Is this the Demise of the “Save-the-President” Movie Genre?

A few years ago, there was a slew of movies that came out simultaneously about saving the President of the United States from an assassination plot?  What was it in the zeitgeist of 2013-2014, in the waning years of a second term Obama, that inspired the film world to produce Big Game, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen?  Did some artistic genius of collective intuition foretell a looming threat to American power?  The last fraying threads of its democratic institutions?  One last heave-ho of perceived external threat to the seat of the global order?


Representation of the American chief executive has been treated a number of ways in film.  But it always defaults to a safe position where the awkward phrasing of words “Mister (or Madame) President” was supposed to mean something honorable, dignified, sacrosanct.  The office treated as a marker of history, a solemn place peopled by serious people doing serious things.  The role of president signifies the dignity of stable leadership.  Indeed, hit films like White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, and Air Force One rely on this core value as motivation for their plots.  These films beg a further question: could they be made today with the cultural backdrop of the Trump administration?  In an era in which half the country at least suspects — rightly or wrongly is beside the point — that the president is not just a security risk, or a self-promoting grifter and mountebank, but possibly an asset of a foreign power?   Would any of these pictures be made today?  If we re-watch them, would we find ourselves rooting for the “bad guys?”


The save-the-prez sub-genre of films are surprisingly numerous over the last couple of decades.  I went back to look at how the representation of the presidency metamorphosed from the seventies to today with the theory that the fictional treatment of the office mirrored not just the office as such but waves of either increasing or wavering faith in its stewardship.  What’s revealed is how much cultural space the White House takes in our collective imagination.   And how any threat to this hallowed idea of the office ruptures our sociopolitical firmament in ways we could not have believed possible.  


Like ripples in a pond, the dramatic apprehension around protecting the president for the last fifty years can be traced to a single cultural trauma.  The natural place to begin seems when the President was definitively unsafe, when the dignity ORTMOAD4SJK6UE7QBFPQUUKGC4.jpgand innocence of the office was indeed ruined, a sorrowful flag-draped coffin.  This is of course the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas November 23, 1963.  For many of that generation, this was a singular watershed moment that transitioned the fifties into the sixties.  The bursting of a fairy tale version of America’s supposed innocence.  And the Kennedy White House was that fairy tale place, Camelot.  And the young slain king its Arthur.  Boomer artists and writers have revisited the events of Dealey Plaza: Oliver Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and Stephen King. It’s inspired countless books, films, speculation, and perhaps the mother of all modern conspiracies.  But under it all is the ungraspable horrible truth that the precious John F. Kennedy, a young president representing hope and progress of the New Frontier, was slain for some stupid damn reason or another.


The tragic event left a giant historical rift in the culture which the liberal imagination could never adequately fill in, try as it might.  The fantasy driving the suspicions believed that a fulfilled Kennedy administration might have curtailed the excesses of the war state, gotten out of the calamity of Vietnam and have restored the liberal state in that tumultuous decade.  The conspiracy narratives, which are endless and beyond my concern here, are made up of primal longings for completeness. The thought that this simple act of violence was committed by a disturbed lone gunman, particularly a pathetic, scrawny, wife-beating psychopath like Lee Harvey Oswald, is too much to contain.  A loser with a single bullet has no right to be in the history books with the most powerful man in the political world.  Its from this void of pain that narrative seeks to fill.  Give it a vast communist or mafia or right wing Cuban exile or deep state conspiracy of infinite complexity and incalculable magnitude.


In the 1960s, Hollywood could not make a save the president movie after the assassination. Indeed, in the late 1960s, such cultural questions concerning the office were conspicuously absent, as were movies about Vietnam.  Conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination rose in the 1970s, a time of other deepening trends typified by the plethora of paranoid conspiracy thrillers coming out of Hollywood during the Watergate years. Klute, Three Days of the Condor, Z, Executive Action, The Domino Killings, Cutter’s Way, Good Guys Wear Black, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Hangar 18, Capricorn One, Telefon, Chinatown, Blow Out, Blow Up, The Conversation, Day of the Jackal, The Parallax View, Marathon Man, All the Presidents Men, Winter Kills, among others, portrayed a world in which all cultural authority that had been stitched together under the umbrella of the cold war consensus came to a stunning halt of mistrust.


American mythology is nothing without its hallmark love for innocence and the restoration of innocence. It’s a key to the American national identity and the national narrative seeks redemption both in the wilderness and through new models of faith. Evoking the promise of new horizons and frontiers has long been woven into presidential campaigns. From Kennedy’s New Frontier to Reagan’s “Morning in America,” to Bill Clinton’s appropriation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” to Obama’s “Hope” and “Change we can Believe in,” running for office seems to have a familiar script. Change, hope, the future, new horizons. They always succumb to someone else promising further renewal. The capacity of American culture to restore innocence, only to lose it again, and so on ad infinitum, is remarkable.


The save the prez sub-genre captures this restoration. We failed to save Kennedy, but by golly, we can use some narrative therapy of the cinema to avenge our slain king.  We can reinvigorate our imaginations as would be Lancelots defending the honor of the round table.  The Reaganite fantasy of America that has endured over the last three decades, from 1980 to 2016, in its blustery, chest-thumping machismo, made way for a clean cut muscularity, cleansing the palate after the seventies bitter downer mood.  Exit Woodward and Bernstein, enter Jack Bauer.  We’re in fantasy land now: all the president’s men can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  We’ll stop those bullets.  We’ll put Jack’s skull back together.  We’ll restore our timeline.  We’ll recriminate.  If only in fiction. 


So let’s check out these save-the-prez films since 1991:



The king of such movies, 1991’s JFK is perhaps Oliver Stone’s masterpiece of paranoia and liberal rage.  It might be the reason why the other films in this list exist.  All subsequent films of the genre are secretly connected to JFK.  Some as rejoinders, some as counterpoint. 


As controversial today as when it was released – when Walter Kronkite called it codswallop irresponsibly fanning the flames of mass hysteria.  Despite the title, JFK is not about the president, but how all our minds are shattered when the fairy tale of the presidency is horrifically, inexplicably shattered.  Stone isn’t content to show us one conspiracy theory, stuffing the over three hour run time with the full kaleidoscope.  At the time of its release, something like three fourths of Americans didn’t believe the so-called lone gunman theory of the Warren Report.  JFK is about that basic suspicion, about how mainstream paranoid America has become, and contributing all the more to the lore surrounding that day.  Conspiracy theories are no longer proprietary to tin foil hat Americans, but distributed on both FM as well as AM radio.


Don Delillo, talking about his book Libra, about Oswald, notes how since Dallas, we see conspiracy everywhere.  Narrative threads no longer holding together, society steeped deeply in suspicion, our reality smashed to bits.  Our 51sjdy6giNL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgpostmodern era heavily peppered with the hermeneutics of suspicion.  11.23.63 was that milestone, shattering illusions of truth and safety.  How could our mythical president be shot down by a garden variety malcontent?  And this is precisely why Oswald did it.  In a sense he became a boilerplate for subsequent would be assassins.  The lone gunman now a common trope.  We know their names to a lesser degree – Whitman, Ray, Bremer, Chapman, Hinkley, Loughner, Hodgkinson – but none as famous, or generating the same conspiracy fantasies as the OG.  Almost like copycat killers, a new social contagion of rifle-toting malcontents seeking a way our of their nihilism shooting up nightclubs, schools, post offices, churches.  Delillo argues that art has given way to the American style of terrorism.  The gun has attained dominance over the pen.  Only the most heinous acts attract attention.


Stone’s JFK is exemplar of the mad fallout.  The hole at the center, the unsolvable suspicion left eating away at us.  Men smoking in dark rooms, men in black suits, the basement of the Pentagon, Langley, agencies within agencies, riddles inside enigmas.  It’s a visual language feeding the nightmares of the X-Files.  This is our world now – plagued with uncertainty and fear and fantasy.  The fantasy of course is to go to the source of the cultural wound – that day in Dallas.  Relitigate, recriminate, reconstruct.  If only … whatever.  The film boils down to Kevin Costner’s ten-minute barnburner of a monologue at the end, “Let there be justice though the heavens may fall,” and so on. It’s the bitter liberal invective and an hauntological aria for a lost alternate timeline had it not been for that crazy curving bullet.  Out cultural fabric cannot contain this nihilism.  We must fill it in with story – assume grander plots.  The more shocking the incident, particularly against such a focal point of social power as the presidency, the more urgent the need to find an alternative explanation.  



A docudrama based on the events in the hours and days after the Kennedy assassination centering mostly around events at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital and Abraham Zapruder’s famous 8mm home movie.  This film attempts a clear-headed explanation of documented events and sits itself as a counterpoint to Oliver Stone’s JFK with all its paranoiac tendrils. Perhaps an attempt to reconstruct events with some cool headed rationalism?  True perhaps, but dull as hell.  


In the Line of Fire

The film which segues from paranoid political conspiracy thriller to a straight robust macho actioner – In the Line of Fire.  It’s either the most dumb brilliant movie or the most brilliant dumb movie. Clint Eastwood’s secret service agent plays it like a noir detective, wears trench coats, plays jazz piano and reminds the 1990s of the silent generation. A quiet, very non-pc hardboiled loner, a man’s man.  His tragic flaw – his failure to protect Kennedy in 1963, based on real life Clint Hill, the guy who climbed on the back of the Lincoln seen in the Zapruder film.  Agent Eastwood’s bizarrely specific need – to take a bullet for the big man.  Though he waxes nostalgic for Camelot and wonders if the “new guy” is worth it.


What’s interesting in the film is how devoid it is of ideology.  It plays more like a serial killer movie than a political thriller.  The Cold War over, capitalism the victor, the killer, a walking cliche, deranged basement dweller John Malkovich, who plays the part more like Silence of the Lambs’s Buffalo Bill than Lee Harvey Oswald. His most remarkable characteristic aside from this breathy phone calls and Zodiac killer-like taunting of the cops is his fetish for assassins. He’s the kind of guy who rubs one out over lusty thoughts of John Wilkes Booth — “sic …. sempre …. tyranooooos.”  The idea is that the act of violence itself is enough to warrant the sacrifice to history. The fact that the assassin takes aim at the president just weeks before an election highlights the point.  Malcovich’s fetish for killing presidents mirror’s Eastwood’s existentialized brooding over saving presidents, as he looks up to the Lincoln Memorial “Well Abe, wish I coulda been there for ya, pal.”


Agent Eastwood really is Captain America without the cryogenics plot. What a spry fella he is, running down men half his age. He’s saving his last energy for that bullet of redemption. He nails the save the prez subgenre half way through the pictured, “I was different; the whole damned country was different. Everything would’ve been different then if I was as half as paranoid as I am today … fuck!”  You and us both, Clint.



Stephen King started this novel in the seventies, stopped, put it in a drawer and let three more decades of history take its course on him.  Surprisingly, the Kennedy assassination still warrants concern of authors in the Twenty First Century.  What more is there to say about it after Oliver Stone?  For Stephen King – not much.  The mini-series adaptation starring James Franco features a schmuck literary teacher at a community college who stumbles into 1960 through a janitor’s closet in a Maine diner.  (Don’t ask.)  His mission – stop the assassination of JFK and fulfill the liberal dream of pushing the reset button on Camelot.  Franco spends more than half the series trying to right personal wrongs from the past. He takes on a town bully in very King like terms.  Then he gets into a relationship for a few episodes. Then he takes in an assistant who is recruited to do the real investigation and surveille Oswald while he does other things.  Franco spends a few years in with side quests that take the air out of the narrative.  It’s like a long particularly aimless Quantum Leap episode which begs the question: if the assassination has such a monumental impact on history, why does everything come down to very distractable, personal, selfish motivations?  King’s message within the text undercuts the rest of his story – that the little anonymous people of the world matter too!  Who really cares about one guy, president or not – we got a life to live here.  Interesting enough point, but it undercuts the plot, a mistake that is likely for a far less experienced writer.


Of course it wouldn’t be Stephen King without a dark twist – it turns out that you can’t mess with the time continuum without horrible consequences. I don’t remember Quantum Leap going that dark even when Scott Bakula became Oswald – a rare mission that Dr. Sam Beckett failed.

Vantage Point

In blur analysis conspiracy thriller films like The Conversation, we had Gene Hackman rewinding tapes and altering frequencies to isolate voices, using telemetry to pick up discrete voices through his surveillance machines, hidden microphones and bugs. The conspiracy he thinks he’s on to destroys his tenuous paranoid self.  Fuzzy lines and blurred images became subject to serious study since the emergence of the Zapruder film.  This lends itself to the fragmented narratives and perspectives that a movie like Vantage Point takes on full.  It’s The Conversation on Red Bull.  The narrative jumping from one point of view to another in an imagined presidential assassination in Spain. The fantasy of the truth hidden somewhere among the grassy knoll, the schoolbook depository, the mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, the Birchers, or whomever.  Its narrative gimmicky, the only thing of artistic merit here, relitigates the difficulty of a singular convincing truth in the age of mass media.


Air Force One

German director – and patriotic true believer? – Wolfgang Petersen didn’t get saving the president trope out of his system yet with In the Line of Fire so he upped his game with Air Force One.  A bigger, louder and even more macho film which didn’t bother with the brooding secret service agent but has the president … (gulp) … defend himself from terrorists!  It’s Die Hard … on the president’s airplane!   And guess who plays the bad guy?  It’s Oliver Stone’s Lee Harvey Oswald himself – Gary Oldman!  “F YOU – OSWALD!” 


Gone are the paranoid angsty bits.  It’s been replaced by clean lines of good and evil.  Simple white hat and black hat cowboy tropes that Old Dutch Ronnie Reagan can understand.  (I can’t help but to wonder what if North Korea made such movies about their Kims – it would be their best propaganda. It’s amazing how self-serious this movie is, how confident its brassy Team America World Police– “fuck yeah!” – score.)


Unlike In the Line of Fire, Air Force One is reinjected with ideology. President Harrison Ford’s foreign policy is a hybrid of JFK and Reagan – equal parts “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Its like the pundit class’s dream of beneficent American power in its creative destruction. Destroying countries in order to save them. At the antagonist’s pole, Gary Oldman plays a Russian separatist who pines for the good old days of Brezhnev. Like any worthy baddie, he’ll have a pretty valid motivation – upset at how American style capitalism gutted the Soviet state giving power to oligarchs and gangsters. Yeah, sounds about right. And the Western answer to this problem is typical – “Yeah, we know Capitalist imperialism is a fraud, but … but whatever …  good guys win, amarite?” So the star here is Ford, who muscles, machine guns, and eventually flies his way to safety. No secret service and no Milquetoast commander in chief here.  President John McClaine – all that’s missing is the tank top.  Or maybe it’s less Die Hard, more Passenger 57!  “Always bet on black!”


Big Game

As stand-in for Obama, we have President Samuel L. Jackson in a Finnish production. The prez having evacuated from Air Force One is found by a lad Laplander on an escape-the-kidnapper survival quest. It’s Air Force One meets Hunt for the Wilderpeople! Proof positive that if you absolutely positively have to up the stakes of your drama, make sure one of your characters is an American president.


Curious enough, Barack Obama roughed it in real life with Bear Grylls in Alaska in 2017.  Wonder if he saw President Sam Jackson and was inspired to check the condition of the permafrost.  (Also, Big Game features Felicity Huffman as  CIA Director before she herself was under FBI investigation for college bribery conspiracy.)



The Death of a President

A curious picture made during the lame duck term of George W. Bush that we could not imagine during the first term of downloadBush 43. It takes actual news footage of the president and mixes it with a faux footage from CCTV, cell phones, or whatever, assembling it together under a faux conspiracy documentary supposedly debriefing the events surrounding a hypothetical 21st century assassination.  The film’s most notable for having the chutzpah to not use a fictionalized president. Despite Bush’s deep unpopularity at the time, this was not an agenda film. But it does seem impressed by its own gimmick while only reflecting how media covers events … which totally shows us nothing new from our dayworld experience of actual news.  Neither does it have the motivation to save the president, nor the opposite, the forbidden zone of endorsing his demise.


Murder at 1600

Maverick D.C. homicide detective is called the White House to investigate a murder.  Along the trail of clues he discovers every neo-noir cliche in the cannon – dark rooms, trench coats, hushed stoolies, labyrinthine rooms with files, secret CCTV videotapes.  If only DA Kevin Costner had this much fortune in his quixotic manhunt. ,



Olympus Has Fallen

Unofficial sequel to Air Force One, this movie is brought to you by the US Marine Corps.  Antoine Fuqua’s loud, dark and self-serious imagining of a North Korean invasion in the seat of American power mixes Red Dawn with Under Siege – without Steven Seagal.   The kickass who-rah of this film must’ve been hatched at a neocon think tank.  It is hawkish yin to White House Down’s dovish yang.  Yet for all it’s jingoistic script, President Aaron Eckart spends whole second act with his arms tied to a railing thingamajig.  The North Koreans want the codes to the nuclear football, but President Eckart’s ironclad patriotism won’t allow it to be tortured out of him. Why? He’s imbued with the magical powers of the president. The Few. The Proud. Gerard Butler.


White House Down

You gotta love a movie that knows it’s ridiculous and doesn’t apologize for it.  President Jamie Foxx mimics Obama and becomes the liberal dreamboat Obama never actually was as he challenges Pentagon nuke lovers and their deep state stooges.  Wannabe secret agent and single hot dad Channing Tatum plays John McClane here and actually does rock a soiled wife beater in conscious Die Hard homage.  But President Jamie Foxx is no  milquetoast damsel.  He’s crouching nerd, hidden badass.  The threats to the presidency are no longer lone wolf sniper weirdos or disgruntled foreign powers, but the deep state itself.  It’s less assassination, more the internal coup d’état that Keven Costner was warning us about.


Wolfgang Petersen’s Germanic countryman Roland Emmerich also has a penchant for disaster movies. And like Petersen, he twice visited the subject of the American President.  He twice blew up the White House, the first time in Independence Day.  There we had a famously muscular commander in chief, President Bill Pullman. Spurred no only by a degree in oration with a full-throated taste for global American hegemony but could fly his own fighter plane against the aliens. “The Fourth of July is no longer just an American holiday.…. It’s our Independence Day!” Proof enough that as German hard rockers Rammstein confirmed, “we all live in Amerika … ist wunderbar!”

The save the president narrative trope has appeared elsewhere – 24, X-Files, the West Wing.  But guess what – I ain’t goin’ there cause life’s too short.  Leave in the comments below if you have favorites ones I didn’t cover. 


The Death of a Narrative

After all of our narrative therapies to repair the presidency, nothing can compare to real life attempts at restoring honor to the White House. It appears that along with the collapse of the cold war consensus and the proliferation of the twin weapons of mass distortion – television and the atom bomb – there can be no such thing as putting Humpty Dumpty together again. Suspicions internationally of American hegemony and corruption are too grave. Point to the current White House and you will see a similar reality-shattering existential crisis-in-the-making historical event that can even eclipse the shocks of the sixties and seventies. Call it Trump Derangement Syndrome, call it Kremlingate delusion, call it whatever you will, the hope for a singular unifying narrative of restoration is permanently dead.  President Harrison Ford is officially retired and I think too this unofficial save the prez subgenre is as well.


It’s a bit fitting that the end of In the Line of Fire takes place in a California hotel. A setting familiar to another Kennedy being shot dead. But this particular hotel is the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles. Although it’s a set in a number of films, it’s notable among students of postmodernism as an artifact of study in Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  The architecture of the behemoth hotel is built in this highly reflective glass that at once has high visibility, yet plenty of blind corners. Part hotel, part restaurant, part shopping mall, it’s a labyrinth of consumerism, distractibility, stimulation and excess. Its watershed architecture has become something of a touchstone of the fragmented narratives of postmodernism, an era that could not without good reason, on 11/23/63 with that crazy spinning bullet. It was the first national tragedy to have universally seen television coverage. And indeed it is television that is the true arbiter of reality in this world.

I think Baudrillard once wrote “Kennedy was the last president worth killing.” I’ve thought about this phrase off and on for years. Kennedy, the last truly great orator. The last president from a text based society, yet also the first televised president.  The last president perhaps with real power, representative of a liberal democratic state.  By the 1980s, the nation would emerge from a different rabbit hole.  It would elect not statesmen but actors and salesmen.  Real power is in the financial sector, the presidency has become a simple bureaucrat, a pitch man selling the American Dream.  Politics, in the real of the unreal, became synonymous with television, a conspiracy of appearances, post-truths.  The only way to dominate the news cycle is to go ape and shoot up someplace. Ideas don’t get copy. Bullets do.  Likewise, to kill a president now would only spike the ratings.  Their bureaucratic functions would just slough off to another consensus-toting asshole with a pen.


Can another save the president movie  happen?  Is there any faith that this is a viable narrative with viable stakes to root for? Can there be a White House Down 2?  Not in this life.  Well, scratch that actually, there is a caveat.  Gerard Butler is slated for Angel Has Fallen, the third of the Fallen Movies, due this August.  I suspect it’ll be a dud, a day late and a dollar short.  If history is any guide, I might guess that film will return to where it was post-Nixon.  A world of shattered dreams, a world of blur analyses, mysterious hacks and bots, conspiracies and plots and riddles inside enigmas.  Only it’s not on film, at least not yet.  The age of liberal rage and paranoia is improved nightly on Rachel Maddow. Their network’s single mantra – “orange man bad.”  No telling yet if assassination will come back in style.  Though usually it’s the wrong people who get shot.