Depictions of the American President: From the Heroic to the Downright Rotten…to Frank Underwood

by JAMES FENWICK

To celebrate the launch of the third season of House of Cards, whereupon Frank Underwood has claimed the ultimate prize of the presidency, In Motion looks at depictions of the American president across cinema and television and considers if Underwood might just be the best there’s been.

House-of-Cards“Democracy is so overrated.”

                        Frank Underwood, House of Cards, Chapter 15 (2014)

Kevin Spacey as the fictional Frank Underwood (House of Cards, Netflix, 2013-2015) is quite possibly the best portrayal of the American presidency to date. Finally, here is someone who, despite never being sure of his true motivations, I believe in as an embodiment of the president. He is ruthless, ambitious and, above all else, a politician. There has often been deference to the presidency in Hollywood, the allure of the office frightening cinema and television into creating presidents who are somehow above the fray, saintly in their demeanour, men of honesty and integrity, and somewhat naïve, always striving to do the best by the country rather than themselves. Yet, we all know that to get to the top and to be the most powerful man in the world, you can’t be too worried about your scruples – Frank Underwood certainly isn’t, but we’ll talk more about him later.

The Moralising President

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There have been other great presidential performances besides Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, none more so than the melancholic character of Abraham Lincoln as played by Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln (2012). Lewis’s Lincoln has been praised as ‘dignified’ and a role imbued with ‘moral energy’ – agreed, but, I often felt when watching this film that the moral energy spoken of, which we see weighing down the shoulders of Lincoln throughout, is more of a ‘moralising’, of America and Hollywood wanting us to ‘get’ the greatness of Abraham Lincoln. Take the scene where Lincoln meets with key members of congress and urges them to procure votes to pass the thirteenth amendment; it is played with subtlety, yet Lincoln’s language is heavy with morality as he slams the table he sits at and declares:

“whether any of you or anyone else knows it, I know I need this! This amendment is that cure!                       We’re stepped out upon the world’s stage now, now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment!”

It is Shakespearean in its gravitas and lends Lincoln that ‘presidential air’, above the fray of the down and dirty politics of Washington D.C. He is always seen alone, separate from congress and its shady dealings. It is this tendency to revere the presidency and to avoid any kind of true objective analysis that is prevalent throughout Hollywood’s history. Armando Iannucci, creator of the sitcom Veep (HB0, 2012-2014)essentially the American version of The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-2012) – said in an interview that ‘there’s a sort of respect for the office.’ This comes to a head in the excellent television series The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006), the influence for which can be seen in the film The American President (1995), written by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.

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The show depicts the turbulent presidency of Jed Bartlett, as played by Martin Sheen, a liberal-minded man who oft-reminds us that he doesn’t care if people criticise him as an individual, but they mustn’t attack the office of the president. This reverence is vocalised during the Season 1 episode ‘Take This Sabbath Day’, in which Bartlett must weigh up whether or not to commute the death sentence of a drug kingpin. He mulls the issue over with his religious counsel, Father Cavanaugh. When entering the Oval Office, the Father asks “I don’t know how to address you. Would you prefer Jed or Mr. President?” Bartlett responds, “I prefer Mr. President. You understand why, right?” Bartlett goes onto explain that it isn’t his ego, but rather that “there are certain decisions I have to make while I’m in this room. It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office.”

The West Wing doesn’t present Bartlett as a flawless man – far from it – but it does present him as a man of integrity trying to do his best, even during the Season 1 and 2 cover-up of his deception to the American people, having not disclosed the fact that he is suffering from multiple sclerosis. This scandal is again presented as a moral issue, with characters such as Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) having to weigh up their consciences about being part of the dishonesty. This moralising is often seen through a turn to God, with the role of the president and that of religion becoming mixed. Bartlett himself moralises about his dishonesty by confessing to God in the dramatic Season 2 finale ‘Two Cathedrals’. With the media having found out about Bartlett’s MS, he must face them in a climatic press conference. Before doing so, he heads to Washington’s National Cathedral where he angrily accuses God, “What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?”

Barlett’s presidency is depicted as one of a man doing battle with his religious convictions and his own self-doubt, eventually growing stronger as a result, becoming a father-type figure. This is not surprising; Rollins (Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History, 2010: 252-53) suggests that presidents are seen as symbolic figures that navigate ‘themselves and their nation by the strength and resources of character.’ He goes onto note that:

“The very word “president” comes from “preside” which means “to guard or preside over.” And the films – like the oath of office – stress the president’s duty to “protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States. To do so requires personal strength, values – and character.”

What we have in Bartlett is the personification, then, of the concept of the president. Bartlett himself, as mentioned above, wants to be thought of not as an individual, but as the presidential office. And within that concept are the very foundations of the American ideal, its dream, and of course, more than anything else, hope. All of this Bartlett effuses through the prism of his religious ideals.

Presidential Conflict and Paranoia

large nixon blu-raysnapshot20080809101630Character and religion are confused in other depictions of the president, too, none more so than in Nixon (1995). The film sees Anthony Hopkins’s portraying the Richard III of presidents, Richard Nixon – a tragic figure to some, a crook to others. He is certainly the most fascinating of presidents, his time in office inevitably framed by Watergate and the White House Horrors.

Stone prefigures his film with a rider that explains that the ‘film is an attempt to understand the truth of Richard Nixon, thirty-seventh President of the United States.’ We are then presented with a biblical quote, taken from Matthew 16:26:

“What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” 

Immediately, the portrayal of Nixon is set up as one of a man whose own individuality is torn and conflicted by both the office of the president and of religion. The film takes a sympathetic approach to the only man ever to have resigned the American presidency – we see a man haunted by demons from his past, of his insecurities of his social standing, and of a man surrounded by enemies who wish to bring him down. Towards the end of the film, the president walks solemnly through the darkened corridors of the White House and towards his resignation. He is in despair and muses about what has gone so wrong with his presidency, seeking to apportion blame on anyone but himself, “There’s no respect for American institutions anymore,” he says. “People are cynical.” Nixon is absolved to an extent, American society itself being made culpable. This may very well have been Nixon’s view, but on film we are again given a president who did his best, who struggled with his own sins in order to protect the American people; in fact, one can see the Nixonian nature of Jed Bartlett’s argument with God and can imagine Nixon, in his own privacy, crying out “Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins.”

What Stone’s Nixon seems to miss – in an apparent quest for ‘truth’ – is the paranoia that permeated Nixon’s administration, which would quickly go onto influence American cinema. The number of films tinged with suspicion and mistrust proliferated whilst he was still in office, after the scandal of the Pentagon Papers and the escalating crisis of Watergate. The “essence” of Nixon haunted early examples of the conspiracy film, such as Executive Action (1973) and The Conversation (1974), both films that examined the assassination of an individual, be it a political assassination (as in Executive Action) or a gun-for-hire assassination, as in the later film. It is intriguing that, despite the growing disquiet and suspicion surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the subsequent Warren Commission Report, it is not until Nixon’s presidency that such fear and paranoia fed through into Western cinema. It can be argued that it took the work of Greek film director Costa-Gravas, with Z (1969), to provoke Western cinema into exploring the idea of the conspiracy film, along with the spiralling scandal of Watergate. Z was a zeitgeist film that reflected the rising tide of discontent within America and the West, just as Nixon is inaugurated. Roger Ebert, in his 1969 review, described the film as follows:

“There are some things that refuse to be covered over. It would be more convenient, yes, and easier for everyone if the official version were believed. But then the facts begin to trip over one another, and contradictions emerge, and an “accident” is revealed as a crime.”

Ebert eerily foreshadows the paranoia of Nixon and the Watergate scandal and Z acted as a catalyst for the conspiracy film to flourish and take hold within Western culture. Following Nixon’s resignation, and the ‘trauma’ he forced America to undergo, a slew of conspiracy films were quickly released, such as The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Marathon Man (1976), and the final two intsallments of Alan J. Pakula’s ‘political paranoia’ trilogy The Parallax View (1974), featuring Warren Beatty as an investigative journalist who uncovers an assassination by a secret organisation, and All the President’s Men (1976), detailing journalist’s Woodward and Bernstein’s uncovering of the Watergate scandal. Pakula, along with his director of photography on all the films in the trilogy, Gordon Willis, created an atmosphere of unease and a feeling of existential angst, against a background of dangerous, political forces that would set a long-standing and influential standard for future films in the genre, with later films such as JFK (1991) and The Ghost Writer (2010), and television show The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002). The president may not appear in these works, but he is felt, the long-lasting legacy of Nixon being one of permanent paranoia.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

But what of the effect on actual representations of the American president as a consequence of this? One could argue that presidential depictions became less flattering. Cynicism lingered throughout the 1970s in American society and would do so forever more, peaking at particular junctures such as the pardoning of Nixon by Gerald Ford, or the bunker mentality of Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis, or – more than anything – the Iran-Contra affair that dogged Ronald Reagan. As a result, the president in cinema was less presidential, more outwardly political and conniving – not to the Frank Underwood extent, but ambitious enough to reflect the way politicians were viewed by the public. Films detailed with a critical eye the seedy democracy of presidential campaign politics, such as in The Candidate (1972), or the smoky back-room deals of congress, as in the oft over-looked Jerry Schatzberg film The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1976).

As for the president himself, he was still represented as a white, middle-aged man. Take the excellent cult film Escape From New York (1981), where Donald Pleasence plays the unnamed President of the United States in the near-future, and whose plane crash-lands into the now-converted prison city of New York.

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Pleasence’s president is cowardly and not at all likeable, even when he is being tortured. He is seemingly ungrateful for Snake Plissken’s (Kurt Russell) help and brushes him aside once he is back on the safe outside of New York. Yet, Pleasence’s president is little more than a side-character, a McGuffin, as Hitchcock would say, placed there to create a story and a motivation. And this is the case with most presidents, men with little power or consequence, almost to the point of irrelevancy, appearing comical in the face of global threats. This is best exemplified by Peter Sellers’s President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a man who suddenly realises that, in the face of global nuclear annihilation, he can do little but console a drunken Russian premier over the phone and grow increasingly frustrated with his generals in command. His lack of power – his impotence – is highlighted when his key general, Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) scuffles with the Russian ambassador. “Gentleman,” screams Muffley, “You can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”

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A more serious portrayal, yet equally impotent president is that of Morgan Freeman’s President Tom Beck in Deep Impact (1998), on whose watch the unthinkable is to occur – a potential civilization destroying impact by an asteroid, necessitating the mass evacuation of the country. This president is as deceptive as any Nixon, conspiring to cover-up the news of the impact to the wider public, and taking to meeting in conspiratorial locations with journalists as some kind of CEO Deep-Throat. Just like Merkin Muffley, he can do little but watch as events unfold, not so much being a presider, as a passive spectator.

The All-American Hero President or: The Kinda Guy You Can Have A Beer With

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The impotent president isn’t the kind the United States wants though, especially not in its movies. The president should be the number one all-American hero; after all, if he is screwed and unable to do anything, then the country surely must be heading for disaster. Cue Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in Air Force One (1997). The film sees Russian terrorists hijack the president’s plane and threaten to kill a hostage every half-hour until the rogue leader of Kazakhstan is released. It’s an excellent action-thriller, some having described it as “superior escapism” – in fact, one forgets that Harrison Ford is meant to be the president at all, as he clambers through the bowels of Air Force One in a bid to retake the plane. It’s claustrophobic, tense and most of all fun. This was reflected in the film’s box-office, grossing $315,156,409  worldwide and $172,956,409 domestically, off a budget of approximately $85 million. Apparently, Bill Clinton, in office at the time, liked it so much that he saw it twice on its release. This, then, was a president that people liked – a man able to kick-ass against a ‘traditional’ group of terrorists.

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This was, however, before 9/11, after which the president would have to do battle against much deadlier foes, as in the preposterous White House Down (2013) and Olympus has Fallen (2013). Both films are similar in nature, all out-action with the White House itself being assaulted, playing into post-9/11 fears and of the Hollywood fetish for ever-greater disaster scenarios – the former was directed by the ‘king’ of the disaster movie, Roland Emmerich. The critical reaction to each film was poor and they currently have scores of 50% and 48% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. The films present us with extraordinarily bland presidents: Jamie Foxx as James Sawyer in White House Down and Aaron Eckhart as Benjamin Asher in Olympus Has Fallen. How these two characters could ever have been voted into power is somewhat questionable, but they have something of the George W. Bush about them, men who are led along by others.

Talking of Bush, one cannot talk about presidential depictions without mentioning Oliver Stone’s W. (2008), a biopic that shows various stages of George W. Bush’s life, including his time as president. What we are given is a ‘rootsy’ kinda-guy, who prefers to spend time on his ranch than at the Oval Office. He’s a beer-swilling frat boy during his college days, cum born-again Christian in his later years, making him all the better to be president. Of course, it pokes fun at him too. We see that he at times lets himself be used, particularly by the likes of Dick Cheney. One cannot consider it a truthful portrayal of Bush, sympathising as it does with a man who is clearly in over his head as president, and avoiding consideration of his polarising nature and the profound effects his presidency had on global politics. Just as with Nixon, it would seem that the much-proclaimed left-wing film director Oliver Stone lets two of the countries most ‘notorious’ presidents off the hook.

Frank Underwood

house_of_cardsFrom the beginning of House of Cards we knew Frank Underwood would be president. After all, anyone aware of the original House of Cards Trilogy (BBC, 1991-1995) will know the trajectory of the story. Therefore, Underwood has always been depicting the president – he himself from the outset has known he will be president and has been preparing accordingly.

Underwood, then, is all of the presidents’ worse traits rolled into one, plus the added benefit of the deadliest characteristics of the Roman emperors such as Nero and Caligula, and the wicked sensibilities of Shakespeare’s Plantagenet kings. He is as much Richard Nixon as he is Richard III, with the additional ingredient of Bill Clinton’s libidinous behaviour; we’re treated to his deviant affair with Zoe Barnes throughout Season 1, and a bi-sexual ménage-a-trois between Meechum, Claire Underwood and himself (see Season 2, Chapter 24). Underwood’s bisexuality is hinted at in ambiguous terms in the show, with the possibility of him having had a meaningful gay relationship in his college days (see Season 1, Chapter 8). Sex oozes across House of Cards and Underwood reeks of it; whereas other presidential depictions have shown men in love, as in The American President, or as devoted family men as in Air Force One, Underwood is none of these. Sex, for him, is about power and control and is just another tool in his political belt to obtain it. But questions remain about his sexuality and whether he is really in love with his wife, Claire. Some have argued that it is a marriage of convenience and that, if there’s were a real relationship in Washington, questions would abound as to if they had actually ever had sex.

Machiavellian is inappropriate when describing Underwood. Sure, he has underhand dealings and conniving plots, but he himself doesn’t like to get his hands too dirty, leaving it to his minions such as Doug Stamper. Though, when it comes to murder, Underwood relishes the opportunity. Where previous fictional presidents were impotent and impassive in the face of often career-ending threats, Underwood thrives under such conditions. It’s as if existential fear is what spurs him on to ever-greater heights of ambition and deeper levels of evil. He has his own Lady Macbeth in his wife, but he is no Macbeth himself, for if his wife should get in his way, he has no qualms in casting her aside, as in Chapters 5 and 6. Macbeth was driven to a state of despair by his bloody actions; Underwood smiles wryly into the camera and directly at the audience, winning us over with his lethal charisma.

Underwood is an enigma, giving little away about who he truly is as a person – the most intimate we get with him is seeing him crash in front of the couch to play Call of Duty. What we do get, though, is a man who incorporates the history of American presidents, on and off-screen. The show has been said to be ‘deeply cynical about human beings as well as politics and almost gleeful in its portrayal of limitless ambition.’ Some have said that Underwood’s closest Shakespearian comparison would be Iago from Othello, a man who is the embodiment of jealous rage and bitter resentment and sets out to enact revenge on those he feels hard done by. Contemporary comparisons reveal similarities between Spacey’s Underwood and Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall (BBC, 2015). Both are men who keep their cards close to their chests, who whisper words of devilish advice to those in power, and do battle with those who threaten their own position. Many may see Mark Rylance’s Cromwell as being a compassionate man, but it doesn’t stop him from being a key player in the execution of a once good friend, Sir Thomas More. Similarly, Underwood does not hesitate in the demise of colleagues, from union officials to fellow congressman – the brutal way in which Underwood uses the alcoholic Peter Russo is deeply disturbing, ruining and then ending a man’s life for his own gain.

Yet, what makes Frank Underwood the greatest fictional representation of the president is in his sexy, murderous, and seductive portrayal of power. Just as Frodo and Gollum fall under the sway of the power of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), so we – and Underwood – are under the sway of ultimate global power in House of Cards. What he does with it is not the point; it is the suggestion and the metaphor, as he stands behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office in the final episode of Season 2, dominating – he is in control and he doesn’t care how bloody his hands get to ensure it stays that way. If Aaron Sorkin’s depictions of the American president are one of naïve hope and a ‘faith in the American experiment’, then House of Cards is the exact polar opposite – not so much anti-politics, as it is a reaffirmation that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As Ari Melber of The Atlantic puts it, House of Cards takes a dark path, with Washington as the source of evil, not a place reduced to evil.

House_of_Cards_title_cardHouse of Cards Season 3 is available on Netflix from 27 February.

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