How far we've come from the days when the president appeared in movies as the great white father, usually a presence so powerful and religious in meaning that, like Christ's, not even his face could be shown. In "Yankee Doodle Dandy," James Cagney's George M. Cohan stood as at Lourdes before the unseen radiance of FDR.
Thus, while "Murder at 1600" is a little bit this side of OK as a movie, it is completely fascinating as a cultural artifact. That benevolent, theocratic force known as the commander-in-chief has been deconstructed by our impolite age to a whining, pitiful loser, frozen in the headlight-glare of onrushing catastrophe, indecisive, fretting and sniffling. But no, the ultimate insult has not been delivered: He's not played by Alan Alda.
One of the movie's few surprises is that Alda is not Mr. Sensitive -- the president is played instead by Ronny Cox, employing the worst tics of Carter and Clinton. Alda is cast against type as a steely-eyed, iron-willed adviser on national security, a Kissinger without the accent and with a better tailor. He's very good, it must be said.
Could the deconstruction of the Prez possibly reflect a consensus on the cynicism with which we now view our hallowed leaders? Should they now be called our hollowed leaders? This movie certainly thinks so, as it follows a tough D.C. homicide cop (Wesley Snipes) and a Secret Service agent (Diane Lane) as they attempt to uncover the smelly business attending the death of a beautiful assistant in 1600's protocol department whose corpse is found in the men's room. Naturally, this takes place against the background of a real-world international crisis.
Perhaps it's only by proximity to the brain-dead "Absolute Power" of a few weeks ago, but this movie feels at least competent, brisk, professional. The film's director, Dwight Little, keeps the story moving ahead quickly enough, and the details feel close to authentic. Poor "Absolute Power" kept faltering on the idiocies of an unrigorously envisioned milieu: a White House security apparatus, for example, that consisted of one sleepy soldier sitting at a desk.
By contrast, Little's production imagines a professionally guarded workplace, complete to elaborate control rooms and duty rosters, a whole hierarchy of security responsibilities and multiple video cameras. Thus, it seems possible the killer's presence has been recorded. But the inevitable cover-up begins when those tapes disappear, under the evident direction of the security chief, played by the dome-headed Daniel Benzali in high glower and adenoidal whisper.
The best thing about "Murder at 1600" is that it's completely and professionally a mystery. It plays by the classic rules, parceling out clues real and phony at a nice clip, and new suspects come and go as the movie progresses.
For a long time, it seems that the bad boy will be the president's crazily horny son (Tate Donovan), using his access to the national spotlight as a means by which to achieve a sex life every man dreams about but only Mick Jagger has had.
Then it appears for a while even the Prez may have done it. After all, he bats left-handed. (That's not the only left-wing thing he does, but the movie generally stays far away from political issues, merely implying his liberalism as opposed to Alda's conservatism, though of course you must ask: Why is the one working for the other?)
But can there be a deeper game afoot? Well, don't we take that for granted? And isn't that the fun? Indeed, that's the zone toward which "Murder at 1600" hurtles on a beeline. The movie, whatever its flaws, makes us want to believe in its reality.
Its flaws are easy to tick off, of course. Somehow, at one point, it reduces Washington to a tunnel complex with people crawling through a nest of sewers in and out of the White House; strictly standard-issue stuff, seen many times before. The de rigueur mystery gunmen keep showing up at odd moments, generating massive firefights in quiet suburbs that the cops never notice. Car chases? Ever tried to drive into D.C.? Tell me, do you think a car chase is actually possible?
But Snipes and Lane have a nice, low-key, completely non-sexual chemistry; Donovan sweats the despair of a ladies' boy overmatched by alpha-males; Cox plays the deer in the headlight with the dumb-mouthed glaze of a herbivore; and even Dennis Miller is pretty funny as Snipes' funky partner.
'Murder at 1600'
Starring Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane
Directed by Dwight Little
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated R (nudity, sexual innuendo, violence)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 4/18/97