An odd offshoot of the Civil Rights movement was a run of near-future fictions which imagine what might happen if a token black Establishment figure were catapaulted into power by unusual circumstances. Putney Swope (about advertising) and The Spook Who Sat By the Door (about the FBI) take a radical, satirical approach, but this TV movie – hewn by Rod Serling from Irving Wallace’s much thicker novel – is almost too sober and concerned with credibility. Serling, who ventured into the Oval Office with Seven Days in May, was up on Washington backroom deal-making and Wallace plainly did his research. After two terms of Barack Obama, it feels awkward that the hook of the film has to be so elaborately set out in a prologue: the sitting President and Speaker have to be killed in an offscreen accident (the collapse of a building in Germany where they’re giving speeches) and the dying Veep (Lew Ayres) turns down the high office, which means the often-overlooked ‘president pro tempore of the Senate, who happens to be black academic Douglass Dilman (James Earl Jones), gets the gig.
Secretary of State Arthur Eaton (William Windon) – who has a tipsy, nakedly ambitious racist wife (Barbara Rush) – tries to be the power behind the throne to keep the country conducting business as usual, while openly segregationist Senate Majority Leader Watson (Burgess Meredith) – ‘the White House isn’t white enough for me’ – starts proposing bills to undercut the President’s power and position and plays dirty politics because he can just about stomach a black man as president but is terrified when Dilman starts ‘acting like a candidate’. Dilman’s radical daughter Wanda (Janet MacLachlan) gives him a hard time over his position as a ‘house nigger’ but he has an ally in thoughtful aide Talley (Martin Balsam), and Serling writes good arguments and speeches – they rarely feel like believable dialogue, but the actors have meat to chew on and in these rarefied circles down-to-earth talk often comes off poorly. ‘You may have come into the White House through the back door,’ Talley tells Dilman, ‘ but they’re trying to get in through the plumbing.’
A problem is that the Dilman presidency, and the film, get hung up on a contrived case about black US radical Wheeler (Georg Stanford Brown) accused of assassinating a racist South African minister – at first, he seems a martyred innocent then convenient film demonstrating his guilt shows up. The problem is that Dilman’s principled stand is murky, his reasonings for flip-flopping on the issue are vague and it’s not quite clear what exactly the upshot of the plot-thread is – though there are credible sequences as the assassin is hauled into a senate committee for testimony designed to show off Watson’s grandstanding and Dilman’s black political allies (repped by Robert DoQui) start arguing that the kid should be cut loose for the greater cause. A moment of wordless glaring between Wanda and Wheeler in the doorway of the Oval Office is striking, but the takeaway is awkward – as she upbraids her Dad when she ought to be giving the assassin a hard time (he has been sneaky in trying to get Dilman to cover his ass by faking an alibi) for potentially bringing down the country’s first black President before he’s had a chance to do anything.
In focusing on this story, we also don’t get a sense of what’s going on in the rest of the country – the TV budget (though the film did have a theatrical window) probably also means keeping the focus narrow, but where are the white riots, the pressures from a whole array of political bodies, the homegrown assassination plots and any other foreign policy issues? Some things were credible for 1972 but now ring false – with scrutiny given to candidates’ wives, a witch like Mrs Eaton would be a career-killer these days – and other now-outmoded conventions of political cinema – like the refusal to specify which political party is in power while all this is going on – undercut a lot of the more persuasive business. However, the last sequence is undeniably potent – as Dilman comes to the stage at a convention, intent on seeking the nomination so he can remain in the White House with an electoral mandate, and we see a black man standing before the flag as ‘Hail to the Chief’ plays.
Like Kisses for My President, the 1964 romantic comedy about the humiliation visited on a male ‘First Lady’ (Fred acMurray) when a woman (Polly Bergen) becomes president, this works in a lot of incidental speculation that still has a certain frisson. It also predates the craze for political soaps like The West Wing – and, indeed, much of the backroom dealing and cabinet bickering (‘for the last eight hours, I’ve felt like the Invisible Man’ says the ignored President) which might once have been titillating and privileged is now practically conventional. Jack Benny appears as himself at a White House correspondents’ lunch, opening the film with a string of gags. Directed by Joseph Sargent (Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three).
A low-quality version of the film is on youtube – stick with it for the post-credits vintage ad to get a glimpse of a young Morgan Freeman hawking anti-perspirants. He later played President himself in Deep Impact.