Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Presidents on Film: A Bleg

I haven't done a bleg in ages; I hope this one works as well as the last one did.

This summer I'll be conducting a teachers workshop on "The Presidency and Presidential Elections." Friends University does dozens of these every summer, to help elementary and secondary school teachers pick up credit hours towards an eventual degree, and also just to help them develop or upgrade lesson plans for the coming year. This is the first time I'll be teaching one, and I'm not too worried; though it'll be a different kind of audience than I've ever had before, the subject matter shouldn't be a problem, especially given that we've already had more than enough drama this election cycle to fill up discussions about political primaries, the electoral college, frontloading, fundraising, and all the rest. But I'm thinking about how I'm going to present these discussions, since I want to do it in such a way that will provide some resources which those in the workshop can then take into their classrooms (they'll all be middle school and high school teachers, if that matters). I'm putting together some interactive stuff that may work, but I also want to make use of the medium which most of their students are going to be more familiar with: movies. And so, I ask you, my Internet Friends--what are some of the best films, or short bits of films, that I could recommend or show in the workshop as part of a discussion of presidents, presidential elections, and the presidency?

I'm completely open insofar as "historical" vs. "contemporary" presentations are concerned; just so long as the film itself or some excerpt from it can be use to demonstrate a point. There are, of course, the big guns I could haul out: Seven Days in May, Primary Colors, Fail-Safe, and I could do so...except all of those films feature pretty outlandish or historically-specific characters and scenarios, and thus trying to use them as a way of talking about the sort of people who run for president, the sort of people who surround a president, and the sort of decisions presidents and the people around them have to make, may be difficult. But then again, maybe not. What I'm hoping for is some scene out there, some plot point or storyline (even a minor one) that I could use to exemplify the reality (or the perception) of presidential requirements, power, responsibilities, limitations, and agendas. I've never seen Oliver Stone's Nixon; anyone know if there's anything there? How about The Best Man? (Like my class on politics and the movies back in Arkansas, this may be a fun opportunity for me to check out a bunch of films that have been on my to-see list for ages.) Or how about any of the romantic comedies featuring presidents? Dave and The American President are, if I remember correctly, fun but basically worthless (though Martin Sheen's A.J. MacInerney kills me in the latter film), but maybe there's something in State of the Union?

Hey, speaking of Sheen, there is of course The West Wing. No doubt there's tons of stuff there, assuming the workshop attenders don't run screaming from the room at the sound of Aaron Sorkin's dialogue. My wife and I watched the show pretty faithfully for the first three or so seasons, then got burned out. Any particular episodes come to mind as a likely prospect? I'm remembering lots of angsty drama and clever executive maneuvering but nothing particularly, well, real.


Matt said...

I'd recommend this, but some might find it inappropriate:

I, however, found it brilliant.

Unfortunately I don't have any serious suggestions. When I was in the peace corps I worked with school teachers (English teachers) back for additional training and found it very rewarding though also sometimes frustrating (they tended to exhibit the vices of their students when acting as students themselves, it seemed.) When I wanted to show them something about politics (and school life) in the US I showed them _Election_ though I doubt that will work for you since it's about a _Student body_ president.

Rob said...

Well, don't forget "Dick"... the movie which mocked Nixon by making "Deep Throat" a pair of teenage girls who walked his dog and fed him hashish-laced cookies.

I think that explains everything, actually. ;-D

Seriously, though, didn't you notice that only the first three seasons of "The West Wing" were penned and guided by Sorkin, with others picking up after that? I lost interest at about the same time you did.

I don't actually remember anything really specific from those years, except that, yeah, vaguely there was a lot of maneuvering and back-and-forth about issues, but nothing which really showcases the electoral process.

One thing you might showcase, if it's still active when you teach, is CNN's delegate calculators, though they do keep removing sliders for states as the primaries happen.

Alejandro said...

You can find lots of examples from TV series, films and other media discussed and classified in the article "Our President Are Different" at the TvTropes Wiki. Warning: dangerous time sink.

Christopher said...

As far as the West Wing goes, I recommend the cliffhanger episode where there is the shooting. I think it provides meaningful insight to the real behind the scenes issues of the president, such as the order of succession issue, and also having stations at hospitals on assigned emergency routes, and even a fun tid bit involving secret service protocol.

Also, while it doesn't have to do with so much the Presidency...All the Presidents men with Hoffman and Redford is a classic in that sort of theme as well.

Let me know when this is, If I have the cash I may take the train down.

Anonymous said...

I've met many people who don't like politics and don't know much about it, who love either Dave or the American President. That has to be some sort of clue to "why Americans hate politics" (if in fact they do). The American President is one of my conservative, apolitical mother's favorite flicks!

Dave drives me up the wall. The veiled left-wing full-employment message is fine by me, but the scene where his two-bit accountant does a late-night comb through of the federal budget is too much.

You didn't mention Thirteen Days. It's a pretty decent look at real life events, and gives some indication of how the White House can work. It will also make you thank God that GW Bush was not in the White House at the time. Curtis LeMay would have had Bush eating out of his hand.

Jeremiah J.

John B. said...

For campaigning, perhaps The Candidate would work. Perhaps Tanner '88 as well, which has the added advantage of being episodic. And as for a documentary, there's The War Room . . .

Curious: somewhat as you suggest, there's a paucity of films that purport to show The Truth about actually being President. It'd be interesting to know why that is. It reminds me of something my Victorian Lit. prof told us with regard to marriage-plot novels: all the interest lies in the chase. The Victorians' take was, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that all married people are married in the same way.

Western Dave said...

I don't think film is the way to go for this. Films are good at conveying emotional complexity but not organizational complexity, which seems to be more of what you are after here. What about daily planner entries or diaries of a typical working day? On the flip side, if you are going to do a lesson on rhetoric in the campaign. I have had good luck at using Obama's yes we can video and Huckabee's super Tuesday speech and comparing them with Romney's Super Tuesday speech. Note the I/we constructions used by the former two and the I/you constructions by Romney.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Um, well, that's...interesting. Funny, too--but probably not something middle and high school teachers are going to want to show their students. Thanks for trying though!


I love Dick. (Oh, hey, and that's a line from the movie too!) It's absolutely hilarious, and what an awesome cast (Harry Shearer, Dave Foley, Will Ferrell, etc.). Unfortunately, I can't think of anything I could show from it.


Thanks for the link!


I remember the first season (it was the first season, wasn't it?) cliffhanger that you're mention, and yes, there was some good stuff there about how the tension regarding how closely or how loosely the president should be controlled by his security people, etc. I don't know; that's not in any way a major theme of the workshop, but perhaps it could work.


I'm actually kind of willing to defend Dave, but that's partly because I think Kevin Kline and Charles Grodin can almost do no wrong. Thanks for the reminder about Thirteen Days; that was a good film. I remember being bothered by their switches from color to black-and-white and back again, though--I couldn't figure out what the director was intending with that.


Hmm--now, The War Room is a great suggestion; I may want to tak a look at that again. And that's an interesting observation you make vis-a-vis Victorian literature. Could it be that even the most powerful political office on Earth is kind of boring once it's been won?


I really think I want to try to bring some sort of audio-visual media in, if only because so many middle and high school teachers are looking for that resource. But you have a point about making use of samples of a president's schedule and so forth. Presidential and political rhetoric isn't one I've thought much about for this workshop...but you have some good suggestions there. I'm going to have to dig up some Youtube clips and see what I can find.

Chris Bertram said...

Being There.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Oh man, Chris...Being There. What a great choice. But what would I show? Probably some bit about the media, or wherever. I don't care, really. Any opportunity to introduce new people to Being There is officially a Good Thing.

Western Dave said...

Ok, I reread the post and thought about this some more. What you want, in addition to youtube clips, are the campaign commericals. Really, can anyone top the patheticnes of Carter's 1980 "He'll do better next time" ads. has a ton of these, among other sites. They also have a lot of good political speeches. The Nixon Checkers speech is available too. That's what you want, not movies. At least, that's what I want (and use) as a Upper School teacher. And while you are at archive don't miss "are you popular?" and "boys beware"

Russell Arben Fox said...

What you want, in addition to youtube clips, are the campaign commericals. Really, can anyone top the patheticnes of Carter's 1980 "He'll do better next time" ads. has a ton of these, among other sites. They also have a lot of good political speeches. The Nixon Checkers speech is available too. That's what you want, not movies.

David, that is an awesome idea. Thank you! (I know where to track down a fair number of old presidential election commercials, and I can think of which ones I want to use--Reagan's "bear in the forest" is, of course, a must-have. But I'm searching, and I'm not finding any Carter ads. Am I not using the site correctly?)

Western Dave said...

Sorry, it's the Living Room Candidate has other stuff, mostly speeches.