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Momentum: A Presidential Blockbuster


Presidents have frequently been the focus of films and, to a lesser extent, TV serials. In recent years, however, the race to become “the decider” has become the theme for big and small screen storytelling. On the tube, the plots have mainly been dramatic; Martin Sheen fighting for a second term on The West Wing and Dennis Haysbert narrowly avoiding assassination on 24 come to mind. This month HBO takes on the 2000 Bush-Gore Death Match in Recount.

Movie makers have tended toward comedy. Released in 1997, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog was prescient in its dark comedy premise that a president facing scandal might resort to staging a phony war to distract voters and jack up his poll numbers before the vote. The following year Primary Colors combined laughs and pathos as John Travolta played a fictional version of Bill Clinton during his first campaign. More recently, the plots have become a bit unlikely.

 

In Head of State, Chris Rock becomes an “everyman” candidate who is supposed to lose but defies expectations. He wins by telling the truth (with jokes), echoing the title of Al Frankin’s satirical book. Playing a talk show host, Robin Williams also uses comedy to win an election in Man of the Year, a less successful Levinson project. This time the joke is on the voters: Williams’ victory is the result of a computer glitch.

 

But these projects just scratch the surface. As any political junky knows, campaigns are high drama, filled with the possibility of betrayal, murder, even war. Gore Vidal launched the genre with The Best Man, a 1964 film (based on his play) in which a principled Henry Fonda must decide whether to go negative during a brokered convention in order to prevent an unscrupulous Cliff Robertson from winning the nomination. Most people got that they were playing fictional versions of Adlai Stevenson and Jack Kennedy.

 

Times – and movies – have changed. Since more people get their opinions today from TV shows and cinema than newspapers and talking heads, we deserve films that rip their stories from the headlines. During the 2000 presidential race, therefore, I previewed the first installment of a new political-action franchise. As I explained, the beauty part is that a presidential blockbuster is less costly and more entertaining than the real thing. The title, Momentum, telegraphs out-of-control energy – and also what makes the difference in most campaigns.

 

In the first Momentum, developed in summer 2000, an unscrupulous governor (Michael Douglas) uses a phony assassination attempt to secure the nomination. But he faces a former basketball player (Kevin Costner) and a wrestler-turned-talk-show-host (Arnold Schwartzenegger) running as an independent. The solution is to use Islamic fundamentalists (led by John Malkovich) to take out Arnold on TV in exchange for Afghanistan. When the plot fails, Arnold hunts down Michael (plenty of action in Act 3) and Kevin becomes president. The tag line for the ad campaign says it all: “Momentum. Some people will do anything for it."

 

In Momentum II, as you might guess, it’s eight years later, and a former candidate’s daughter is on the road to the White House years after her dad lost the presidency due to a sex scandal. Her chief opponents are a war hero and a charismatic newcomer with a youthful following. The popularity of the incumbent President is at an all-time low, so one of the three is likely to win the race.

 

As Christine Norris Nichols, a driven Congresswoman haunted by the need to settle old scores, you couldn’t do better than Michelle Pfeiffer, still one of the top 20 female box office draws and on the comeback trail at 50. After the scandal her mother and father broke up, and later her playboy husband died in a mysterious plane crash. Now her main relationship is with dad, Ted Nichols. A well-connected lawyer and popular public speaker, he often shows up on TV chat shows. In an early scene Gene Hackman, just right as the cynical fixer, gets well-deserved applause tearing into a Sean Hannity clone.

 

But the path to the nomination isn’t clear. The film opens with military action as retired General Frederick Oxhart (friends call him Fox) orchestrates the dramatic rescue of POWs held in Iran after an abortive attempt to bomb a suspected nuclear installation. That’s one way to get momentum. Laurence Fishburne, who first appeared on screen in Apocalypse Now and achieved icon status in the Matrix trilogy, delivers the goods as a career soldier with principles, personal demons and an iron will. The producers at FantasyWorks also considered Samuel Jackson.

 

The wild card in the race is Nathan B. Crane, who would be the youngest president in US history if he won. Crane recently rocked the media world with the launch of a full-screen 3D television network over the Internet. Inspiring and charismatic, he’s practically a rock star. Ben Affleck nails the role of an overconfident entrepreneur – a better looking Donald Trump – with money to burn. Insiders say he edged out Matt Damon and Brad Pitt for the part.

 

During a brutal primary season, with the prospect of a brokered convention looming ahead, rumors fly about Fishburne’s alleged connection with a private military company that has received diamond concessions in exchange for backing a fundamentalist rebellion in Africa. It’s not true, but Ben uses the controversy to press his “real change” agenda, arguing that both his opponents represent politics as usual. The momentum shifts. But Hackman is really behind the smear, determined to gain access to the White House for himself and secret Chinese backers.

 

Then, on the way to a campaign event, Michelle’s plane almost crashes. The mishap dominates cable news, drawing attention to her husband’s death and giving her a sympathy bump. When Internet rumors begin to circulate that her hubby was returning from a secret tryst when he died, the role of victim triumphing over adversity revives her flagging campaign. Shades of Hillary’s travails and the Kennedy curse. Now she has the “big Mo.

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