Ben's Top Pick for October
FICTIONAL PRESIDENTS - October 19
As we draw closer to an election none of us will soon forget--though many of us ache to--I'm struck by our prime time programming October 19. We're saluting "Fictional Presidents," and I suspect each of the Hollywood chief executives in our first three movies would have a path to 270 electoral votes.
We open at 8pm ET with Fail-Safe and President Henry Fonda. I don't recall his character even having a name in the film, which makes sense, because there's no mistaking that he's "President Henry Fonda." Like Dr. Strangelove, released earlier in 1964 but produced contemporaneously, Fail-Safe is the story of an accidental nuclear assault by the U.S. on the Soviet Union. President Fonda is tasked with avoiding a full-scale nuclear war that would annihilate both countries.
In his scenes with Larry Hagman, playing his translator, Fonda exhibits the kind of stoic sophistication of thought we associate with our best presidents. Today, President Fonda would be ridiculed on cable news as an elitist intellectual. In Fail-Safe, he's the smartest guy in the room, trying to save the world under the worst circumstances imaginable. In the process, he makes Fail-Safe more compelling and more unnerving than Dr. Strangelove--which is saying something.
Next, we have President Franchot Tone in Advise & Consent, featuring Henry Fonda as the president's choice for Secretary of State. Tone's chief executive is the weakest of our lot tonight, perhaps because his character is terminally ill, but he still maintains a nobility noticeably absent from many of today's politicos.
Advise & Consent--similar in its thematic cynicism to The Best Man, released two years later and again (obviously) starring Henry Fonda--does as good a job as any movie ever made in getting the dirty business of politics in Washington right.
We wrap up the night with Fredric March as President Jordan Lyman (in Seven Days in May), faced with treasonous treachery from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played with delicious contempt by Burt Lancaster. Edmond O'Brien earned an Oscar® nomination playing a boozy but loyal Southern senator and Kirk Douglas is the de facto lead as Lancaster's top deputy, but March's President Lyman always strikes me as the movie's true hero, standing up for the rule of law and the Constitution regardless of the political fallout. He'd get my vote.
by Ben Mankiewicz