Dave is a fantasy. A fantasy about politics, about personal identity, about what one American can do for another or for millions of others. It’s also a strangely cynical movie about how much Americans have become entrenched in a political divide, something which has obviously gotten worse in the 24 years since this movie came out. And yet, it’s still also a heartwarming and at times quite cheery take on politics, with even a little bit of love tossed in.
Kevin Kline, five years past his Oscar-winning performance in A Fish Called Wanda, stars in a dual role as President Bill Mitchell and as Dave Kovic, an employment office manager with a sideline in presidential impersonation who is recruited to act as a body double for the President for one night. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be one night becomes much more as the President suffers a massive stroke while in flagrante delicto with his secretary* (a very early appearance for Laura Linney) and Dave gets put into the role of impersonating the President full-time by the corrupt Press Secretary Alan (a very solid Kevin Dunn) and Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella, king of the white-collar sleazeballs). Dave has to navigate pretending to be the president to the country, his subordinates, the press and even the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver).
Simple, right? All he has to do is impersonate the President for a while. Well, Bob and Alan have bigger plans that involve getting rid of the Vice President with a scandal, putting in Bob as VP and then just producing the real, incapacitated President and invoking the 25th Amendment. But Dave in his days of acting like the President has started to have some ideas of his own, ideas about what he can do to help the country. The balance between the cynicism of Bob and Alan and the optimism of Dave is a strength of the movie and the harbinger of an interesting trend in ‘90s movies.
The trend of American presidential stories in The American President (1995), Wag The Dog (1997), and Primary Colours (1998), culminating in The West Wing* in 1999, is a really interesting one to me. You have the outright cynical at all costs (Wag), the impossibly optimistic (American President and to an extent West Wing), and a middle road in Primary Colours. Of all those, Dave is closest to Primary; it’s optimistic as to what a candidate or President can do for their county, but it has no illusions about what a pit of vipers politics can be and how power really can corrupt absolutely. Dave is a good and decent man, but even he has to deal with the growing divide in the American psyche at the time and the tendency to talk past each other.
That is where I really appreciate the tone of Dave; Ivan Reitman’s directing and Gary Ross’ writing*** as they navigate both sides of this. Dave never comes across as a dimbulb for all his naïveté, just someone who is initially out of his depth. Politicians and staff are never wholly evil (well, except Frank Langella, but c’mon that’s what you hire Langella for). People are complicated beasts with varied impulses. This movie, which could have been a simplistic fairy tale (and can seem like one at first glance), has something to say about politics and public service and about how they can be a mixed blessing no matter what level you’re at.
Hey, this all sounds pretty weighty right? Right now you’re thinking, “Jesus, Joe, is this all about budgets and homeless shelters and sheesh, employment numbers?” Yes, yes it is. But what I need to get across here is how funny this movie is; there is a deft charm that comes across and keeps everything from getting too weighty or too maudlin. When you have as your leads actors with the comedic charm of Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver and give them fun and smart material to play off of, you’re probably going to get good work out of them. This isn’t intended to be a laugh riot like Reitman’s earlier Ghostbusters and Meatballs, but a movie with wit rather than yuks. (Do I still have a good laugh at the contemptuous way Weaver says, “Oh. Bob.” at one point? Absolutely.) Toss in a background cast of people like Bonnie Hunt and a very dry Ving Rhames (a year before Pulp Fiction) and you’re getting some good smart comedy.
Dave, which seems oddly unremembered these days, was well-reviewed at the time and a modest success at the box office. It would go on to be in the top five in the US box office for the next seven weeks before it ran into the behemoth that was Jurassic Park. (Oddly for how much better Wanda is remembered, it’s just ahead of it in Kevin Kline’s list at Box Office Mojo; then again, his #1 and #2 are the terrible Beauty and the Beast remake and the even worse Wild Wild West.) It would be really nice if this movie received a reassessment, if only so that I could buy a version that doesn’t have these terrible, terrible low-res menus. (And hey, a commentary would be nice.) It’s a very charming, smart, sweet and slightly sour movie and well worth your time.
*Your mind is going to go right to President Clinton here but Dave came out in May of 1993; Bill Mitchell, if it is based on anyone, is mostly George H.W. Bush. Kline is doing some very deliberate callouts to President Bush with his hand motions and through glasses that could have used an updated prescription.
**Interestingly, Anna Deavere Smith is in three of these: Dave, American President and West Wing.
***You can definitely make some throughlines from Dave to Pleasantville in Gary Ross’ career in terms of “what is America?” and his nonconformist ethos.