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The American President in Film and Television

Myth, Politics and Representation

Gregory Frame

As evidenced by the election of celebrity and reality television star Donald Trump, popular culture has played a vital role in the conceptualisation of political leadership. This revised edition of The American President in Film and Television explores the complex relationship between the construction of fictional presidents on screen and the political cultures from which they emerged. How have our popular cultural fantasies of presidential leadership contributed to the current political reality? Combining textual analysis with close attention to political and historical contexts, the book addresses the reasons behind the proliferation of images of the president in the past twenty-five years, from the archetype in American genre cinema (Air Force One, Independence Day and Deep Impact) to the idealised fantasy figure in network television (The West Wing, 24 and Commander in Chief). With the election of a president whose worldview appears to have been formed entirely by the aesthetics and rhetoric of popular culture, where does the presidency – either on screen or in the White House – go from here?

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Chapter 1: Introduction: The American President in History and Criticism



As the denouement of the 2008 American presidential election campaign approached in the midst of global economic meltdown, a poll of considerably less international significance took place. AOL’s online blog,, published the results of its survey of the world’s favourite movie presidents.1 President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), the Vietnam veteran tasked with thwarting a motley crew of bloodthirsty Kazakhstani nationalists in action-thriller Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen, 1997), won by a healthy margin, collecting twenty-four per cent of the votes. In second place, a fair distance behind on sixteen per cent, was President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), the aged president who offers spiritual guidance as the world faces impending apocalypse at the hands of an asteroid in Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998). The compilers of this poll attempted to impose logic upon these results: the interpretation offered for Marshall’s victory was that it indicated a manifest desire for a Nietzschean Übermensch to guide the nation at a time of geopolitical and economic turmoil. A reasonable analysis, but how might Beck’s strong showing be explained, given ← 1 | 2 → that he possesses none of these traits? In Beck’s case, the fictional leader’s blackness is understood as a straightforward precursor to Barack Obama’s candidacy, the popularity of Morgan Freeman as a star allegedly indicative of the widespread tolerant attitudes that have delivered the United States’ first black presidential nominee.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is scant mention of the generic, iconographic and narrative differences between the two films,...

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