The Improbable Presidents: Dubya, Santos and Obama

As Oliver Stone's Bush film disappoints, have the last two seasons of The West Wing already given us a Barack Obama biopic?

As a truly historic week in American politics comes to a close and Barack Obama is appointed the 44th President of the United States, it is interesting to examine both the film released to coincide with the event, and the television series that appears to have prophesised it.

Over the last few weeks, Oliver Stone’s W. has been hailed as somewhat of a disappointment, a strangely uncontroversial picture from a nominally controversial filmmaker. These remarks are not entirely unfair. W. is a frustrating, underwhelming experience, a film that refuses to take any risks or ask any big questions of one of the most fascinating political characters of the 21st Century. And these are hardly problems one would expect from the director of such successful political pictures as Born On The Forth Of July, Nixon and JFK.

Of course, Stone’s last film, the Nic Cage-starring World Trade Center, was a rightly muted affair, the outspoken director stepping off his pedestal and into the role of unbiased storyteller. Without taking easy, unnecessary shots at America or the Bush Administration, Stone crafted an honest, upsetting film, one endured rather than enjoyed. Yes, it works in many ways as a generic disaster movie, but ultimately it tells the story, it attempts to show what happened. (British director Paul Greengrass was equally successful with his harrowing, uncompromising docudrama United 93.)

One wishes Stone had not taken such a similar approach with W. The film stumbles clumsily between what are, admittedly, important moments in Bush’s life – his first meeting with Laura Lane Welch, his designation as Governor of Texas, and his advisors’ decision to go to war with Iraq – yet, although long at over two hours, fails to get under the skin of the man to determine what makes Bush Bush (other than establishing a few ‘daddy issues’). Stone rushed the shoot for a late October release date, and the film’s messy, uneven structure is evidence of this.

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Here we have a legitimate case of fact triumphing over fiction, for no Hollywood epic could match the unparalleled thrill of watching America’s future unfold on Tuesday night. This writer has been lucky enough to witness the madness first hand, observing the excitement as voters lined the corridors of a small health centre not far from the University of Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, as the President-Elect walked onto that stage in Illinois, the country was buzzing, supporters running through the streets, taxi drivers refusing to remove their hands from their horns. “It’s like a movie!” people were gasping, fighting back tears.

But if a biopic of Obama was percolating in many screenwriter’s minds, they would be first advised to look at headwriters John Wells and Eli Attie’s seminal, under-watched and underrated final two seasons of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

The show’s sixth and seventh years focus primarily on the run up to the election, and eventual inauguration, of the successor to Martin Sheen’s fictional president, Josiah Bartlet. The Democratic Party looks to Matt Santos, a young, charismatic, Hispanic Senator, who begins his presidential campaign under the guidance of Bartlet’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (the magnificent Bradley Whitford). What follows is a run for the White House that draws uncanny similarities to the rise and rise of one Barack Obama.

However, these similarities are far from coincidental. Eli Attie has admitted modelling the character of Santos – played with persuasive magnetism by the Latino actor, Jimmy Smitts – on the emergence of Obama back in 2004, Attie going so far as to keep in regular contact with Obama’s aides during the writing of the show. Doubts over Santos’ experience, his propensity to declare himself the “American” candidate rather than the “brown” candidate, his celebrity status in the public eye; the similarities go on.

Competing against Santos is fellow Democrat Vice President Bob Russell, an already established name in politics, who shares much in common with former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, when Santos finally emerges as the Democratic nominee at a brokered August convention, he is faced by an older, hardnosed Republican, Alan Alda’s Senator Arnold Vinick, a close fit to Obama’s own opponent, John McCain.

The show even broadcast a special, live episode entitled The Debate, which saw Santos and Vinick fight it out over the ‘big issues’ on NBC. Though scripted, the replies were spontaneous and ad-libbed. It was another example of the lengths the show runners went to in order to capture the American election process as accurately as possible.

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Despite initially being scripted as a Republican victory, at the last minute the writers changed their minds. Santos goes on to win the White House in what is, genuinely, one of the most uplifting and rewarding moments in modern television.

And now, Obama.

Attie has since remarked, “It was always an inside joke on The West Wing that the show had a prophetic quality.”

But who could quite have anticipated such a momentous occasion as was witnessed on Tuesday, as Obama took the stand at Grant Park in Chicago to a euphoric America.

Who really needs a biopic when real life continues to provide such drama? Maybe W. was doomed from the outset.


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