great cast. Bonnie Hunt has a small role in this, as a White House tour guide. ("We're walking ... we're walking ... and we're stopping.") And despite a rather absurd premise, it's an effective patriotic movie.

Favorite scene: Dave is being coached on how to speak to the press. He seems to be more knowledgeable about the President's mannerisms than Alan and Bob, noting that when he's giving a speech, his hands are always planted on either side of the podium. He then starts quoting a little of a speech the President gave at the Democratic Convention, saying how much he loves it. Alan remarks with quiet pride that he wrote that speech, and Dave starts to recite some more of it. The rhetoric is fairly generic, but the words aren't what's important here. The purpose of this scene is to show Dave winning Alan over, and to show how different Alan is from the scheming Bob.

Sadly, there are not many clips of this movie online at all, so I'll leave you with the trailer.

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