“We, the undersigned mental health professionals, believe in our professional judgment that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of the President of the United States.”
That is how a recent Change.org petition began and it gathered close to 30,000 signatures in a few weeks. As a mere mental health amateur, I did not feel the compulsion to add my name, but of course, as a concerned citizen, I was, well, concerned. Fearful of being swept up in a fake news bubble, I turned to the place I have always turned for insight into the complexities of modern life. I am quite certain my Curnblog brethren did the same. I turned to movies.
Then, finding absolutely no answers or comfort anywhere I looked, I decided the very least I could do was pay tribute to a movie on its 50th anniversary. So any of you who feared another think piece on the meaning of Trumpism, calm yourselves. This is instead about Theodore J. Flicker’s effervescently prescient satire The President’s Analyst.
Flicker’s story came out in 1967, at the height of anti-establishment satire. Several years earlier, Stanley Kubrick had launched Dr. Strangelove on the world, upping the ante for what political satire could be. That same year, 1964, the greatest of all American cinematic satirists, Paddy Chayefsky, had scripted an adaptation of William Bradford Huie’s novel “The Americanization of Emily” and similarly ramped up the apparent absurdism. The inciting action in Emily comes when a mentally unstable military leader (Melvyn Douglas’ Admiral Jessup) orders a suicide mission. Later, after a few days of R&R, the good Admiral would see the world more clearly and scoff at the mission he so passionately demanded, but the damage had been done. Surely such a thing could not happen for real, could it?
Flicker imagines a highly stressed chief executive in need of some psychiatric succor. We never see the President though we do see him reflected through the eyes of those around him. He is a noble man, struggling with the weight of the world. The character we do see plenty of is Dr. Sidney Schaefer, who is secretly enlisted to serve in the title role. Schaefer is played by James Coburn, fresh off the weak spy satire In Like Flint. Flint attempted to satirize the James Bond phenomenon, a silly endeavor given that the Bond franchise was already halfway down the road to satire itself. But Flicker’s movie is planted in much more fertile soil.
The basic action in The President’s Analyst revolves around the fact that Schaefer becomes a highly controversial and valuable figure based on what he learns about the president. And with no one to whom he can unburden himself (he is forbidden from speaking to anyone based on national security concerns) Schaefer begins to question his own sanity. He will flee his fishbowl life in DC and inspire an epic manhunt being carried out by secret agents of all stripes. Some want to protect him, others to kidnap him. And others want him dead. Indeed, one of the funniest sequences in the film comes when Schaefer, having run off to the country with a psychedelic rock band, is about to be assassinated by one of these agents when his life is saved by another of these agents. This is repeated through an ensemble of five or six agents, each one killed in a most ingenious manner just before they can end Schaefer’s life.
As with any old satire, one of the fun things to do fifty years later is to consider just how prescient the story turned out to be. Schaefer got several things very right. The inter-agency squabbling between the “CEA” and the “FBR” (get it?), with one group attempting to save the doctor while the other is attempting to murder him, feels very on target right about now. And lest any of us naively believe that the American government would not secretly murder one of its own citizens, the current president, in one his many defenses of Vladimir Putin, has laid that Pollyannaish notion to rest.
Then there is the notion of the “bad guy” behind it all. Though we are in apparent battle with the Soviet Union, the genuine villain is the corporate monolith, in this case, TPC (AKA, the phone company). Demonizing the phone company certainly wasn’t new (Keenan Wynn’s warning to Peter Sellers at a key moment in Dr. Strangelove made it clear that AT&T was far more powerful than the modest American government), but Flicker’s description of the manner in which TPC would come to control our lives feels eerily accurate. The vacuous smile of Pat Harrington as he explains the facts of capitalism to the trapped Schaeffer (a moment that no doubt influenced Chayefsky’s similar scene in Network when Ned Beatty lectures Peter Finch) is genuinely terrifying. He describes a future in which the populace will not have to bother with bulky wired phones, but will instantly be able to connect to anyone they want through implanted chips. These chips will offer the added value of allowing TPC to gather information on everything that the public is thinking, but the public will not care because everything will be so damn convenient.
Talk about Nostradamus.
Maybe most topical of all is the relationship between American FBR agent Masters (played by Godfrey Cambridge) and Soviet spy Kropotkin (played by Severn Darden). Enemies by trade, they are the most collegial of opponents, clearly recognizing that their two countries are far closer to each to each other than popular opinion would have one believe. At one point, Kropotkin notes that America is moving toward communism and the USSR is moving toward capitalism, and one day soon they will meet in the middle.
Talk about Nostradamus squared.
To be fair, Flicker didn’t get everything right. Schaefer makes his initial escape with the help of a nice liberal family from New Jersey who has been visiting the White House. The Quantrills (William Daniels, Joan Darling, and Sheldon Collins) are proud of their liberal bona fides. But Mr. Quatrill has a gun in the car and another in the house, while Mrs. Quantrill is a karate expert. As Mr. Quantrill explains to Schaefer, they have to arm themselves against the right wing fanatics who live next door. Clearly, this is wishful thinking on Flicker’s part, as the liberal wing of the American experiment has never armed itself with anything beyond good intentions.
And as with so many things from the ‘60s, some of the music and fashion and surrealistic imagery has dated badly. But we can forgive a missed projection and bad haircut or two, especially when Flicker gave us so much good stuff.
Coburn is a solid center for the movie, but the real memorable stars are Cambridge and Darden. Their interplay is brilliantly funny and spot on accurate. Darden had a real knack for this kind of twisted absurdity and Cambridge is a long-neglected national treasure. There is a moment early on in the movie in which Cambridge’s spy, under the guise of vetting Schaefer for his top secret position, tells a story from his childhood about the first time he learned what a “n****r” was. He was five years old, and the memory is almost unbearably hurtful. In agent Masters’ mind, it has direct bearing on the violent line of work he has chosen. Cambridge’s delivery is Oscar-worthy. We are about to dive in on ninety more minutes of humor and sex and comic mayhem, but that speech reminds us that something serious – something dangerous – is lying underneath it all.
And in much the same way, The President’s Analyst, a sometimes silly absurdity, can remind us that something very dangerous continues to lurk just beneath the surface of America some fifty years later.