The human capacity for loyalty is one of our most moving and ennobling attributes — an awesomely generous instinct with the power to disarm even the stoniest-hearted cynic. That may be one reason why relatively few gigs in life inspire the kind of uncomplicated admiration we terribly modern Americans accord Secret Service agents: How many of us moderns, after all, are prepared to take a bullet for an elected stranger upon whose safety an entire country’s welfare rests? In In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood explored the thrilling emotional extremes that go along with the territory where patriotism and danger mix: the bravery, the sexiness, the need to prove oneself worthy of the responsibility, the & tormenting guilt at a lost opportunity to make the ultimate sacrifice.
In Guarding Tess (TriStar, PG-13), a small-scale drama about a cantankerous former First Lady and the agent assigned to her care, the ultimate sacrifice agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) makes is to stick it out in the service of Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine) in the leafy little Ohio town where she is living out her widowhood. The public loves Tess; only her staff knows that she can be a demanding, capricious pill. No one, it seems, knows how confined she feels, how lonely she is, and how fragile. How Doug battles Tess, makes a truce with Tess, and comes finally to love and respect her pretty much wraps up the Driving Miss Daisy-like plot, with a relatively soft kidnapping thrown in.
There are no big thrills, only gentle laughs in this light story by Hugh Wilson and Peter Torokvei (Wilson also directed). Where Clint took on psychopath John Malkovich, Cage takes on schlemiel Austin Pendleton, who looks perpetually ready to reprise his role as Motel in Fiddler on the Roof. Indeed, Guarding Tess is a TV-screen-size movie. (No surprise: Wilson created the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati, Frank’s Place, and The Famous Teddy Z.) But the small dramatic canvas doesn’t seem particularly confining here. There’s something lulling about this story, something comfy about the easygoing interaction between MacLaine and Cage: MacLaine is so very post-Madame Sousatzka — crotchety and imperious on the outside, vulnerable on the inside. And Cage, selecting from his dramatic palate of soulful or volatile characters, plays Doug effectively and even touchingly, as a younger man who understands the old virtue of allegiance. In the end, Guarding Tess feels familiar because we automatically accept these palace guards who are willing to risk their lives as a natural part of American political life. Which is pretty dramatic right there, don’t you think? B+