Film List: Presidents in peril

Andrew Cripe

FILM CRITIC

For the first time in Donald Trump’s presidency, it seems likely that he will be impeached. Hopes are high that, following an impeachment, Trump will summarily be booted from office, but things have never been that simple. As red-handed as we’ve caught our president, he is a slippery beast just by virtue of being who he is: the most well-protected man in the world. Simply put: impeachment is a likely thing, but removal… not so much.

Still, all eyes are on the White House at this moment, so it is only a matter of time before major motion pictures about the Trump presidency go into production. This is an administration which, in just one term, has already accumulated an unprecedented amount of baggage, shadiness, and corruption, which makes for the kind of dramatic gold studios clammer for. Now is as good a time as any to look at movies which put a magnifying glass on the most powerful people in U.S. history; specifically, the eventfulness of their uprisings, the chaos of their terms, and the reverberations of their scandals. Here’s a quick list of worthwhile films about presidents in peril.


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“All the President’s Men” (1976, directed by Alan J. Pakula)

A searingly brilliant film, head to toe. Made just two years after Richard Nixon’s resignation, everything about “All the President’s Men” still feels urgent. It spotlights the careful-yet-breakneck pace of investigative journalism, following the two reporters (played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) who broke the Watergate scandal wide-open, effectively killing Nixon’s presidency. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s journey into the paranoid underbelly of the U.S. government is a tremendously important film about America, professional courage, and ultimately, justice.

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“Dr. Strangelove” (1964, directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Yes, this film is complete fiction, but wow, you really have to see it. And if you’ve seen it, now is as good a time as any to watch it again. To say that Stanley Kubrick’s edge-of-apocalypse comedy is relevant would be a massive understatement. Made during the boiling point of Cold War tensions, it’s impossible to watch this movie and not think of Trump’s love affair with the proverbial red-button. It’s about egotistical world leaders pointing nuclear weapons at each other, putting humanity’s existence at stake because of perceived slights, military shenanigans, and just plain stupidity. Made by one of cinema’s surpreme geniuses and featuring three different Peter Sellers performances (one as a fictional president, another as a not-so-reformed nazi), Dr. Strangelove is as hilarious and anxiety-inducing as it was 55 years ago.


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“Secret Honor” (1984, directed by Robert Altman)

A one-man show, zeroed in on the final hours of the Nixon presidency. Starring Philip Baker Hall as Tricky Dick, Altman’s chamberpiece shines a light on just how miserable and paranoid a creature the 37th president was. He spends the entire runtime delirious with self-pity, sweating and slobbering and weeping to excess. While “Secret Honor” is adapted from a stage play, anybody who’s listened to a handful of Nixon’s secret audio tapes will appreciate how perfectly “Secret Honor” captures the insanity of Milhous’ political demise. 


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“The War Room” (1993, directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker)

The late, great D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign intimately examines the man’s elevation to the country’s highest office. This is a riveting, essential look at how a ferociously determined group of people (led by George Stephanopoulos and James Carville) built the 42nd President of the U.S., brick by brick. It features everything from the daily minutiae of campaign work to the harrowing silencing of a woman who, possibly, could have brought Bill Clinton’s history of sexual misconduct to light years before he was impeached for it.

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“Lincoln” (2012, directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s approach to the most famous president of all time has been criticized for being too swoony, but I personally adored Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of the legendary political warrior. 2012’s “Lincoln” isn’t a sweeping historical epic, but a series of courtroom brawls and private struggles. The viewer feels the pressures mount up against Lincoln as he begs, deceives, and maneuvers to abolish slavery and end the war between the states. It has more in common with verbal-combat arenas like “The Social Network” (2010) and “12 Angry Men” (1957) than Spielberg’s longer, decades-spanning efforts. Many films depict the flaws of a president, but a rare few show the monumental willpower it takes to be a moral leader under any circumstance. If you simply can’t get enough of Abe, seek out 2014’s “The Better Angels”, a poetic black-and-white film that explores his childhood.



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“Jackie” (2016, directed by Pablo Larraín)

The only film on this list about the wife of a president, Pablo Larraín’s dreamlike masterpiece shows Jacqueline Kennedy (played by the always phenomenal Natalie Portman) dealing with the loss of her husband in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. The movie focuses on Jacqueline’s fraying composure as everybody tries to push her out of the White House, barely giving her time to grieve. It doesn’t shy away from JFK’s cruelty and negligence as a husband, yet it doesn’t use any of these widely-known facts to portray Jacqueline in a conventional way. She isn’t a wronged woman, but a brave, intelligent and deeply sensitive one, a figure who has always lived in the hazy background of her famous husband’s legacy. “Jackie” is one of the most unique and absorbing tributes put to film. 


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“W.” (2008, directed by Oliver Stone)

Oliver Stone is kind of a nutcase, but he can make a damn fine film. Released while George “Dubya” Bush was still in office, this is a raucous, darkly funny portrait of a hard-drinking hellion’s ascendance to the presidency. You may expect an Oliver Stone film about this undeniably problematic man to be charged with hatred, but it’s actually fair and dramatically rich. Stone’s George Jr. isn’t an evil-spirited demon, but a bumbling manchild who wanted to use the presidency as a ladder to escape his father’s shadow. “W.” is an oftentimes chilling montage of all of the worst hits of the Bush administration, blows which can still be felt today. While glaringly imperfect at points, “W.” is still a better film than last year’s insanely misguided “Vice”. 

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“Frost/Nixon” (2008, directed by Ron Howard)

In terms of quality, this might be the worst film on this list, but it’s still a worthy watch for the performances alone. What Ron “Opie” Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan couldn’t pull off in terms of accuracy (watching this film and watching the actual David Frost interviews are night-and-day experiences, the real thing being much more compelling than the cinematic) is made up for with the brilliant performances by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. As Nixon, Langella brings a level of sympathy to Nixon that, while not called for, is palpable because of the genius of the performance. When you watch Langella at the height of his powers, he is transformative. The film is less so, making the misguided decision to treat the interviews like breakthrough therapy sessions, forcing a transcendence that wasn’t at all what made the real thing so compelling. If you go back and watch those interviews, you get an unfiltered look at a crumbling man essentially begging the people he betrayed to treat him with a respect he forfeited. “Frost/Nixon” is, at its best, terrifically entertaining, serving as a viewer’s diving-board into research about what happened to Richard M. Nixon after his catastrophic presidency.

In "Ad Astra", there's no Space Force to be found, only crippling loneliness

Andrew Cripe

FILM CRITIC

Made for over 87 million dollars, James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is undoubtedly 2019’s biggest-budget art house film. If you watch the trailer, you might be tricked into thinking that this is just another sexy-actor-in-space blockbuster, in company with films like “Gravity” (2013), “Interstellar” (2014), “The Martian” (2015), and last year’s “First Man”. But what separates this science fiction epic from the rest is its breathtakingly poetic mood and melancholy vision. 

We are introduced to the seemingly unflappable Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut/engineer living in a familiar yet strikingly advanced world. After surviving an extraordinary work accident (one so sudden and massive that this scene alone warrants the purchase of an IMAX ticket) with fearless professionalism, McBride is assigned a clandestine, “Apocalypse Now”-esque mission to travel to the edge of the universe to confront his father, Cliff (a ferocious, brilliantly unstable Tommy Lee Jones). 

Cliff is the mastermind behind a mission that was trying to figure out if there are other lifeforms in the starry heavens. He became so obsessed he went AWOL and abandoned his family. Cliff’s former colleagues believe that his quest evolved into something much more sinister; something that could threaten the stability of all mankind unless Roy reaches across billions of miles and puts a stop to it.

Basically nothing is explained to the viewer about this troubling, slightly off-kilter future via dialogue. The minimum of what we’re outright told is that humanity, to varying degrees of success, finally colonized the moon. What we’ve chosen to do with this ranges from vague to frightening; the chilling cinematography by Hoyt Van Hotema is a masterclass in show-don’t-tell storytelling. 

Despite having narration from Roy, “Ad Astra” has little room (or interest) in exposition. Roy’s narration has more in common with the inner-monologues of Terrence Malick’s films; the characters speak to themselves, not to the viewer. While this will understandably make some viewers groan with impatience, if you are familiar with director James Gray’s patient brand of storytelling (evinced in movies like “Two Lovers” and “We Own the Night”), you will not be thrown by the pace, but immersed in its flow. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of “Ad Astra” is the way other characters treat Roy. Roy is an outsider-type by nature, but when people speak to him, they speak through him with absent, uncaring stares, treating him as a receptacle for commands. Gradually, this pushes Roy into zones of loneliness he isn’t equipped for. This, along with the unsettling artistry of the movie’s construction, impresses on the viewer that Roy is defined by his father’s legacy. Everything that is happening to him is happening inside of the shadow Cliff has cast. One of the complex questions the viewer will ask about Roy is if he is lonely by choice, or because his environment has whittled him into believing he is nothing more than a tool. Brad Pitt brings this distant character to extraordinary, piercingly vulnerable life. This is one of Pitt’s greatest performances, fitting neatly beside his stunning, equally un-pin-downable role from this summer’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.

Not typically a big-budget filmmaker, Gray uses every penny of the budget to create one of 2019’s most indelible cinematic moods. There is a totally original sense of a man’s inner power completely unravelling in the face of a conflict that is both personal and otherworldly. You can expect to read articles analyzing the film’s theme of fatherhood, but the most prominent focus of the movie is on the sensation of loneliness; specifically, what it feels like to be lost. This is probably the most money that has ever been spent on a movie about the perils of solitude. Roy has battered himself into a numbing, obsolete life, dropping his wife (a ghostly Liv Tyler) without batting an eye, yet the mastery of Pitt’s performance is in how he expresses a layer of regret to Roy’s every decision. Throughout the movie, Roy has to prove himself in mental-evaluations that will certify him to continue his adventure, but the deeper he goes into the void of infinite space, the more scared he becomes. His composure is his strongest weapon—the thing that rescued him in the film’s opening catastrophe—but as the film proceeds, he regresses into someone who isn’t an unbreakable cog of his profession, but a boy anxiously searching for his father in the middle of infinite nothing.

You may think that if you’ve seen CG-space once, you’ve seen how it will always look: giant swaths of black, sprinkled with stars and the occasional glowing planet. While these details are abound in “Ad Astra”, their effect isn’t repetitive. Gray actually plays by the rules of the territory and emphasizes, eerily, how silent the galaxy is. Max Richter’s score is dreamy and sad, and combined with the careful editing by John Axelrad and Lee Haugen (both of whom worked with Gray on 2017’s “The Lost City of Z”), the viewer truly feels like they’re spending an inordinate amount of time by themselves, even if they’re in a theater surrounded by many. The most audacious stretch of the film involves Pitt sitting alone in a ship that may not even be taking him where he needs to go; how time and solitude are treated during this sequence is shatteringly beautiful. Nothing in this film is predictable, and there is no guarantee that the outcome will be comforting. 

“Ad Astra”, on paper, doesn’t seem necessary, but when you actually watch it unfold, it becomes clear what a special cinematic moment it is. Not only is it preposterously well made, but it strives with all of its millions to evoke in viewers the kinds of emotions they feel reading poetry, listening to music, or staring up at the sky. Rarely does big-budget filmmaking dare to be so abstract, so different, and so painfully human. Anybody trying to see all of the best cinematic offerings of 2019 must take this trip.

This week in pop culture: OCT 8

Jenna Pederson

ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER

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The story behind the meme

The memes of Tekashi 6ix9ine are all over the internet as the rapper pleads guilty to violent drug trafficking due to gang involvement. Daniel Hernandez (his legal name) confessed to being a part of Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods back in January and—since being caught—has brought all of his ex-gang members down with him (if the ship is sinking, why now?). Hernandez has cooperated with the courts, pleading guilty to his crimes and possibly getting a lower sentence. An ulterior motive to cooperation perhaps? While this is totally possible, it’s just as possible that he feels guilty, as friends of Hernandez said he never would have joined the gang had he not befriended one of the gang members, who really knows. Hernandez has even claimed fellow rappers like Cardi B are involved in Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. The funniest part of this whole situation is the reactions on Twitter and all the memes that have come out of it. People have joked, claiming Jerry Trainor and other celebrities, are apart of Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. In response, Trainor joked back to fans, tweeting “I had my face tattoos removed years ago.” Maybe I’m the only one who found that completely hilarious simply because of how off the wall the characters were that he played on Nickelodeon. There are great memes all over the internet about Tekashi (Hernandez), ranging from him calling out Scar for killing Mufasa to revealing the krabby patty secret formula.  

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 Bye bye Hawkins

“We’re not in Hawkins anymore.” The lurking message left on the screen at the end of the “Stranger Things” season 4 teaser trailer. Before I continue and fangirl, here’s a massive SPOILER ALERT  to those of you who haven’t seen season 3 yet. Now that a spoiler alert has been made, let me just say the majority bet on this new location is Russia (and that “the American” locked up was totally Hopper). While nothing was revealed about season 4, sadly, there was a distinct bell heard. This could totally mean nothing, but with a show like “Stranger Things”, that’s unlikely. It might just be a hint on the new location (were there bell towers in Hawkins?). The Duffer brothers have also said that they plan to open up their special effect scale, just “a little bit”. A little bit? Have they been toned down? As if the Demogorgon, Upsidedown, Demodogs, and, not to mention, the MindFlair were just no big deal. Or am I just a total nerd for special effects? Details on season 4 have yet to be released, aside from them leaving Hawkins of course, but one can bet that if there’s any character whose name starts with the letter B, they’ll be dead by the end of it (Barb, Bob, and Billy). The final heartbreaking detail would be that there is currently no release date for us to mark on our calendars; let’s just hope that it’s not another year and a half.  

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Bieber marries again

Justin Bieber got married again! Kidding, but his wedding photos to Hailey Baldwin have been released, and can we just talk about how cute they look, even if some of us thought he was better off with Selena? Of the many guests to attend were Usher, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, and the Jenners. In a way, Bieber is getting married again, as he and Baldwin had a religious ceremony this month. Last year, the two just went to the courthouse to be legally married but later explained that they wanted to have a religious (Christian) wedding. Your wedding is supposed to be the best party of your life, right? There doesn’t appear to be much drama between Selena and Justin here (despite what some tabloids would love for readers to believe). Instead, Selena is holding her head high and spoke out about her music and the immigration crisis the day after his wedding. Everyone looks pretty happy, well, except maybe those of us who were Jelena (Justin and Selena) fans.  

Graphic by Arturo Magallanes

Graphic by Arturo Magallanes

Hello, Libras

Happy birthday, Libras!  As of September 23, Libra (and cuffing) season has officially kicked off, and one can only hope it brings some balance to our lives. Libras are an air sign ruled by Venus known as “the scale”, always seeking balance, peace, and harmony as they weigh out all of their options. These idealists love pleasing others (and just loving others), are great listeners and have a tendency to overthink. During Libra season, every sign can expect to seek some sort of balance until its end on October 23, which is honestly great after a hardworking Virgo season. Many of us, including more introverted signs, are more likely to want to spend time with our friends, officially balancing out Virgo season. The biggest warning to all my fellow signs is to keep a calendar as you make plans, as astrology charts warn all of us about the risk of over-committing this season. Here’s to hoping this season brings great things, cheers Libras. 

Pop culture this week

Alexa Ash

ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

Has James Charles been sister silenced?

If you are an avid Youtube-obsessor, or honestly if you’ve looked at Twitter at all the past week, you’ll know that sister influencer, James Charles, 19, has been dragged by fellow Youtuber Tati Westbrook, 37. This internet feud started after Charles accepted a paid sponsorship from a vitamin brand, Sugar Bear Hair, which is in direct competition to former friend and mentor, Tati’s vitamin brand, Halo Beauty. Amidst all the beauty community drama, Westbrook unloaded some information about Charles’ personal life, insinuating the he is using his power and celebrity status to sexually manipulate men. Whether or not the allegations are true, I don’t know, but I do know that with gossip this juicy, studying for finals is the last thing on my mind.

“Archie” glad she finally had her baby?

On May 6, weighing seven pounds and three ounces, a new royal baby was born. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex welcomed the birth of their son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. Although it seems that Meghan has been watching far too much “Riverdale” in regards to that name, we (meaning all of us Sussex stans) couldn’t be more thrilled for them. I know for everyone it felt as though Meghan Markle had been pregnant for eons, but that is in due to the fact that she was late. Because Archie is seventh in line for the throne, the new parents have decided to raise him as normal and plebe-like as possible. I’m not sure how normal your life can be living on the grounds of one of England’s largest castles, but A for effort, you two.  

The Saint, the Psalm, and Northern Chicago

We’ve got baby fever over here at The Leader (or maybe it’s just me) so let’s keep this baby announcement train a’movin’. On May 9, super couple Kim Kardashian-West and husband Kanye West, hilariously referred to as “Kimye”, welcomed their new son, Psalm. As this is her second child delivered via surrogacy, Kim took to Instagram on Mother’s Day saying that, “Beautiful Mother's Day; with the arrival of our fourth child; We are blessed beyond measure; We have everything we need." Other than the odd choice of name, I’m sure Psalm will be just as adorable as every other Kardashian baby, all 273 of them.