Freeze Frame #150: The American President

The American President is among the most entertaining rom-coms I’ve ever seen. A big part of it is the fact that the rom works (Michael Douglas and Annette Bening simply click), and the com is fantastic. Michael Douglas has practically created a sub-genre of movies where he starts off suave and ends up disheveled with a pickaxe in his hand. In this one, he stays suave throughout, and mixes it with genuine warmth to create a rom-com hero worth remembering.

But the reason I have been reminded of this movie often in recent times is that it features, right at the end, a speech that says some very interesting and important things:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.

I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she’s to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore.

If you ignore the plot and country-specific references, there’s a lot here that applies to us right now. Now, I know it’s a movie, and America probably has its own share of problems in the free speech arena. But that’s the sort of citizenship I want.

The flag-burning thing especially stunned me. I am not even sure I would ever want to burn my flag, but think about this: Naveen Jindal had to go to the Supreme Court just to be able to fly our flag outside his factory as a symbol of national pride. And this ruling came in 2002, 55 years after independence.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #150: The American President

  1. Pay, Trio! 'tis M. says:

    “Michael Douglas has practically created a sub-genre of movies where he starts off suave and ends up disheveled with a pickaxe in his hand” — impeccably observed! Couldn’t stop laughing.

    You’re on a roll, man. It’s like you’ve recently rediscovered your “watch me watch” mojo or something. 😀

    I really liked parts of that quote. These parts: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight… I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong.”

    Which provides the perfect segue to some old news that I read anew:

    “Christopher McQuarrie won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and Brian Singer directed the classic 1995 film. But it wasn’t until they’d finished shooting and set out to promote the movie that they realized they had completely different conceptions of what actually happens in the movie.

    “I pulled Bryan aside the night before press began and I said, ‘We need to get our stories straight because people are starting to ask what happened and what didn’t,’ ” McQuarrie told the Dallas Morning News last year. “And we got into the biggest argument we’ve ever had in our lives.”

    “One of us believed that the story was all lies, peppered with little bits of the truth,” McQuarrie continued. “And the other one believed it was all true, peppered with tiny, little lies. … We each thought we were making a movie that was completely different from what the other one thought.”

    So who believed what?

    With a broad grin, McQuarrie responds: ‘I’ll never tell.'”

    Now I’m DYING to catch The Usual Suspects. Have you seen it?

    • I’ve watched The Usual Suspects a few times and have the same confusion in my mind. Every time I watch, I end up picking either McQuarrie’s position or Singer’s position. Makes for an interesting, if frustrating experience.

      Reminds me of a couple of similar anecdotes. One comes from Kurosawa’s autobiography, where he gave the script of Rashomon to his ADs and they got back to him saying they didn’t get it. Their question was, so what really happened? Which was the point Kurosawa was making in the first place.

      The other relates to The Big Sleep, where Bogart turned up on the sets one day and asked, “So who killed the driver?” Shooting came to a complete halt, coz no one knew the answer to that question. So they called Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book) and asked him. I think his response was something along the lines of: “I was drunk while writing it. How the eff do you expect me to know?” 🙂

      ~r

  2. Sriram says:

    Whoa… another Andy Shepherd fan! Love that final speech. It is as much of a climax for the movie as it is a high point for the dialogues, which are consistently brilliant throughout. I suspect Shepherd is probably a little too left-leaning for most people’s liking (as is evidenced repeatedly in the film’s dialogue, plus the ACLU references in that final speech), but liberal left-wing democracy never seemed more attractive than when you heard him and his A-team having all those discussions – on preemptive strikes, opinion polls, character assassination – the works.
    Aaron Sorkin. The same guy who wrote The West Wing and A Few Good Men. He has an amazing penchant for beautifully structured, flowing (if slightly verbose) dialogue which manages to be thought-provoking without being patronizing. Recall Jessep’s speech from A Few Good Men – “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the cover of the security I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!” Or Baldwin’s famous “God” monologue from “Malice” – “Read your Bible, and go to your Church, and with any luck you may win the raffle, but if you’re looking for God, he was in Operating Room Number Two on that day, and he doesn’t like to be second guessed”.
    And as with all great screenwriting, the magic is not just in the words but also in the manner in which they’re delivered. Douglas gave a knockout performance as Shepherd (just as Nicholson kicked ass as Jessep); but more importantly, they both made the most of some top-notch writing.

  3. Bala says:

    The movie came in early that year & was rated by Ebert as one of the best to come out that year.
    But about Naveen Jindal, India has much stricter laws about who can fly the flag & even how it should be disposed of, even for the paper flags that we pin on our shirts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s