Friday, February 27, 2009

Presidents' Day: The Final Chapter

I didn't really discuss fictional presidents much in my previous Presidents' Day posts, other than to make brief mention of the 1964 movie The Best Man. I can go into more detail now, as The Best Man is airing overnight at 2:30 AM ET on TCM.

Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson play two presidential candidates. They're members of the same party, and the convention has arrived, but neither has locked up a majority of the delegates. This, of course, means that there is going to be horse trading with the candidates who came in third or worse, but collectively earned enough delegates to block the top two candidates from having that majority. As such, The Best Man is an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes.

The performances are all quite good, but unfortunately the story takes clear sides. Henry Fonda plays the candidate from the party's (it's never mentioned which party's convention this is) more liberal wing. However, he's got some skeletons in the closet, namely in the form of mental illness. Robertson, from the party's anti-Communist wing, is portrayed as having no scruples whatsoever, and has no problem about using Fonda's past against him. For this, the dying ex-President (Lee Tracy, formerly of Dinner at Eight), has no respect for Robertson. However, Tracy has no respect for Fonda either, as Fonda seems unwilling to stand up for what he believes in. Still, the screenplay, written by well-known author Gore Vidal (who was also well-known for his left-of-center political views) makes Fonda out to be almost pure, to the point that we're obviously supposed to root for him and not Robertson. This is the one flaw of the movie, and while it is substantial, the movie as a whole is still quite good, and keeps the convention's outcome in doubt until the end.

There are a lot of good supporting performances buttressing the fine work of Fonda and Robertson. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) plays Fonda's campaign manager. There's also Edie Adams as Robertson's wife; Mahalia Jackson opening the convention with a song, and correspondent Howard K. Smith playing himself. These last two lend an air of docudrama to the movie, which serves it quite well.

The Best Man is an interesting, if imperfect, look into political intrigue that is in some ways relevant still today. True, candidates' dirt comes out well before the convention, but the politics is still just as dirty. Barack Obama had no qualms whatsoever about using his surrogates to portray Hillary Clinton as racist every time her campaign criticized him, and then had no problems speaking out of the other side of his mouth, calling himself post-racial.

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