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Popular Culture & Politics

A Hero for President

In the summer of 1996, millions of Americans flocked to their local theaters to see director Roland Emmerich’s science fiction thriller Independence Day. With its mix of heavy prerelease advertising, exciting special effects, and predictable melodramatic plot—including three separate love stories—Independence Day became a major hit of the summer season.

As the film opens, we are met with an eerie vision of the American flag planted on the moon’s surface being covered by the shadow of an alien spacecraft. A few minutes later, the scene shifts to the White House and the fictional president, Tom Whitmore, who very much resembles John F. Kennedy: a young, handsome Gulf War hero with an attractive, professional First Lady and a young daughter. He is also a president under attack. Criticized from all sides for his lackluster success, and with his public approval ratings slipping below 40%, the president is described as a “wimp” by real-life newswoman Cokie Roberts.

This ineffective president, however, is transformed into a superhero as the alien ships descend onto the Earth’s major cities. Rising to the challenge, he addresses a frightened nation, urging calmness and stressing American desire for peace. Despite his peaceful overtures, the alien ships begin widespread destruction of the entire planet, and the president is forced to act. On the Fourth of July, he redeems himself by, once again donning his flight suit, essentially saving the world.

Entertaining as it is, the movie offers a pastiche of several well-worn themes regarding American politics. Take, for instance, the characterization of President Whitmore as a wimp. Why is he a wimp? His aides tell him that he compromises too much, and compromise is beneath a true leader. If he would just stick to his principles, he could once again become a great president.

The movie also develops the theme of government conspiracy. In the midst of the alien attack, the president learns that for forty years the government has been secretly spending billions of dollars at a place called Area 51. Managed by the CIA and Department of Defense, Area 51 houses an alien spacecraft and its former crew, as well as the obligatory mad scientists. Of course, all these doings have been kept secret from the American people and their idealistic president by venal bureaucrats, who form a shadow government.

In the end, the aliens are defeated by the technical wizardry of a cable television technician/environmentalist and a squadron of fighter planes, manned by a high-tech civilian militia recruited and led by the president. Thus, here is a president who lives up to the job. No longer encumbered by politics or bureaucrats (he fires his secretary of defense), President Whitmore disdains compromise and transcends the status of a politician, becoming a leader.

More important, President Whitmore restores America to its place as the world leader. Not only Americans, but the whole world, have been waiting for the president to lead the attack. Addressing the squadron before the assault, President Whitmore delivers a rousing speech in which he notes that henceforth America’s national holiday will be the world’s holiday. America, rallied behind a true leader, saves the world, or what’s left of it, and inspires ordinary people to rise to the challenge. This is truly the president as savior-hero.

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