Movies

Our obsession with action hero presidents

Hail to the badass commanders-in-chief, who only exist in the movies

Independence Day (1996)

It’s safe to assume that Independence Day would not be one of the most commercially successful films of the 1990s and a Fourth of July staple if not for the instantly iconic scene in which the nefarious aliens blow up some dude’s house. Because the house was the White House, and the dude in question was President Thomas J. Whitmore, played with raspy-voiced, twinkly-eyed charisma by Bill Pullman.

In Independence Day, the bad guys blowing up the good guy’s home has the same effect it generally does in action movies: It makes him steaming mad, and sets the stage for fearsome revenge.

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The notion of the president as a badass action hero is a surprisingly common one in our culture. Independence Day director Roland Emmerich has visited this premise twice, first with 1996’s Independence Day and later with 2013’s White House Down. (You can see for yourself Friday night, when Independence Day screens at the Coolidge Theater in Brookline.)

Independence Day and White House Down are fascinating in part because they transform hilariously romanticized versions of Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, both of whom have blatantly pacifistic pre-presidential histories) into improbable action heroes. Emmerich’s films separate their presidential surrogates from actual, divisive wars, and instead place them on the front lines of fictional conflicts where the good guys and the bad guys couldn’t be more clearly delineated.

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Hell, in Independence Day, the bad guys aren’t even guys: They’re evil aliens about whom we learn nothing except that they’re destructive, have no respect for American monuments (and democracy), and must be destroyed.

Photos: Fictional tough guy presidents from movies we love(article continues)

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President Whitmore’s big speech is at once Independence Day’s most rousing and cheesy moment. He and his fellow Americans aren’t fighting for gay rights or civil rights: They’re fighting for the right to continue to exist, to not be annihilated by monsters from outer space. The right to not have your family slaughtered by aliens is a cause so universal that not even Antonin Scalia would come out against it.

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Whitmore begins Independence Day in a funk that could have seemed familiar to President Clinton. His approval ratings are way down, he’s seen as overly political, and despite his history as a fighter pilot in the Gulf War, he is viewed as a wimp.

But an alien attack serves as the catalyst to transform the handsome, young, sexy (yet warmly paternal) Whitmore from wimp to warrior, from zero to hero, from overly political politician to a commander-in-chief who doesn’t just execute wars from the safe distance of ultimate power but puts his own life on the line as a fighter pilot who takes on alien baddies for the sake of his family, his country, and his planet.

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In White House Down, the hero is the impossibly perfect President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), who resembles the man Obama true believers desperately wanted him to be. As with Independence Day, there is no moral ambivalence or ambiguity: the President and his buddy John Cale (Channing Tatum) are handsome, honorable exemplars of All-American goodness. The bad guys are almost as unambiguously evil as the aliens in Independence Day.

Politicians who’ve struck action-movie poses in real life, however, have a history of embarrassing themselves.

President George W. Bush might have imagined that he was channeling some of the alpha-male swagger of President Whitmore when he donned a fighter pilot’s garb to deliver his infamous “Mission Accomplished’’ speech, but he came off more like a cosplayer. Michael Dukakis, meanwhile, tried to look tough on defense by posturing in a tank, and only ended up being a sight gag for a deeply amused and deeply disrespectful press.

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Ronald Reagan fared a lot better when he told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, but that’s probably because he was previously an actor in action movies, and came about his posturing and role-playing honestly.

Filmmakers of an earlier era did not have to imagine a world where people like President Eisenhower or President Kennedy heroically fought for their country, because those presidents were veterans. Heck, there was even a film made about President Kennedy’s war adventures (PT 109).

Emmerich, however, has to content himself with sending fantasy versions of his favorite Democratic presidents off to fight comic-book battles on behalf of the American people.

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Our love of movies starring a badass-in-chief suggests that, while the American public is grateful that Obama ordered Osama Bin Laden’s killing, they would be even more impressed if he was the one pulling the trigger, and possibly delivering the perfect one-liner at the same time. Maybe that can be Emmerich’s follow-up to his next movie, which not surprisingly, is the sequel to Independence Day. (What is surprising that it took two decades to make a sequel to such a successful film.)

It’s possible that soon after Independence Day 2 makes its June 24, 2016 theatrical debut, another Clinton may be in the White House.

There would certainly be a pleasing synchronicity if Emmerich chose to end his unofficial impossibly-idealized-Democratic-president-as-action-hero trilogy by making a film depicting a Hilary Clinton stand-in as an action-movie badass, a 69-year-old Lara Croft in a sensible pants-suit.

May we suggest casting Helen Mirren?

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