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Dave;Gabriel Over the White House

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If desperate times call for desperate movies, we might be in better shape than we thought. Ivan Reitman’s Dave is the latest entry in that hopeful Hollywood subgenre, the political wish-fulfillment movie. You know the story: Corrupt D.C. pols get rejuvenated by the common sense of a common man, and we all go home ennobled. The most famous of these fantasies remains 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; others include star vehicles like Protocol (Goldie Hawn), The Distinguished Gentleman (Eddie Murphy), and the remake of Born Yesterday (Melanie Griffith). Those last three are no champs, but even if such films fail as entertainment, they can still touch a nerve of sweet idealism in a viewer. The secret is that they boil down the principles of Jeffersonian democracy-the notion that this government is truly made up of ”we, the people”-into reassuring pop populism. They smooth the fears that headlines stir up.

There’s one example that doesn’t take the easy way out, and it’s no coincidence that it was produced in response to a domestic crisis of unparalleled proportions: the Great Depression. Gabriel Over the White House makes a wonderfully bizarre double bill with Dave, in part because the films share key plot points-a President whose apparent 180-degree personality change sets the town on its ear and the country on its feet-but more because they diverge so radically when they come to concrete political suggestions.

And I do mean radically. Gabriel answers the social upheavals of the Depression with an agenda that fuses popular fascism with proto-New Deal leftism. (Even more astounding is that MGM, the most conservative of the studios, produced it. Was Louis B. Mayer out getting doughnuts, or what?) President Judson Hammond (played by Walter Huston, Anjelica’s granddad) is a party hack who, when the film opens, is handing out political pork to the fat cats who got him elected. He’s a 1930s man’s man: drives his own limo at 98 per, installs his mistress (Karen Morley) in a cushy secretarial job, and writes off the unemployed masses who are marching on Washington as anarchists.

Then Hammond lands in a coma from a car accident, and when he awakes he’s different. Actually, the archangel Gabriel has taken possession of his body. I am not making this up. And what Gabriel (seen only in the form of a few subtle lighting changes cast over Huston’s face) does as President is very specific. He fires his cabinet, creates an Army of Construction, dissolves Congress, declares martial law, sets up a benevolent dictatorship ”based on Jefferson’s concept of democracy” (this might come as a surprise to old Tom), bans foreclosures, repeals Prohibition, sets up government liquor stores, puts gangsters in front of firing squads, and-oh, yes-coerces the nations of the world into signing a peace agreement by threatening to bomb them back to the Middle Ages. As his aide (Franchot Tone) says, ”This President has enabled us to cut through the red tape of legal procedures and get back to first principles: an eye for an eye!”

Yow. The best that Kevin Kline can come up with in Dave is an employment bill that’s pretty sketchy on details. Okay, he also makes the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) feel loved and gives the country the sense that somebody who cares is in charge. And really, folks, do we want anything more political than that from Hollywood moviemakers? Dave is a classic prince-and-pauper tale in which a nice-guy double (Kline) has to step in after the bad-guy President suffers a stroke. It’s gussied up with a full quorum of Beltway cameos, a lusciously idealistic score by James Newton Howard, and incisive performances from Kline, Frank Langella (as a rampaging pit-bull chief of staff), and Ben Kingsley (in all his translucent spookiness as the Vice President). As a piece of humane cheerleading, the movie works like a charm. To its credit, it doesn’t try to do more.

Dave does catch a country’s mood, though, in much the way Gabriel Over the White House did in 1933. These movies don’t prefigure FDR and Bill Clinton (or Ross Perot, if you wish) so much as they put our dissatisfactions front and center and pretend to do something about them. The key word is pretend, and Dave is the more honest for owning up to that. I mean, imagine what history would look like if Washington had taken Judson Hammond at his word. Both movies: B+