In a series of illustrated articles, the author gives personal easy-to-read reviews of some of the most watchable films in Hollywood history
'Dave' is the story of a Presidential lookalike who one day acts as a stand-in for the President of the United States when the nation's leader is otherwise engaged in extra-curricular activities - it is meant to be a brief, uncomplicated assignment, and a good pay-day, after which he will of course return to his normal day to day humdrum life. But the lookalike - the eponymous Dave - gets more than he bargains for when the President is taken seriously ill, and Dave is forced to continue to act as his stand-in not for a day, but for weeks and months.
On the face of it, this movie has an unlikely and flimsy plot. And yet it soon develops into an endearingly enjoyable fable about an ordinary guy in very extraordinary circumstances, and it is a favourite and much loved movie.
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What makes a great film? Everyone will have their own views, but perhaps the only defining quality is quality itself. This, however, is my list of 100 of the greatest films ever made. The list also includes links to all my film reviews.
WHAT'S THE STORY ?
Bill Mitchell is a ruthless and corrupt, adulterous and deceitful individual. He also happens to be President of the United States of America. The first time we see this man he is stepping off from the Presidential helicopter on to the White House lawn adoringly holding the hand of the First Lady and the leads of his two pet corgis. Both the President and the First Lady are all smiles as they are greeted by the White House staff and the press and photographers. So the happy couple enter through the famous doors of the mansion out of the public gaze and ... the smiles vanish, the hands disconnect and the dog leads are thrown to the floor. The show of togetherness is just for public consumption. All love has gone from this relationship and we later discover it is entirely due to Bill Mitchell's disreputable behaviour.
Dave Kovic is different in every single respect except one, to Bill Mitchell. Dave is affable, unpretentious, unambitious, and kind-hearted. He runs a recruitment agency for temps and secretaries, and he genuinely cares about finding jobs for his clients. This nice man also happens to be a dead ringer for the unpleasant President.
So when Bill Mitchell wants someone to stand in for him as a body double at a ceremonial engagement, two secret service agents call on Dave. Groomed and dressed to be the perfect double, Dave just has a walk-on, non-speaking part at a public function. It's a short engagement and it goes off without a hitch. Dave then gets into a black limousine with Agent Duane Stevenson and heads for home, a good evening's work successfully completed. But then Duane receives a telephone call.
The reason why Dave had been asked to stand in for the President is not a good one - Bill Mitchell had just wanted time alone to indulge in a bit of extra-marital fun with one of his secretaries. It was to prove his last indiscretion, because a massive stroke has rendered him incapacitated and without hope of recovery. The phone call in the limosine leads to a change of direction - Dave is now heading to the White House itself.
Enter Mitchell's even more unscrupulous Chief of Staff Bob Alexander and his side-kick Communications Director Alan Reed. Bob Alexander has his own ambitious agenda. He and Alan have been instrumental in numerous corrupt practices on behalf of the President, and now he sees the possibility that his future without Mitchell's patronage may be grim. On the other hand, Alexander sees a much more enticing alternative; if Alexander can contrive to keep the news of Mitchell's near-fatal stroke under wraps, and if he can get his only serious rival, Vice-President Nance, out of the way, then he believes he can get himself nominated as the next Vice-President of the United States. All Alexander needs is a unwitting stooge to stand in as President for long enough for him to dig some dirt and discredit Nance. Then he can get the stooge to nominate Alexander as his successor, and vacate the Presidency to allow Alexander to take over. A few weeks or months is all it should take, and the Chief of Staff has his stooge - Dave will be asked to play the part of the President, for rather longer than a one night stand.
Dave takes on the role, and at first believes he is doing the country a service - the death of a President in office may well create a vacuum and a crisis at home and abroad. He believes he is just being employed to tide the nation over for a few weeks to stop the markets panicking. He believes all he will have to do is make a few public appearances whilst Alexander and Alan Reed do all the responsible work. Gradually however, Dave begins to realise that Alexander's motives are not honourable, and indeed vicious and illegal, and he then uses his entirely make believe authority as 'President' to fight back against Alexander. He enlists the aid of an accountant friend from the 'real world', Murray Blum, to counter Alexander's immoral budgetary plans. And Alexander now realises he has created a 'monster in reverse' - someone he cannot control because in the minds of almost everyone else, Dave Kovic IS the President.
The stage is set for a battle between the Chief of Staff who has all the knowledge of how the system works and how to manipulate it, and the ordinary guy who knows nothing, but has all the power of being President. Into this mix comes First Lady Ellen Mitchell, who has grown to despise her husband Bill. Gradually - although she doesn't recognise Dave as being an interloper - she begins to see in him qualities which she admires, and affection for her 'husband' is rekindled. She and Dave become closer, and when she eventually discovers the truth, she works with Dave to try to find a way to bring down Bob Alexander and put an end to his devious ambitions. But how to do this without destroying faith in the system and revealing the scandalous truth of the Presidential imposter?
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Dave Kovic / Bill Mitchell
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Ivan Reitman
- Gary Ross
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1993
RUNNING TIME : 110 mins
GENRE : Romantic Comedy
GUIDENCE : No parental guidence required, except that one man suffers a stroke, and there is mild swearing
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Gary Ross (Best Writing)
BEST CHARACTERS / PERFORMANCES
Kevin Kline gives a really attractive performance as a slightly naíve and ordinary man who leads a simple life with no great aspirations, who somehow finds himself pitched into the most powerful job in the world. Then his character has to change his personality and transform himself into a principled and courageous defender of moral ideals. In the old days, Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant could have played this role. In 1993, I think Kline carries it off as well as anyone could.
Frank Langella is excellent as an almost pantomime villain - malevolent, arrogant, amoral. He plays the role a little over the top, including at one stage venting his anger with a rather comical speed-walk as he marches down the corridors of power. But that's good - most of the other characters are 'nice', so at least one has to be blacker than black to set against the rest. Otherwise, it would all be just so much saccharine. He is the counterpoint to Dave, and a key player in the film's success.
Sigourney Weaver is one of the most watchable actresses in Hollywood, and even gets to sing in this film (singing, it would seem, is not a career she should pursue, though to be fair, her performance is intentionally bad!) Anyway, she is ideal for this movie role as she is an actress who can carry off the regal demeanour of a First Lady and yet remain personable.
Charles Grodin plays a bit part, but it's a very good bit part, as Dave's accountant friend Murray Blum, who helps him streamline the budget to make money available for the poor and homeless.
Kevin Dunn, Ving Rhames and Ben Kingsley all have understated roles, but perform them well.
Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner were considered for the role of Dave, before Kevin Kline was chosen.
Numerous real life senators and media commentators have a lot of fun playing themselves in the movie, and sending themselves up. These include Thomas 'Tip' O'Neil, Jay Leno, Larry King, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and - most memorably - Oliver Stone - who sees a conspiracy in the making, as a result of a slight change in the President's appearance following the stroke.
In the scene in which Dave and Ellen are stopped by police for a traffic violation, the second policeman is played by the Oscar nominated writer of 'Dave', Gary Ross.
And in a similar vein, the director's wife and son play the wife and son of Vice President Nance near to the end of the film.
Apparently the true-life president, Bill Clinton, really liked this movie.
Whether there are any negatives in this movie depends on how seriously you want to probe it. Lets's face it - it's silly, unbelievable, contrived - there is just no way a double like this could fool all the people all of the time (except Oliver Stone and Ellen Mitchell). I'd suggest not even the most ardent conspiracy theorist could believe it to be possible. Quite apart from anything else, how does the Chief of staff Bob Alexander expect to get away with it? Especially once he decides to implicate Dave in the financial scandal originally intended to entangle the Vice President? All Dave would have to do at that point is tell the truth about Bill Mitchell's stroke and Alexander's leading role in the cover up, and the game would be up.
But it's best not to probe too deep, any more than you would want to probe the feasibility of 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' too deep. 'Dave' is not intended to be taken seriously. Even though the characters are all human, and there is no magic, this film is a fantasy.
This film isn't slapstick comedy; it's light-hearted drama, but there's a few funny lines, like the one which Dave utters while making up an excuse to the people at his place of work when he doesn't return home. he claims to have gone off on holiday with a new girlfriend:
'She's great. She's really exotic. She's a princess! She's Polynesian - well, half Polynesian, and half American - She's Amnesian'.
In contrast is the ruthlessness of Bob Alexander in this exchange with the Communications Director, Alan Reed, at a time when Dave has finally stood up to him:
Bob Alexander : 'I'm gonna kill him!'
Alan Reed: 'You can't kill a President!'
Bob Alexander: He's not a President. He's an ordinary person. I can kill an ordinary person. I can kill a hundred ordinary people!'
Perhaps the best moment of the movie is a sequence of scenes in which Dave ceases to be the mouthpiece of Bob Alexander, and begins to rebel. First of all he calls the indignant Chief of Staff to his room to explain exactly why he has introduced budgetary cuts which will remove funding from a charitable shelter. Then he speaks at a cabinet meeting against Alexander's wishes. Finally, he confronts Alexander and has the audacity to fire him. The worm has turned.
There is actually quite a touching sequence at the shelter for homeless children, mentioned above. It's the first time Ellen Mitchell and Dave have had an official engagement together (she doesn't know the truth at this stage). It's really the First Lady's do, because it's her charity, but whilst she's speaking to the media, 'President' Dave wanders off and finds a lonely little boy to talk to, and to offer company to. And Ellen sees for the first time that the President is not behaving like Bill Mitchell behaves.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
The acting in 'Dave' is more than just competent, and the script is quite witty, but if I’m honest, I cannot bring forth convincing creative and technical arguments as to why this film is special. But I guess for most of us there is an appeal in 'feel good' movies with nice characters. Kevin Kline plays a ‘nice’ character, Sigourney Weaver plays a ‘nice’ character, Charles Grodin plays a ‘nice’ character, so does Ben Kingsley who plays the upright and decent Vice-President Nance, and Ving Rhames who plays the loyal bodyguard secret agent Duane. Even Alan Reed - nominally one of the two ’villains’ - is really a ‘nice’ character, who is touched by Dave's goodness to the extent that he too eventually turns against Bob Alexander.
All this niceness means that if 'Dave' is a satire, then it's the most gentle of satires. Sure it has several digs at the unscrupulous corrupt world of politics at the very highest level, but ultimately most of the guys in The White House are good guys at heart. And goodness is sure to win through.
And that perhaps is the biggest appeal. Movie themes are full of people creating evil monsters which then get out of control and run amok. This movie is the reverse. An evil person creates a figure head President who then proceeds to dismantle all the plans of his evil creator. Dave is the ordinary man who believes in simple homespun values. Accountant Murray Blum is also an ordinary man who can see absurdities in fiscal policy as practised by Big Government. And between them they prove (in this fantasy world) that goodness will always triumph over evil - however powerful that evil may be. And we can all enjoy a movie which carries that message.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
'Dave' is a gentle political satire, a light comedy, a mild understated romance, a 'feel-good' movie, and a modest and unpretentious production. It has little to characterise it as 'outstanding' in any way. And yet, 'Dave' is a film described sometimes as Capra-esque. And that is a compliment to Director Ivan Reitman and Writer Gary Ross. Frank Capra was a Hollywood director renowned for great feel-good fables (such as 'It's a Wonderful Life'), and also movies in which the ordinary man struggles, and ultimately triumphs, against the high and mighty (such as 'Mr Smith goes to Washington'). Maybe 'Dave' does not have such an elevated status in the annals of movie making, but it still makes a really pleasant 110 minutes of light entertainment, with much to recommend it.
SOME OF MY OTHER COMEDY FILM REVIEWS.....
- Sleepless in Seattle
A lonely grieving man in Seattle, and a woman trapped in a relationship which lacks magic in Baltimore. A whole continent divides them. A likeable rom-com starring two of Hollywood's biggest stars of recent years - Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan
- The Apartment
'The Apartment' is a romantic film comedy, an indictment of philandering hypocrisy, and a story of upbeat good nature in the face of loneliness. One of the best received movies of 1960, this great film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director
Genevieve is a good old-fashioned comedy made in 1953, and centred around the famous London to Brighton car rally. This is the story of two eccentric veteran car owners who participate in the rally in an era when driving was so much less complicated
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PLEASE ADD COMMENTS IF YOU WILL. THANKS, ALUN
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on December 20, 2011:
Thank you Derdriu. I think the key word you use to describe this film is 'charming'. Although very much set in the 1990s, the morality of the film is a throw back to the innocent charm of movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s of the kind that Frank Capra made.
Misery and despair have their place in the world of entertainment, but most of us I think would prefer to leave the cinema with a smile rather than a grimace.
Thank you as always for your comments and votes. Alun.
Derdriu on December 20, 2011:
Alun, What a briskly written, clearly presented and tightly organized review of a charming film! Kevin Kline (known as DeKline because he declines more parts than he accepts) is one of my favorites. He offers so much to every film that he is in, from "Sophie's Choice" to "The Pink Panther."
Me too, I agree with your reasoning about why the film works and why it most likely appeals to audiences. It's the case of someone being handed the keys of the kingdom and not being greedy, selfish or vindictive. No wonder President Clinton liked it, what with his belief in hope.
Thank you for sharing, etc.,