Projecting power – Alison Healy on presidents and the cinema

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Barack Obama at the White House cinema. Photograph: Pete Souza/US National Archives

Barack Obama at the White House cinema. Photograph: Pete Souza/US National Archives

 

Naturally the first cinema release you will want to see after 15 months of death, chaos and upended lives is a movie about death, chaos and upended lives. And so, many of us rushed headlong to see A Quiet Place II as soon as the shutters went up. Some of us got so carried away with the reopening of cinemas that we indulged in wild extravagance by purchasing a small popcorn from the concession stand.

As I sat in the dark, wondering how a handful of corn kernels could inflate itself up to €5.89, I remembered an unexpected sighting in the same cinema a few years earlier. Calvary was about to start when President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina came ambling down the gangway. Just another couple out to see Brendan Gleeson portraying an overworked priest trying to deal with death threats, cannibalism and dog murdering. Afterwards we resisted the temptation to ask the President for his thoughts on how the spiritual shepherding practised by the priest might contribute to the future of the Catholic Church. And in keeping with Irish tradition, we congratulated ourselves on being a great little country that allows our presidents to go to the cinema whenever they take the notion.

Pity the US presidents who do not enjoy such freedoms. But instead of going to the movies, they brought the movies to them.

The White House converted a cloakroom into the White House Family Theater in 1942. It must have been a big cloakroom because it fits about 40 seats, behind a row of four generous armchairs, which were installed by Dwight Eisenhower.

Thanks to records kept by the White House projectionist Paul Fischer, we know that Eisenhower had a penchant for westerns and watched more than 200 of them during his time in office.

He particularly loved High Noon, as did Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Clinton, an enthusiastic movie-goer, described the in-house cinema as the greatest perk of his job – even greater than having Air Force One or Camp David at his disposal.

You would think that Reagan and his wife Nancy, both former actors, would have watched more movies in that theatre than all other incumbents, but records show they preferred to watch movies at Camp David. They opted for wholesome movies, disapproving of the sex scenes in Top Gun and complaining about pot-smoking in Nine to Five. The president’s friend AC Lyles once told how Reagan would plough his way through two bowls of popcorn at every screening. However, the movie Gandhi was so long – three hours and 11 minutes – that he needed a third bowl to sustain him.

Lyndon Johnson would definitely have slept through that one. Records show that he dozed a lot in the cinema, when he wasn’t looking at himself on the big screen.

He watched a homage to himself, narrated by Gregory Peck, about a dozen times. The short film had been made on White House orders to introduce him to the public after John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

Jimmy Carter was one of the greatest film buffs to grace the White House, holding 480 screenings in its cinema over four years. Appropriately enough, he started with All the President’s Men, which he must have enjoyed greatly, given that it told the story of Nixon’s downfall. Carter is a born-again Baptist and when he moved into the White House, he asked that only family-friendly movies be shown in the theatre. However, that policy must have changed over time because when Midnight Cowboy was shown, he became the first president to screen an R-rated movie in the cinema. According to Matt Novak, who is writing a book about movies watched by US presidents, Carter watched the movie 10 – a racy Bo Derek comedy – with some staff members on January 25th, 1980. And maybe as an act of contrition the following day, he watched a movie called Jesus, with his wife Rosalynn. Perhaps all that movie-watching together is the key to their long marriage – the couple will be 75 years married on July 7th.

Although Donald Trump likes to appear on the big and small screen, he didn’t watch many movies in the White House, preferring a cocktail of cable news and Twitter. US newspapers reported that Finding Dory was the first movie screened in the theatre under his presidency. The irony of the timing was not lost on his critics. Finding Dory is about an anxious fish trying to reunite with her parents and was shown just after Trump had introduced a travel ban on people coming from seven mainly-Muslim countries, effectively preventing some family reunifications.

Trump’s then press secretary Sean Spicer clarified that the president did not watch the movie, seeing approximately 60 seconds of it before returning to work. It appears that the sequel to Finding Nemo didn’t interest him. Perhaps he was already focusing on his own sequel as he had filed papers for his re-election nine days earlier.

That sequel was canned when Joe Biden won the presidential race. However, like the villain in a thriller who grabs your leg just when you think he’s dead, nobody’s sure if Trump’s really gone. His detractors will be hoping he’s not rewriting his sequel – The Bigly Return of Trump – slated for release in 2024.

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