Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Super Delegates: President Thomas J. Whitmore in "Independence Day" (1996)

Bill Pullman in Independence Day
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Independence Day
Release Date: July 3, 1996
Directed By: Roland Emmerich
Written By: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich
Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum
Oscar Wins: 1
-Best Special Effects
Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Sound
Delegates in Question:
-President Thomas J. Whitmore


Considering how grounded in realism Super Delegates has been in the past, it may strike some as confusing as to why I would choose Independence Day: a film that is basically about America combating an alien invasion. In all honesty, it has very little that could be seen as relevant to the current election. There are no aliens invading the planet - though many could make unfortunate parallels to terrorism or other violent hate groups. For the sake of dexterity, I will focus more on what this film means in light of July 4, more often referred to as Independence Day. It may not be a realistic story, but it is a tale with so much patriotism that it could make Michael Bay blush while making a film that has become a viewing staple for those who like their freedom with a few too many explosions and bombastic fighter pilots.


At the center of the worldwide conflict is the United States of America: the land of the free and the home of the brave. While the impending alien invasion will impact most of the rest of the world, the story chooses to begin in North America where we're introduced to a variety of players such as scientists, fighter pilots, and President Whitmore (Bill Pullman). The president has been considered a weak and ineffective president thanks to his lack of militant actions. Despite this, he is a Gulf War veteran and becomes responsible for the safety of billions when the unidentified flying objects (UFOs) begin to arrive; blowing up cities such as New York as well as in the film's most iconic scene when the White House gets blown off the map for the first time in 182 years. Things couldn't seem more dour, yet this is where everything begins to rely heavily on American patriotism.

This isn't a film specifically about President Whitmore. It's a film about America defending its freedom. Emmerich chooses to do so by introducing a hefty cast in personal yet brief fashions while establishing a sense of what America is as a collective. Everyone has a family at stake, and the sense of loss is near constant. The few successes come by barely missing a massive collision with an unknown alien. In fact, pilot Captain Hiller (Will Smith) only manages to capture an alien body thanks to leading it into a dead end and forcing it to crash. When he retrieves the body, he shouts "Welcome to Earth," which shows the glowing patriotism he has for living here. He has defeated an alien with his cunning skills, and the scientists manage to use their weaponry against them by researching and finding clever loopholes that inevitably help them save the day.

It is true that the film predominantly focuses on an American cast. It is one of the few examples in which America is represented by diversity, adding more emphasis when the film's third act asks for the rest of the world to help them out. Suddenly, it isn't just about America's safety. It's about the world's. Co-writer Dean Devlin and Pullman decided to add the line that drove the point home. In the rousing speech that leads everyone into battle, Whitmore proudly claims that July 4, the day of the invasion, that the world "Today will celebrate our Independence Day." It is in reference to freedom from the aliens. While this is apparently untrue by the virtue of a 2016 sequel, it definitely marked a certain boldness that does feel a little too true about American ideals, and caused many critics at the time to notice how self-involved the plot of the movie was. It was a brief moment, but one that existed as if to say that America will solve the world's problems.

The truth is that American ideals are often built on this sense of superior ambition. After all, there are more movies with "American" in the title than any other country. The masculine ideal set by directors like Emmerich and Bay have come to embody American culture to international markets. It's a world of explosions, machismo, and exaggerated pride. It's the scrappy country that could, and its ability to foster minds ranging from the genius scientist (Jeff Goldblum) to the clearly PTSD-stricken (or the alien invasion equivalent) Randy Quaid is a reflection of how awesome the country is. It may not be as blatant as Team America's song parodying this type of mentality where America is "Coming again to save the motherf**king day, yeah!" but it does feel like both should be taken equal doses of seriously. 

The only thing about Independence Day that likely hasn't aged as well as is the alien invasion aspect. While there has and always will be alien movies to symbolize a country's sense of personal invasion, the trend seemed to be at its peak in America during the 90's thanks to the rise of Roswell, New Mexico; The X-Files, even films ranging from Contact to Men in Black to Independence Day. The supernatural inspired some of the best of sci-fi during this period, and it could be due to the cultural shift from the 80's economics obsessed culture to a darker and grittier 90's where the youth were more melancholic thanks to grunge music and the rise in serial killer iconography. It was a strange decade, but Independence Day showed that even at the weakest moment, the country would rise together to save the day.

The few things that do connect it to the real world are more on the technical side. The White House sets were previously used in Super Delegates topic The American President as well as future topic Nixon. The film, as the title likely suggested, was supposed to open on July 4 but was pushed up a day. The film was shown privately to then President Bill Clinton prior to the film's international release. While he hasn't given a formal review of the film, he has made comment regarding the film many years later in 2014 when he went on Jimmy Kimmel Live. When asked about aliens, he mentioned that if he does seen an alien, he would tell us. He also would say that if there was an invasion that:
"If we were visited someday I wouldn't be surprised. I just hope it's not like Independence Day … [An invasion] may be the only way to unite this increasingly divided world of ours … think of how the differences among people of Earth would seem small if we feel threatened by a space invader." 
What is most interesting is that he doesn't deny the potential for an alien invasion. However, his approach seems to be more peaceful. While few presidents, if any, have given comment regarding supernatural life, the exploration of space continues to provide fascinating results. For instance, NASA recently succeeded in getting a satellite to orbit Jupiter. It was called the Juno Mission, and it took five years to reach as well as billions in research costs. By some luck, it happened on the evening of July 4. Its chances of success were not predictive, but thankfully the scientists' gamble paid off and hopefully in time we'll be getting exclusive research to our solar system's biggest planet: a feat that is very new. Considering that there's been other space missions in recent years, it's hard to not see this as the real life equivalent of America being fascinated with the world beyond our atmosphere.

It may be difficult to suggest that Independence Day has any direct relativity to the current election season. However, it does have a lot to say about America and what makes it a fascinating landscape of people. It is a land where people can achieve almost anything, and sometimes it's genius, others thickheaded. The film's unapologetic patriotism and admiration for understanding the unknown is what has fueled the nation, for better and worse. We may never experience an Independence Day-type attack, but it does rank as one of the few films in this genre to show how united the states really can be. It may be propaganda with nice effects, but it does capture the core essence of the country in its nuances.

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