The 1990s were a big decade for Hollywood studio-produced political comedies and satires, like Primary Colors, Wag the Dog, Bulworth, Dick, and Bob Roberts. But while none of those were huge hits, one of them, Dave, was.
Directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Gary Ross, Dave was a high-concept political satire married to a standard romantic comedy, one shot during the waning days of the George H.W. Bush presidency and arriving in theaters in the opening months of the Clinton Administration. The American President, two years later, would use the same familiar, also to big success.
The film’s high-concept is kind of delicious. Kevin Kline plays Dave, a regular guy who lives in Washington who happens to look almost exactly like Bill Mitchell, the current president of the United States, and takes occasional side work impersonating him. At one point, the government even hires Dave to appear at a public event for the real president, who’s off with his mistress.
But after the real president has a stroke and is incapacitated, his evil advisers (Frank Langella and Kevin Dunn), rather than invoke the 25th Amendment and allow the vice president (Ben Kingsley) to take over, decide to hire Dave to pretend to be Mitchell full-time and carry out the agenda they want.
The other twist? The First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) hates the real, womanizing Bill Mitchell, but once Dave starts imitating him, they fall for each other.
Dave soon takes to the job, hiring an accountant buddy of his (Charles Grodin) to balance the federal budget, and eventually embracing a jobs bill that will deliver full employment (his old job, you see, was running an employment agency).
Rewatching Dave as an adult who has followed politics for decades, I noticed a few things: What happens in this movie is a more dishonest and corrupt conspiracy than anything that’s ever happened in real-life politics, even the very worst of Nixon and Trump. It’s like the various QAnon-level conspiracy theories about presidents having body doubles, except it’s totally real. And not only that but the film’s ending hinges on the conspiracy never being discovered.
And also, it’s pretty clear that the real-life President Bill Mitchell was a scandal-ridden and heartless conservative Republican — who, let’s not forget, surrounded himself with Langella and Dunn’s Haldeman and Ehrlichman types —while the fake Mitchell is more of a bleeding-heart liberal. In case you doubted the film’s politics, Ross wrote the script while working on Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988.
Sure, the movie’s politics are very idealistic and West Wing-like, operating on the belief that a big speech by the president will persuade everyone about everything.
Also, the movie implies that the president can determine what’s in the federal budget all by himself, without Congress needing to be involved, while the important decisions in the budget are matters of millions of dollars, as opposed to billions or trillions. Or, for that matter, that funding for a single homeless shelter would be a sticking point in federal budget negotiations.
Dave, which is available on all VOD platforms, isn’t exactly my favorite of the ’90s political satires, but it’s certainly the most heartwarming.