Clinton at the Movies

It frightens me greatly when I see the morning news and I haven’t actually slept yet, as it’s not usually something I intend to do. Insomnia aside, however, if I’m not hallucinating, it would seem that the little melodrama our government has been involved with for the past year might actually be winding down. This issue was planned some time ago to provide suggestions for alternative political entertainment–but even if the Senate trial does end, we still all might need some of that.

In 1993, my friend and favorite movie companion Sara and I attended two films–Dave (excellent) and the remake of Born Yesterday (not, of course, as good as the original)–which both were strong on overcoming dirty politics and bringing good back to the government and so on. At the time, I was taking AP Government, and I mentioned to Sara that I thought there was some connection between Clinton getting elected and all these happy-Washington movies. Two years later, I went to see The American President with some alums of that same AP Gov class, and I decided that my theory was holding up even halfway through Clinton’s first term. Of course, the government doesn’t actually tell Hollywood what to do these days (though perhaps they’ve put subliminal messages into the wallpaper of the Lincoln Bedroom; I don’t know), but the movie-makers did seem to be behind the President back then.

That in itself is interesting enough, but what I find really fascinating is the about-face which has occurred in the past couple of years: Clinton’s second term in office. The movies about Washington, and the Presidency in particular, have taken on a whole different tone. 1997’s Wag the Dog (war with Albania “produced” to detract the country’s attention from scandal concerning the President’s private life) and 1998’s Primary Colors (ostensibly an only slightly fictionalized account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, which does not, needless to say, paint him in particularly sympathetic hues) showed quite a different picture from that of Kevin Kline cavorting through photo-ops or Don Johnson or Michael Douglas pushing Democracy in America (both the book and the concept). I guess Mr. Smith got the bourgeois blues and left town for good.
Although Clinton’s approval ratings continue to soar, the portrayals of him in popular media continue to sour. Hollywood, of course, is more often out to make a buck than to make any political point, and it seems they’ve decided that sleaze makes the buck these days better than sincerity. Neither Wag the Dog nor Primary Colors was a bomb, which leads me to wonder. . . what will happen next? A fictitious Clinton who murders and is hailed as a hero? Maybe he could go hang out with OJ Simpson.