Critic's Notebook

Here's how Trump and Clinton are ripping up Hollywood's presidential script

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Like "Batman v. Superman," this presidential campaign has two key players that should make it a Hollywood dream come true.

The nonpolitician in the White House and the first female president are both staples of political film and television, enduring symbols of a deep-held desire to see a figure of democratic idealism and everyday common sense straighten out the byzantine shenanigans of our nation's capital.

On paper, the prospect of both making their way to November is fraught with dramatic possibilities: "Dave" by way of "Commander in Chief," "Mr. Smith" meets "Madam Secretary," and they are both on the hustings.

In reality, we have the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

With his plans for walls, international smack-downs, increased deportation and a vaguely defined return to America "winning," Trump is as far from the common-touch humanity imagined by films like "Dave," "Head of State" or "Man of the Year" as he could get without calling for an actual coup d'état. He is not a humble regular guy, nor does he claim to be.

Clinton, meanwhile, is not bogged down by the issues faced by fictional female leaders: that she isn't experienced enough or isn't tough enough to make the big calls, that she'll be distracted when her kid breaks an arm or gets into trouble at school. Neither is she victim to hostile sexual attacks by conservative opponents like those faced by the vice presidential nominee of "The Contender."

Instead it's Clinton's wide-ranging experience and her lack of maternal softness that draws the criticism. She is plagued by the appearance of being smart to the point of smug; far from threatening to turn the American government into some sort of cooperative collective, she is seen by some as too Business as Usual. Even the historic nature of her potential election is divisive, especially among young women who don't want to feel pressured by history.

To be fair, few of our more idealized versions of leadership are ever seen campaigning; Hollywood leaves the grim realities of getting and staying in office to the Francis Underwoods ("House of Cards") and Fitzgerald Grants ("Scandal") of the world. The citizen politician ideal usually comes courtesy of deus ex machina.

Chris Rock campaigns in "Head of State" but only after his party's presidential and vice presidential candidates die; in "Man of the Year," Robin Williams' satirical talk show host becomes a viable candidate via computer glitch. Since neither expects to win, each is free from the fetters of realpolitik.

Most of the female presidents were vice presidents who took office after a shocking death, and even "Mr. Smith" went to Washington as the result of a coin toss, not an election. And Kevin Kline's "Dave" was a part-time presidential impersonator who winds up a fill-in for the real thing.

Still, even taking the demands of narrative expediency into consideration, there's a remarkably wide gap between repeated fiction and current fact.

Trump's blunt speech and billionaire status has gained him many supporters who admire both his refusal to be "politically correct" and his insistence that, as a rich man, he is beholden to no one.

But his penchant for personal insult and repeated vows to create a federal government so big and intrusive it can literally wall off another country while deporting millions of U.S. residents is at complete odds, both politically and emotionally, with the tolerance and Good Samaritan populism we inevitably celebrate in our fictitious presidents.

Openly hostile to the press, political opponents, the disenfranchised and other nations, Trump speaks to those Americans angry at a government they feel ignores their needs and/or pussyfoots around certain issues. His idea of American greatness is unapologetically a model of international comparison — a desire to be the dominant nation — rather than the more essential, often spiritual grandeur sought by the more humanist, and often liberal, outlier presidents beloved by Hollywood.

Indeed, if Trump were a figure in a movie or television series, he'd be the antagonist, not the protagonist. More the bullying president in, say, "Love Actually" — who stands in frozen rage while Hugh Grant's nice-guy prime minister sticks up for a nation defined by Shakespeare and David Beckham's left foot — than "Dave" with his focus on homeless shelters and jobs programs.

Though she has certainly benefited from the growing number of fictional female leaders on television and in film, Clinton is just as many miles away from her cinematic counterparts as Trump.

Fictitious female leaders are often initially reluctant — Geena Davis' "Commander in Chief" was dragged out of academe to become vice president and almost agrees to resign when her president dies — and all are preoccupied by family. In "24," Cherry Jones' Allison Taylor was actually elected president, but the woman couldn't make a move without one family member or another dragging her down. At the end of one season she divorced, at the end of the next, she resigned.

With one grown daughter and an enduring marriage to a man who would like nothing more than to move back into the White House, Clinton has none of these concerns. Or, for that matter, any of those attractions. Try as she might to portray herself as a doting grandmother, she's no "who, me?" Everywoman. She's a lifer, a career politician and public servant.

Far from being reluctant about assuming power, Clinton has been immersed in presidential politics, one way or another, for most of her adult life. (In fact, the first episode of "Commander in Chief" includes a rather sniffy list of the many ways in which Clinton overreached as first lady.) She does not propose to act from her gut, she proposes to act from her brain and her years of experience. She is such an insider that Bernie Sanders, a man who has also been a politician for most of his life and in Congress for 25 years, is able to seem like the new guy with the fresh ideas.

Often huffy, sometimes preachy and as removed from domestic details as her male counterparts — when she ordered for herself at Chipotle, it went viral — Clinton does not fit the typical female leader template in part because she is not beset by career ambivalence. Though "Madam Secretary" has been accused of promoting a Clinton presidency, a truer reflection is the often obsessive determination of "Parks and Recreation's" Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), though it's hard to envision Hillary Clinton stress-eating her weight in waffles or lamenting the death of Li'l Sebastian. Even more accurate, perhaps, was Samantha Bee's recent reference to "Hermione" Clinton.

If this were a scripted drama (or if her campaign had any sense of whimsy), Clinton would have taken that comparison and run with it. Who doesn't love Hermione? When dark outside forces threatened to destroy Harry and the wizarding world, it was Hermione who did the reading, learned the spells, packed the necessary items and figured out what actually had to be done to save the world. Clinton should have shown up at her next event in full Gryffindor regalia.

Heaven knows Trump would have. The minute someone compares Donald Trump to any J.K. Rowling hero, he'll pull out a wand and say "accio presidency."

Then he'll explain why Hogwarts needs an additional moat and all the Muggles really do have to go.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 22, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Presidential script rewritten" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
61°