Political InQueery: Fictional Political Tropes

Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

Kevin Kline from DaveI love movies, and I am more than interested in politics. So it behooves me to think about the sizable overlap between the two. One of the things I love about political movies (and heck, political television shows, too) are the tropes they include and play to, especially as tropes reveal something about an era's ideology around politics. There's something different in the feel and mood, for example, in the original and remake of The Manchurian Candidate that goes to the heart of 1962's understanding of the Korean War and the just-after 9/11 tragedy zeitgeist's take on the first Gulf War, respectively, but both take on conspiracy theory and the presidency. And so, a brief run-down of the tropes I've noticed. Consider this a starter list. We can add to it like a ball of sourdough.

The Evil Vice-President Who Can't Wait for Promotion—They smile and pretend to stump for their running mates, but really they're chomping at the bit for the Oval Office. Except for Joan Allen in The Contender.  She was just trying to get through a nomination process, jeez. Murder at 1600 made an entire plot around this trope. And for a fairly complete list of fictional American Vice Presidents, check out Wikipedia. If any more Tom Clancy novels get made into movies, the list for this item will get a lot longer.

The Self-Sacrificing Secret Service Agent—Who can forget Kevin Costner saving Whitney Houston in . . . wait a minute, he wasn't Secret Service in that one. He was former Secret Service. Maybe it's Swing Vote I'm thinking of. No, that's not right, either. And in my defense, I only watched Swing Vote because it was what Northwest Airlines played during a 5-hour flight to Seattle. I refused to pay $5 for earphones. Even without the sound, it was bad. But getting back to Les Grands Agents, well, we've got the adorable Mark Harmon in The West Wing, who sadly took a bullet before anyone could sing that they would always love him, and Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. 

The Loyal Adviser/Old Friend Who Cuts Corners/Turns Evil—This is often the President's Chief of Staff. Perhaps Rahm Emmanuel has made this trope irrelevant with his real life antics. But it's too useful a narrative device, so I suppose we'll continue to see it in action, similar to  what we've seen in Absolute Power, True Colors, and every sixth NCIS episode. And of course, it nearly goes without saying, that Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, uses this trope. How else to explain why thermonuclear global war begins?

The Long-Suffering Wife—They don't get long or important story arcs, but they're there, often the First Lady, but just as often a Senator's wife who is haggard from many years of managing a family with an absent partner. Stockard Channing played this to a fine finish on The West Wing, and I never thought I could see her as anyone other than Rizzo. But now I can. Sigourney Weaver in Dave also played an embittered First Lady who was swept off her feet by a man who looked exactly like her husband and who came with the added bonus that he actually had a heart in his chest.

Martin Sheen as President BartletThe Power-Hungry Politician—Oh, how that mean Anne Bancroft ruined G.I. Jane's day. Except she didn't count on the tenacity of Demi Moore. Hooah! But this was an excellent example of  how those nasty politicians undercut their enemies and their friends. Just remember Sally Field in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde. What these women won't do to get reelected. Now that I look at the whole title, that's really kind of offensive, Hollywood. But the folks making up this trope are everywhere, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Absolute Power, it's almost as if the worst personalities self-select into the political arena. Hmm.

The Fake Candidate—Dave, Head of State, and The Distinguished Candidate come to mind, but there are also examples of fake candidates with sinister strings attached, The Manchurian Candidate being one of them. The aliens in the mini-series of V had plans to put a fake president in place. Thank goodness we found the red dust before then to rid ourselves of the invaders.

DB Woodside as the PresidentThe Non-White or Female President as Harbinger of Doom—Jon Stewart made the joke at the 2008 Oscars when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were still battling for the Democratic nomination, "Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president an asteroid is
about to hit the Statue of Liberty. How will we know it's the future?" 2012 featured Danny Glover in the role and hell, you don't get more Armageddonish than that plot. Deep Impact, cast Morgan Freeman as president, and television series 24  has basically made a career out of presidents of color and female head executives: Dennis Haysbert, D.B. Woodside, and Cherry Jones all got their time behind the bully pulpit. Good thing there was Jack Bauer around to keep the whole country from collapse. Whew.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

I joked about the black

I joked about the <a href="http://snarkysmachine.wordpress.com/2009/11/02/field-guide-to-cinematic-... president</a> thing for years. It's nice that black presidents have transitioned from the domain of comedy to the domain of drama and action. Jon Stewart stole that bit from Chris Rock and Paul Mooney.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Paul Mooney! Great reference.

Paul Mooney! Great reference.

How about this?

I can't think of any other examples of it than Warren Beatty in <i>Bulworth</i>, but how about politicians who undergo midlife crises and consequently change their campaign style to the point of ludicrousness? (that was such a genius performance—there have to be more!) Or alternatively, the "wacky" politician who uses a bunch of gimmicks to try to get elected, usually the "people's candidate" who puts up a stand against Big Government.

There's certainly a host of

There's certainly a host of movies about people who find a conscience mid-career, you're right. I can only think of slapstick comedies at the moment, like Liar Liar.

"Normally, when you see a

"Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president an asteroid is
about to hit the Statue of Liberty. How will we know it's the future?"

Excellent !!! :)


I never picked up on that trend, maybe because I haven't seen many action movies in the first place. Interesting, indeed. The TV show <i>Heroes</i> also briefly showed a black president during a futuristic, apocalypse-related situation. At the time I thought it was just a nod to Obama's approaching (at the time, if I recall?) presidency, but perhaps not.

Ah, yes, you're right about

Ah, yes, you're right about Heroes. I haven't ever watched it, because when it started I was working on a superheros story and I didn't want to contaminate anything in my brain. But I've heard raves about the early episodes from a lot of people.

finding a conscience

I know this is in narratives beyond political movies, but what about when a powerful person (in this case the a white president) is convinced to move beyond power politicking and find their conscience by a member of a subjugated group. I'm thinking about Kimberly Deauna Adams in Bullworth or Anne Bancroft's environmentalist in The American President. The president is somehow "saved"--convinced to find their humanity and make progressive policies by someone with less privilege. (For an interesting analysis on the black savior narrative, see Kia Heise's piece in Contexts here: http://contexts.org/discoveries/2010/06/09/playing-god/)

Also, something that approximates the fake president genre, and is well before its time, is Edie Murphy's Distinguished Gentleman (Is he also inspired to expose corporate influence by a love interest? I can't remember).

Distinguished Gentleman,

Distinguished Gentleman, yes, that's what I meant, not Distinguished Candidate. Silly brain of mine!

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