How ‘Dave’ Updates Capraesque Sentiment and Change for Our Modern, Cynical Eyes

     June 23, 2020

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I’d like to begin with an announcement that may come as a surprise to many of you. I’ve asked Bob Alexander to resign as White House Chief of Staff. Over the last few months, Bob and I have come to believe different things. He thinks this country’s fine and should go about doing business as usual. I just don’t feel that way. Not anymore. Because, hey, things aren’t fine. We’ve got so many problems that we don’t even wanna look at them anymore. They just blend together into this great big noise. Pretty soon we can’t even hear ourselves think. But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that we feel like we can’t do anything about it. And that’s a tragedy. Because we can. We don’t know where to start, maybe, maybe that’s what it is. But I have an idea of where we can start.

These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about performance versus action. We’re living through a time of great societal upheaval, a time when oft-applauded gestures of “activistic performance” are being seen the heck through. What good is a cop kneeling alongside protestors if they’re going to fire tear gas on them moments later? What good is a mayor painting “Black Lives Matter” on a sidewalk if that same mayor refuses to defund the system causing so much pain to Black lives? Why can’t our politicians just do the right thing already?

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Image via Warner Bros.

If you’ve not heard of the movie Dave before, I can imagine why the Ivan Reitman-directed, Gary Ross-written film’s logline might feel like another one of these pointless actions of performance. Released in 1993 (the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency), Dave stars Kevin Kline in a dual role. President Bill Mitchell is cold, prickly, uncaring, obnoxiously performative, and a dead ringer for President George H.W. Bush. Dave Kovic is warm, gregarious, compassionate, earnestly outgoing, and a dead ringer for President Bill Mitchell — so much so that he regularly impersonates the president at events as a side gig. So when the real President Mitchell falls into a coma after, well, cheating on his damn wife (Sigourney Weaver, iconic), his handlers (including a villainous Frank Langella) track down Dave and get him to pull the wool over the American people’s eyes. He will effectively “become” the president to successfully hide the truth — and wouldn’t you know it, he just might become a more effective leader at the same time.

Feels pretty milquetoast, right? Some white liberal fantasy bullshit? I get that, I don’t blame that, and the film is, indeed, a little bit guilty of that. Its opening moments, immaculate vistas of Washington DC monuments lensed in epic swooping shots by Adam Greenberg to a saccharine, major-seventh-filled score by James Newton Howard, scream “Our American systems are great!” at us with ’90s prestige sheen. Ving Rhames, giving a wonderful performance as a Secret Service agent, projects just a little too much reverence toward these oft-oppressive systems — and his final “character arc-ending” moment with Kline is a cringe-inducing moment of “white guilt forgiveness” that certainly doesn’t feel right in our modern day and age. The whole picture can’t help but feel a little naïve, an overly Frank Capra-esque celebration of “the little guy triumphing,” an inaccurate update on Capra’s own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that doubles down on, not corrects, that 1939 film’s hokey-upon-modern-eyes view of “progressive politics.”

The thing about Capra’s works, though, no matter how many embittered film fans may use “Capraesque” as a pejorative, is that they have a bittersweet undercurrent of realistic melancholy at their center, an acknowledgement of grim realities that allow their eventually optimistic triumphs to feel earned. It’s a Wonderful Life, likely his best-known film, is a beloved Christmas-time classic, a tale of learning one person’s value to their microcosm society. It’s also a film in which Jimmy Stewart screams borderline abusively at his family, is constantly faced with the purest, evilest form of capitalism, and contemplates suicide atop a bridge before literal angels have to show him his life is worth living. Capra has a lot going on underneath the candy-coated hood, is what I’m saying. Mr. SmithWonderful Life, and Capra’s other classics all “do the work” beyond the superficial takeaways of “niceness.” And so, too, does Dave.

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Image via Warner Bros.

In one key sequence, Dave (in disguise as the president) visits a center for children experiencing homelessness, a cause close to the First Lady Ellen Mitchell’s (Weaver) heart. Dave, unlike the person he’s impersonating, is a natural among the kids, which surprises Ellen. As he sits down to speak individually with one child, self-isolating from the rest of the kids, the press surrounds him, eager to snap pictures of a president performing an act of liberal goodness that could define his image of progressivism without any need of substance behind it. But Dave immediately stops them, telling the press this is a private moment for these two — a wonderful, subtle, canny look at the purity of Dave’s character, his genuine need to “do” acts of service without being “seen.” Dave winds up performing a magic trick for the child, cheering him up, and solidifying our hero’s heroism.

Until. Moments later, Ellen confronts Dave (whom she believes to be the President Mitchell she married and resents), asking where this newfound interest in helping homeless children came from. After all, President Mitchell vetoed a bill that would’ve kept funding this center. As it turns out, Dave’s magic trick wasn’t the actual act of service he thought it was. It was an act of useless liberal performance that he purposely tried to avoid by calling off the press. It was just, to use Ellen’s blunt words, “some magic.”

Dave has been squarely called out. What does he do? Does he insist that this magic trick was enough? Does he melt back into his surface-level performance of “the President” so he can keep inadvertently furthering Bob Alexander’s (Langella) corrupt needs? Does he take to social media to write a self-centering apology on how much he’s still learning and how grateful he is to make other people do emotional labor for him?

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Image via Warner Bros.

Well, no, because this is 1993. What Dave does instead is “the work.” He calls up his colleague at his pre-presidency temp agency (a simply marvelous Charles Grodin), he sits down with a copy of the goddamn federal budget, and he works it out until he can fund the homeless shelter again. In our current era of #DefundThePolice becoming more and more of a mainstream rallying cry, it is downright adrenaline-inducing to see Dave, in character as President Mitchell, tell his cabinet that he is going to defund the federal defense department in order to divest its resources back into the homeless shelter, into the community politicians are supposed to be working for. The cabinet’s awestruck reactions show just how rare this kind of “actual work” is from the president, and their eventual sliding toward Dave’s point of view shows just how refreshing “actual work” can be.

Dave‘s central premise predicates on performance. A man pretending to be someone else to fool a nation used to performance. But its central character sees through this bullshit quickly, realizing the potent power of common sense work. The final moments of the film answer the question of “an idea where we can start” to instill change. It starts with one person deciding to work toward the change directly in front of them. That one person can inspire another person, who can inspire more people, until there is no choice but to make the right changes. And if that piece of realistic inspiration makes me a sappy cornball Capraesque apologist, so be it. But I think we could all use a little Capraesque inspiration, a reminder that the inherent pain and difficulties of life should be springboards toward positive work, not a shackling of comfortable, performance-based complacency. As Dave himself says, “I liked saving that shelter. I liked helping people I hadn’t met before. Just then, I felt like I wasn’t pretending anymore.”

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Image via Warner Bros.

Dave is currently streaming on Hulu, and I highly recommend it. We’d also highly recommend these great movies streaming on Hulu. 

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