The Simpsons has made some eerily accurate predictions over the years. Smartwatches, video-calling, NSA spying, and Disney’s takeover of 21st Century Fox to name but a few, writers of the show have a proven knack for sharp observance. One prediction that stands one more than any other, particularly in recent years, is the presidency of Donald Trump. Moreover, not only did they predict his presidency, but in what was a throw-away line they essentially described it as an absolute disaster. Basically, they had it down to a tee.
Ivan Reitman’s 1993 political comedy Dave, on the other hand, makes no such bold, prophetic statements. What it does do, though, is convey noble commentary on the responsibilities of an elected leader to his people, and the capacity of political figures to abuse their given powers. Yet, what is most impressive is that Reitman and writer Gary Ross manage package all this into a whimsical comedy with deceivingly nuanced character work.
Ross’ premise is genius from the get-go, where Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), a newly hired double for U.S. President Bill Mitchell (also Kevin Kline), is asked to act as Mitchell following a stroke that leaves him brain-dead. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s duplicitous chief of staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella), who concocted this scheme, wishes to eventually acquire the presidency for himself, but is hampered by Dave’s altruistic nature, which very much opposes that of the selfish Mitchell.
I admit that the story, in writing at least, comes across as decidedly far-fetched, but Reitman goes to great lengths to ground it as believably as possible within the confines of the reality he creates. This is thanks in no small part to his direction of Kevin Kline, who seamlessly transitions from the deplorable Bill Mitchell to the charismatic Dave in a manner that also made me buy into the idea that these are two very different individuals.
I will admit that Dave’s good guy shtick can feel more than a little one-dimensional, but because this fictional Washington – and indeed the real Washington – is populated by numerous amoral figures who neglect the needs of the many, his character is elevated to the point where I rejoiced in his do-gooder presence.
This too lends further to the dynamism of Ross’ screenplay, as the strongest character development lies not with Dave, who is essentially the same person in the end as he was in the beginning, but with white house staffer Alan Reed (Kevin Dunn). Alan begins as an accomplice in Bob’s schemes, even shifting the blame of a scandal onto the good-natured Vice President (Ben Kingsley), but over time he shows moments of fierce moral tenacity in key moments, brought on by Dave’s disposition, making for a compelling second-tier character in a film that could have just as easily gone by the numbers.
To a lesser extent, this rings true of Ving Rhames’ Agent Duane Stevenson also, who begins as impenetrably composed as he is complicit in blindly following Bob’s orders, but slowly reveals a subtle vulnerability in Dave’s presence that makes for equal parts comedy and feel-good smirk inducement.
Dave is a film made up of these many moving parts that complement one another, delivering a surprisingly insightful film in the process. It is unafraid to ponder the democratic possibilities of a leader unencumbered by the pitfalls of typical governmental ascension.
While this might all be wishful thinking, particularly when unfavourable comparisons with the current U.S. President are unavoidable, there are moments where it nonetheless blatantly questions the decisions of the few that are at the cost of the many in an effectively measured manner. The comedy may never quite be quite as side-splitting as it could have been, but this aspect nonetheless helps Dave retain a still-relevant satirical veneer hidden beneath its commercial Hollywood gleam.