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President Trump and the resurrection of classic films

With regard to the Trump presidency, have we seen this movie before? What classic movies might be influencing Trump? 

The Trump presidency invokes a strong response, like great films.

If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.

 — Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in “Duck Soup”

Robert Moilanen

Like the movie “Jaws,” President Trump bounces us from fear and anxiety to temporary relief and then back to fear and anxiety. Some view the Trump presidency as an exciting sequel to the “Fast and Furious” movies. Others suggest the president is engaged in a con, reprising George C. Scott’s portrayal of Mordecai Jones in “The Flim-Flam Man” or one of the illusionists in “Now You See Me.”

The Trump presidency invokes a strong response, like great films. After digesting the day’s news, many feel bewilderment, anger, sadness or, occasionally, hope. With regard to the Trump presidency, have we seen this movie before? What classic movies might be influencing Trump? Does, as Oscar Wilde stated, “life imitate art far more often that art imitates life”?

Classic movies and presidential temperament

Movies often highlight the president as a steady, enlightened statesman. “The American President,” “Seven Days in May,” “Lincoln” and “Fail Safe” depict presidents meeting the challenge of the job in a contemplative manner.

These portrayals are not reflective of Trump’s chosen approach.

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For example, in order to appear decisive and bold, Trump demolished the 158-page Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran Agreement”), yanked the country out of the Paris Climate Accord, torched the Trans-Pacific Partnership and easily placed tariffs on our allies. Boom!

It appears that Trump may be trying to revive Clint Eastwood’s cinematic role as the unconventional Harry Callahan in “Dirty Harry.” If not Callahan saying, “Make my day,” certainly Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, “Hasta la vista baby” in “The Terminator” may be influencing Trump’s decision-making process.

Still other movies reflecting a presidency committed largely to demolition include “Twister” (tornadoes), “Dante’s Peak” (volcanos) and “Deep Impact” (asteroids). However, another film that appears to have had a major influence on Trump when he was growing up came out of Japan in the early 1950s.

In the “Godzilla” movies, the creature walks through Tokyo and indiscriminately crushes buildings, transportation systems and powerlines for no easily understood reason outside of appearing to have anger management issues. Further, Godzilla’s main weapon, “atomic breath,” enjoys metaphoric similarity to Trump’s tweets by creating massive explosions. Boom! Boom!

It is reported that movie-goers who watched the 1954 premiere of “Godzilla” sat in stunned silence, mouths agape and clinging to chairs with knuckles white, which is precisely the reaction Trump often gets from his audience. 

Movie characters reflecting the president’s Cabinet

Trump surrounds himself with people who evoke memories of specific movie characters. National Security Adviser John Bolton appears to be rebooting George C. Scott’s character (General Buck Turgidson) in “Dr. Strangelove.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions acts like “The Wizard of Oz’s” cowardly lion before the wizard gives him his medal.

However, when Scott Pruitt (EPA) denies climate change, Betty Devos (Education) seeks educational reforms designed primarily to “advance God’s kingdom” or Ben Carson (HUD) suggests without basis that transgender people make others in homeless shelters feel “uncomfortable,” we have definitely seen this movie before.

“Inherit the Wind” is the classic film about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Spencer Tracy plays Clarence Darrow, who defends a teacher being criminally prosecuted for teaching evolution. Fredric March plays the role of Darrow’s faith-oriented protagonist, William Jennings Bryan.

The courtroom drama in “Inherit the Wind” is the push and pull between science and religion, fact and faith. Tracy blasts a law criminalizing the teaching of evolution:

That if you take … evolution and make it a crime to teach it in public schools … tomorrow you will make it a crime to read about it…. [B]ecause fanaticism and ignorance are forever busy and need feeding. And soon, your honor, with banners flying and drums beatings, we will be marching backwards, backwards.

Like Bryant — who, in “Inherit the Wind,” insisted that Jonah was really, truly, actually swallowed by a “giant fish” (aka a whale) and lived to tell about it — many in Trump’s Cabinet would like to march us backward into an insular world where only they define truth. 

The president, golf and cinema

Trump loves golf. No exploration of the interplay between the Trump presidency and film would be complete without looking at golf movies.

Great golf movies include “Tin Cup,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Happy Gilmore” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” These movies create heroes who play fair and overcome issues to master the competition. These golf movies are not mimicked by the president. However, whenever the president grabs his mashie niblick, we have seen this movie before.

The president appears to be recreating Al Czervik, the character played by Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack.” Czervik not only enjoys certain physical resemblances to the president, but also, like the president, Czervik hurls insults at people and routinely boasts of his material well-being (“My dinghy’s bigger than your boat”). Locking down the similarities, Dangerfield’s character is a developer with designs on buying the fictional Bushwood Golf Country Club. 

Reviving the ‘Godfather’ trilogy

Trump called “The Godfather” a “classic,” and his attorney, Michael Cohen, called Trump the “godfather of politics.” Similarities with the Godfather trilogy abound.

Trump’s world and the Godfather movies have roots in New York, involve children taking over their father’s business, feature strained marital relationships, involve dealmakers (“I gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse”), use consiglieres to “fix” problems and address disloyalty in dramatic ways. Of metaphoric significance, in “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone consolidates power by dealing harshly with the heads of the five crime families in New York. Trump also directs his wrath against five favorite targets: the press, congressional leadership, his presidential predecessors, the justice system and our country’s allies. 

Was Oscar Wilde on to something in noting that life often imitates art?

We have not even reached intermission

It is too early to call the Trump presidency a complete remake of, or sequel to, any movie. For example, if we view the Trump presidency as a remake of “The Godfather,” we still do not know what will happen to Fredo, whether Kay will leave Michael or whether consigliere Tom Hagen will get arrested for “fixing” family problems?

At the end of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” corrupt Sen. Joseph Paine races onto the Senate floor yelling: “Expel me, not him (Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart). I’m not fit for office. I am not fit for any place of honor and trust.” Will any member of the Trump team replay that mea culpa? Or, considering the ongoing Russia investigation, who might reprise Jack Nicholson’s role in “A Few Good Men” by exclaiming, “You can’t handle the truth!”?

Will the ship of state sink à la “Titanic” or simply remain capsized, as in “The Poseidon Adventure”? God forbid, as in “Duck Soup,” will Freedonia go to war?

One thing is certain: Any blockbuster released by the White House this summer will certainly make us wonder whether we have seen this movie before.

Robert Moilanen is a Minnetonka attorney.


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