The Distancer: Tuesday, August 18, 2020

DAY 159: Dave

Happy last day of summer*!
*if you were a camper at Camp Firewood from Wet Hot American Summer in 1981

Realizing it’s only Tuesday

A little life hack for anyone else who just can’t make the time to read every book they want (and, no, I did not start selling #ad space for Blinkist). I love listening to Terri Gross, the 🐐of interviewing, talk to authors on her NPR program Fresh Air because, often times, the episodes give you many of the biggest takeaways from a new book. And then, if you feel so inclined, you can always dig into the book after! Anyways, all this is to say that I was enthralled by listening to Isabel Wilkerson talk about her new book Caste today and am planning to read the full thing. It’s a different glance at America — she describes “caste” as the bones of our society, “race” as the skin and “class” as the outer garments.

Also, though there was some movement today to stop the situation with USPS from getting worse, all our problems there have not been magically solved. Here’s 6 ways to help the USPS, via Yahoo News. Also, if having to get vocal about the mail has left you exhausted — the Postmaster General should not be a household name, hot take — the great Charlie Warzel exhorts you not to let it.

Lastly, though eagle-eyed readers may recognize that I *just* featured Sundance as a charity … here we go again. (Let that cue “Mamma Mia!” in your head if you must.) The organization is now itself trying to raise $500,000 to help promote supporting artists from a wide range of backgrounds. I cannot stress enough how important this lifeline is right now if you care about seeing stories from a diverse set of filmmakers. We run the risk of losing a generation of talent if they give up the craft during the pandemic!

Support Sundance supporting filmmakers

Now, what you came for…

DAY 159: Dave (available on Hulu)

The dominant mode of storytelling about politics since Watergate has been through the prism of thrillers, procedurals and satires. We think of government as something to laugh at, learn from or be scared of. But you almost never see the kind of Frank Capra, Depression-era earnest and sincerity in movies about the political process anymore. It seems like we’re far too cynical or jaded to accept untempered inspiration from a movie about American government.

What Ivan Reitman’s Dave supposes, however, is what if we aren’t? By all accounts and measures, this movie should not work. (Or, at the very least, it should have aged poorly since opening in 1993.) But … it does, and you don’t really even have to caveat it by accounting for a smug ‘90s “end of history” presumptive mindset! The film has such a chipper, sunny optimism that it’s hard not to leave the film feeling like empathy and idealistic thinking still have a place in politics.

Dave makes for perhaps the ultimate fish-out-of-water comedy as the premise places an average joe in the most powerful office in the land. Kevin Kline’s Dave Kovic, owner and operator of a temp agency in D.C., gets quite the placement for himself based on his striking resemblance to President Bill Mitchell (also played by Kline, and no relation to the troll of the same name who recently got booted off Twitter). Dave gets hired to briefly impersonate POTUS while he has a rendezvous with his mistress — mind you, this film is pre-Monica Lewinsky.

But when President Mitchell has a stroke, two scheming political advisers (Frank Langella and Kevin Dunn) see the opportunity for an unconstitutional power grab. Rather than invoke the 25th Amendment and let the Vice President assume the office, they hatch a plan to have Dave impersonate the president … and they can manipulate him behind the scenes to improve their own positions. But these shady puppet-masters get more than they bargained for as Dave takes a real shine to the public-facing elements of the presidency. As the popularity of “President Mitchell” begins to skyrocket, Dave begins to go rogue, even delivering a rousing unplanned address on his goal to ensure full employment.

There’s certainly a push-pull, love-hate relationship with the outsider in politics (and currently undergoing a new cycle of reevaluation). We romanticize this figure because we see government inefficiency and assign blame to the political class. Dave sees the value of the outsider not as torching institutions or schooling politicians. Where a person like Dave is most valuable is in civic life is not to demolish systems — it’s to restore a sense of humility and empathy that so often gets crushed in the gears of government.

NB: There is an FX series by this same name on Hulu. I cannot tell you whether or not you should watch that show, as I have not seen it. But I can certainly say that they are very different in the content they cover, so make sure you choose the correct Dave!

Be good to yourselves and to each other,

See past recommendations