#28 — Kevin Kline as Dave Kovic (and Bill Mitchell) in Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993)
I default to cynicism, enjoying the safety of a reflexive irony when it comes to the most important matters. Believing in institutions — or in the will of the people in a shaky, overlarge republic — is a pathway to disappointment. Isn’t it? I am consistently braced for some sort of collapse, a withering of our sprawling, gnarled tree of humanity. As a citizen of the U.S., I am a patriot, albeit of the partly-cloudy variety defined by Sarah Vowell. The guarded suspicion of that mindset extends to my cinematic preferences. As a general rule, I find A Face in the Crowd and All the King’s Men to be more compelling, accurate portraits of the nation’s political system than any of the more hopeful, pushily stirring offerings.
Again, that inclination is a general rule. I am susceptible to the occasional spin with Capra-esque optimism.
Dave was released in the spring of 1993, just about six months after the somewhat unlikely election to the highest office in the land of a fella who liked to remind people he was born in a town called Hope. Kevin Kline plays the title role, a man named Dave Kovic. Dave runs an agency that places temps — he literally puts people to work — and dabbles with a side business of impersonating President Bill Mitchell (also Kline, of course), to whom he bears a striking resemblance. In fact, he’s such a mirror image of the leader of the free world, that Dave is enlisted to double for him in a public setting, a bit of stagecraft that is pitched as a delicate matter of national security. In actuality, the subterfuge is meant to cover up an indiscretion, one that takes an unexpected turn when Mitchell dies of a stroke. Rather than allow the presidency to succeed to the vice-president (Ben Kingsley), Mitchell’s advisors decide to take advantage of this presumably pliable doppelgänger. They convince him to impersonate President Mitchell in order to keep forwarding their own political agenda.
Written by Gary Ross and directed by Ivan Reitman, the film delights in the fantasy of an everyman ascending to the presidency, particularly without the bruising indignity of modern campaigning, which can strip away the soul from anyone. Dave moves into the Oval Office with his inherent decency intact. Though he begins by accepting the strictly figurehead role meant for him, Dave begins pushing to solve the problems of government tied in knots by self-serving special interests. He nobly strives to fulfill the responsibilities as the most powerful public servant imaginable by actually serving the public.
As Dave Kovic, Kline is nothing short of a blessed gift. Through the first portion of his career, Kline was the definition of an important actor, anointed as someone with the potential to become the American equivalent of Laurence Olivier. His film debut was in Sophie’s Choice, which seemed like a pointed declared benchmark rather than mere happenstance. It wasn’t all similarly heady material after that, but there was still a clang of revelation when he played Otto West in A Fish Called Wanda, a performance that justly nabbed him an Academy Award. There was an inventive, freewheeling comic actor in there. For all his talents, Kline rarely seems more deft than when he’s striking that vein of inspired silliness.
As with any story built upon a fantastical turn, there is an added burden to instill a level of plausibility into the proceedings. Kline achieves that through both marveling at the unaccustomed surrounding in which he finds himself and, importantly, through his gradual adjustment to them. The humorous conflicts that arise from a humble man out of place in grand surrounding are expected, but Kline lends a poignancy to it. He operates with a brand of tender appreciation and a mounting sense of responsibility that makes the character more than a simple cog in a comedic contraption. The character represents the inevitable triumph of hopefulness because Kline conveys Dave’s sterling inner being, doing so without the veneer of forced nobility that can quickly transform a performance from empathetic to condescending. He is a person who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances, and, once he’s grown used to the swirling waters around him, simply buckles down to do the best he can.
The cheerful possibility embedded in Kline’s performance has the power the penetrate even the sturdiest armor of cynicism, I suspect. It certainly leaves mine in harmless shards. Sometimes, it’s better to believe.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural