Sunday, February 12, 2023

My Fellow Americans

I had a free preview weekend over Thanksgiving, back when I wasn't certain when I'd be moving into the new digs, so I recorded a whole bunch of movies more recent than most of what TCM shows. Not that they're terribly recent, as my next selection was released over a quarter of a century ago: My Fellow Americans.

The movie starts off with a brief establishing sequence that gives us half of the main conflict. A newscaster tells us of the tight election battle between Republican Senator Russell Kramer (Jack Lemmon) and Democratic Governor Matt Douglas (James Garner). Kramer wins. Fast forward four years, and the two men square off against each other, with Douglas winning. But Douglas only serves one term as well, being defeated by the Republicans' new ticket of William Haney (Dan Aykroyd) and Ted Matthews (John Heard). The two ex-presidents both go off to the lecture and public appearance circuit, which is really little more than an after-the-fact influence peddling scheme, much like today's presidential memoirs where no publisher is going to make back the advance. In and among all this, we also learn that unsurprisingly, the two ex-Presidents aren't exactly friends.

Anyhow, we're now three years into President Haney's administration, which means that it's about time for the next presidential campaign to get started. And there's a reasonable chance that the Haney administration could come crashing down. The head of the Democratic National Committee, Joe Hollis (Wilford Brimley), has heard about something called "Olympia", which appears to be some sort of defense procurement scandal. Hollis suggests that an ex-President like Douglas would be a perfect person to sniff around and do some investigation; in exchange, Hollis might be willing to help Douglas get renominated.

Meanwhile, the calculating President Haney has learned that Hollis has heard about Olympia. Haney knows it would be curtains for him, but what if he could figure out a way to fram ex-President Kramer for the scandal, even though Kramer knows nothing about it and was not involved at all. Kramer gets word of this, and starts poking around, just like Douglas.

Douglas is the first person to get to the defense contractor in question, but just as Douglas is about to get the scoop, the contractor is shot dead by a sniper, putting Douglas' life in danger. Not only that, but it puts Kramer's life in danger as well. The two have to team up together and go on the run to try to get to the bottom of the story.

My Fellow Americans is the sort of movie that has the potential to make some really trenchant commentary about the American political system, but never really does so. Instead, it trades in the sort of 1970s conspiracy theory tropes that aren't really realistic, as opposed to those things that are real, namely the permanent civil service acting in its own interest, actively trying to thwart anybody who could be perceived as an outsider and threat to the civil service's (and by extension the permanent state's) power. It's a theme that was brilliantly explored in the British sitcom Yes, Minister, while the six years since the election of Donald Trump showed that there's a similar permanent state with a lot of power. Nothing like shooting down Marine One is necessary.

My Fellow Americans also subordinates the plot to what is effectively a series of set pieces as the two ex-Presidents try to escape, in a sort of way lesser Alfred Hitchcock "wrong man on the road" movie. These set pieces do more or less work individually, helped by the fact that Lemmon and Garner feel like naturals in their roles, but together add up to a lot less than the sum of the parts. The movie is entertaining and amiable enough, but ultimately forgettable and leaving the feeling of something that the stars made to take on a fun job that comes with a nice paycheck, too.

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