Playing now: 'Attack of the Killer Liberals' Commentary 'The American President' and 'Nick of Time' seem to be about politics more than entertainment.

November 26, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

They're baaaa-aaaaaack.

Call it "Attack of the Killer Liberals." Call it "The Amazing, Colossal 50-Foot Sensitive Man." Call it "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to the Left." But two new movies are as much formed by their aggressive political values as they are by their entertainment values.

In fact, so liberal are "The American President" and "Nick of Time" that it's difficult not to see them as backlash films, the first out of the box in reaction to the Republican victories of 1994 and that ultra-conservative group of freshman members of Congress who may even out-right the storied Newt.

Of course, American films have been casually liberal over the years, so much so that when the occasional conservative movie -- like "Dirty Harry," "Red Dawn" or "Just Cause" -- showed up, it felt almost like a novelty item. The typical liberal film was so generic, however, it was calculated not to offend anyone or even to be noticed by any save the most acute political antennae.

But "The American President" and "Nick of Time" leave the generic kind of liberalism so far behind they could have been directed by George Stephanopoulos, financed by a grant from Bill Clinton's National Endowment for the Arts. They are attack dogs from the Democratic National Committee.

Of the two, "The American President" is at least the most cheerful and most up-front about its inclinations. It's a Reagan "It's Morning in America" advertisement from the left, a movie so proud of its politics that it chooses them over common sense every time. Even if you disagree, you have to respect the baldness of the project. Here it is, the movie says proudly, take it or leave it.

It offers up a dreamboat liberal president, with Truman's guts, Kennedy's hair and Clinton's smoothness at the podium, while subtracting such unappealing ingredients from the recipe as Truman's connection to a corrupt state party machine, Kennedy's womanizing and Clinton's dithering. Instead, Michael

Douglas' Andrew Shepherd is an ex-history professor from the University of Wisconsin so morally perfect he's as believable as Tarzan or James Bond. Witty, handsome, untainted by scandal, he's a paragon of virtue. And that's on his bad days.

But the movie is so busy pushing hot-button liberal issues -- gun control, global warming, the moral purity of the ACLU, the evil of Republicans -- it frequently loses its way as a story, stopping to validate its political correctness. And frequently it gets absurd.

Perhaps the highest moment of liberal kitsch involves a grotesque scene in which the president delivers a sloppy blast ++ of tearful self-loathing and self-pity over the monstrous weight he's had to bear in launching a punitive air strike against the Libyans, who've upset the apple cart by taking out an American-supplied Israeli counter-missile system. He hates it when they do that! It's so messy.

So, alone in his bedroom with his new girlfriend, President Shepherd mourns the fate of the true victims in this matter: that is, the Libyan janitors who'll be pushing their brooms through the empty corridors when the F-16s arrive with their packages. The movie clearly admires him for this: He's a tough guy, but a tough guy with a conscience. Excuse me, but this is utter garbage.

In the first place, at no time does he waste a moment, much less a tear or a gulp, on the fate of the American pilots whose nasty job it is to deliver those packages through flocks of SAMs and webs of flak. In fact, he's extremely snippy to an American general at a National Security Council meeting, barking at the man (who has a chestful of medals signifying that he's been shot at many, many times in service to his country) as if the general were a latrine attendant. But then the filmmakers are experts on the military, not that they served in it or anything -- Aaron Sorkin wrote and Rob Reiner directed the anti-Marine screed "A Few Good Men."

But maybe the president has a right to feel guilty. The reason the janitors are doomed is because the president makes a big show of ordering the hit on the building when it's least occupied, as a way of holding down casualties. His primary concern appears to be more with Libyan casualties than with Libyan punishment, so he hits the building when it's emptiest. What does that prove? Only that he can kill janitors at great risk and expense.

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