A couple weeks ago I fell down a YouTube hole. You know, one of those moments where you go to YouTube to search for something specific you’re writing about but a “recommended” video gets your attention so you real quick watch that one and then you’re going to get back to your project, only to look up an hour later completely ignorant of what you initially intended to do.
In this particular instance, I wound up watching a bunch of clips from Dave, the Ivan Reitman comedy starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The movie is funny and charming, one of the best from all three of those talents, with a story that bears pondering today: That the President of the United States should be a good person, concerned with the welfare of all its citizens, particularly those most at risk.
One clip, in particular, got my attention. It’s a conversation between Dave and Duane, played by Ving Rhames, the Secret Service agent charged with protecting the president. Over the course of the movie, Duane goes from not quite trusting Dave to admitting, in the end, that he was the kind of president he’d gladly take a bullet for.
The clip got me thinking of at least two other movies from around the same time that prominently featured the United States Secret Service.
First there’s In the Line of Fire. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson (at the time a hot action helmer), Clint Eastwood stars as Frank Horrigan, a veteran Secret Service officer whose time at the agency may be coming to an end. A lunatic named Mitch (John Malkovich) forces him back to active duty when he not only threatens the current president but resurfaces memories of Frank’s greatest regret: Not being able to save John F. Kennedy in 1963 when he served on the president’s detail in Dallas.
Then there’s Guarding Tess, a much more lighthearted take on the job. Nicolas Cage plays Agent Doug Chesnic, who’s assigned to the detail responsible for protecting Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), the widow of a former president. When that assignment is about to end he’s surprised when she demands he stay on instead of going elsewhere because the two have never gotten along personally.
All three of these movies came out in either 1993 (Dave and Fire) or 1994 (Tess). Add in 1992’s The Bodyguard, where Kevin Costner plays a *former* Secret Service agent now working as a private security guard for the singer played by Whitney Houston, and you have quite the clustering of films all with something on their mind.
Why is that? Why was the job of protecting the president so very much on the minds of screenwriters in the early 1990s?
If you work backward from when these were all released between 1992 and 1994, you can figure they each started life somewhere around 1988 to 1990. That means they were written at the end of the second Reagan administration or during the Bush (41) term. So it’s informative to look at who the screenwriters were and how old they were at this time, using four years from the time the movie was written (this may be more or less accurate in each case but it will serve as a standard) to the time it was released.
- Dave – Gary Ross (33 in 1989)
- In the Line of Fire – Jeff Maguire (41 in 1989)
- Guarding Tess – Hugh Hamilton (47 in 1990)
- The Bodyguard – Lawrence Kasden (39 in 1988)
Sensing a trend? Ross being the younger outlier, they’re all Baby Boomers. They all came of age in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, which means their view of American politics was shaped by their World War II-era parents and their own exposure to Nixon, LBJ and others, right up through the attempt on Reagan’s life early on in his presidency. They grew up when the Secret Service really became a well-known part of the American cultural and political experience with its frequent images of serious men in dark suits sporting sunglasses and earpieces.
I don’t know what actually inspired all these guys to write, in some manner, about the Secret Service and how it works, but it certainly all came to a head in these two years in the early 90s. There was, no doubt, a bit of Hollywood’s “we have to do what the other guy is doing” tendency at work as well. That’s why we get strange moments where we have two epic-volcano, asteroid-threatening-earth or other similarly themed movies coming out within a year of each other.
What is all the more interesting, in retrospect, is how these movies came out at a time when the political system was just starting to tear itself apart in a way that we’re now feeling the full effect of. So while we’re rooting for or laughing along with the men entrusted with protecting the president on screen, Bill Clinton is being elected and Newt Gingrich is preparing his Republican Revolution, bolstered by the expansion of right-wing talk radio into the mainstream. That provided a home for conspiracy theories to be normalized and political opponents to be cast in the role of enemies of America. It’s no wonder that the political movies that came next were paranoid thrillers (Enemy of the State et al), dark satires (Wag The Dog) and more that were decidedly more cynical.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.