A lot of talent went into Dave, which is a pure Hollywood contrivance: a romantic comedy inside a political exposé. If that sounds familiar, no wonder. Romcom is a vast genre, and politics are a juicy setting for intrigue and suspense, especially when filmed in politics’ epicenter, stately and photogenic Washington, D.C. It’s almost a subgenre. The More the Merrier, Born Yesterday (1950, and the 1993 remake), and Something for the Birds are all worthy examples. Goldie Hawn’s Protocol fits the bill at a lower standard, and the screwball dud Legally Blonde 2 brings the standard to an all-time low.
Dave has screwball elements, too, but takes its cues from a serious source. At its core it is a modified update of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dave is more purely comic, but both movies are essentially works of patriotic propaganda. Mind you, I have yet to find another moviegoer who regards Dave as such, but I’m sticking to my guns.
In both films, the hero is a clean-cut youngish white man who is emphatically not a politician: James Stewart as Smith, Kevin Kline in a dual role in Dave. Their amateur status is part of the propaganda: Americans will identify more readily with an idealistic innocent than a party member, even a squeaky clean one. Smith and Dave are both abruptly manipulated into powerful positions in Washington— Smith replaces a dead senator, Dave is a lookalike stand-in for an incapacitated President— and each is chosen for the position because they are perceived (wrongly) to be weak men who can be easily controlled. And each ends up engaged in an heroic effort to clean up the debased federal government.
Mr. Smith is the superior film, of course, and the stronger piece of propaganda, though it is rarely seen as such these days. In 1939, however, it was not welcomed in Washington, D.C. In fact, it was actually considered seditious by some. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The unflattering depiction of government officials so infuriated real-life legislators that there were calls for the film to be banned. For its portrayal of American political corruption, it was called anti-American and communist; some deemed it propaganda that aided the efforts of the Axis countries at the start of World War II.” There’s a terrific analysis of the movie, from the making of it through its reception here, really worth the read.
Frank Capra’s powers of persuasion as a filmmaker were such that he hired by the U. S. Government to make propaganda films during World War II. In fact, it is my contention, not a popular one, that Capra’s other beloved masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life, which is essentially a modern morality play, is also a work of propaganda— a diabolically subtle one. On the surface, it praises the lives of ordinary citizens. But scratch that surface and you’ll see that the opposite is true: a strong leader is required to guide the masses, who are presented as good-natured, long-suffering, and almost helpless people. There is truth to that view of leadership, but it is a profoundly un-American truth that impugns democracy. It’s closer to authoritarianism in the way it pities ordinary citizens– an attitude that certainly reflects more than a few real politicians. Not the more benevolent ones, such as Mr. Smith, but the less benevolent ones, represented by mean old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who disdains common folk, and exploits them. Hollywood shares that disdain and exploits freely: how many Americans watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas without seeing through the dramatic pretence to its imperious core?
Dave is kinder, gentler propaganda. The plot gets going early, when President William Mitchell suffers a stroke while he’s philandering in a hotel room. “Who was she this time?” asks the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver). Mitchell is thus efficiently branded as a thoroughgoing bastard, and an incapacitated one, but he’s still POTUS. His Administration’s screwball solution (also illegal, needless to say) to having a comatose Commander in Chief is to hire a body double. Enter Dave Kovic, an affable entrepreneur who runs a local employment agency and, as a sideline, gigs as a Presidential impersonator. Very handy. And casting Kline is crucial. In his beautifully balanced performance, Dave is at once an affable everyman and a determined and dedicated citizen, an alpha male who doesn’t blink an eye when, at last, he stands face-to-face with his Svengali: Continue reading