Celebrating 30 years of doing all the right things for all the right reasons with Dave
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the May 26, 2023 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
When someone asks me to name the best film directed by Ivan Reitman, I immediately respond with 1993’s political comedy Dave. Not Ghostbusters. Not Stripes. Not Meatballs. Not Twins or Kindergarten Cop. None of those. Hands down, it is this whip-smart satire with the doppelgänger, Alexandre Dumas–inspired hijinks, and if I felt that way walking out of the theater 30 years ago this month, that has only intensified in the here and now.
Maybe it had something to do with the exhilaration of finally being old enough to vote a few precious months prior; the knowledge that I played a small part in ushering Bill Clinton into the White House and kicking George Bush to the curb still brought a giant smile to my face. Maybe it was because, while taking an Introduction to Film course at the University of Washington, my professor prioritized the timely comedic works of filmmakers like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Jacques Tati, and I could see echoes of all three in writer Gary Ross’ inspired screenplay.
Honestly, though, I think it was because Dave touched a nerve. I’ve always been drawn to stories of transformation (considering my struggles with gender identity, that’s not surprising), and films like 1982’s Victor/Victoria, 1985’s Legend, 1988’s Big, and the 1937 version of The Prince and Pauper were on constant rotation at my house, courtesy of bootlegged VHS tapes recorded off of HBO, Showtime, and other various cable TV channels.
Reitman and Ross’ film is a Capraesque story of Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), who runs a small Washington, DC, employment agency — and also happens to be the mirror image of current US President Bill Mitchell (also Kline). He’s tasked by Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) to impersonate the president after a fundraiser at a swanky downtown hotel. But when Mitchell has a stroke while in flagrante with a woman who is most assuredly not First Lady Ellen Mitchell (Sigourney Weaver), Alexander sees an opportunity to clandestinely seize power.
Suddenly Dave is the new president of the United States, and even if the chief of staff is technically pulling the strings, that does not mean the good-natured everyman doesn’t spy a chance to make a difference. With a little help from his best friend, accountant Murray Blum (Charles Grodin), the faux politician begins to shake up the establishment by following through on initiatives that could substantially improve American lives. He even balances the budget, a move that catches Ellen’s eye and makes her wonder if this man living with her in the White House is actually her husband or instead some sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style clone, only one who selflessly thinks more of others than himself.
Ross’ scenario is a Count of Monte Cristo riff crossed with Sullivan’s Travels and To Be or Not to Be. While not exactly a barbed political satire, that does not mean the film pulls its punches. Democrats? Republicans? Political pundits? Journalists? No one gets off unscathed. There is a refreshing honesty to how Ross observes and analyzes the political process, and as cheeky and silly as events may often be, that does not make what the writer is saying any less incisive.
But Reitman makes it all fun. Like Capra, Wilder, and Sturges before him, the director utilizes this outlandish story of a charming nobody in an unbelievably surreal situation to empower the viewer into believing that change is possible and doing what’s best for everyone is always the best course of action, no matter the cost. His comedy is light on its feet yet still makes an enchantingly memorable impression. No matter how broad the joke or ludicrous the situation, Reitman brings it back down to earth with such grace, with such masterful simplicity that, much like Ellen does, becoming enamored with Dave Kovic isn’t just easy, it’s an outright certainty.
Kline won a much-deserved Academy Award for his spellbinding work in A Fish Called Wanda, but I’d love to make a case that he was equally deserving of being recognized here. Granted, that year’s nominees were across-the-board heavy hitters (Tom Hanks for Philadelphia, Liam Neeson for Schindler’s List, Laurence Fishburne for What’s Love Got to Do with It, Daniel Day-Lewis for In the Name of the Father, and Anthony Hopkins for The Remains of the Day), so it’s understandable he didn’t make the cut.
Still, his performance is a master class of dramatic and comedic dexterity. Kline mixes a plethora of varying emotional states effortlessly, while also showcasing the type of inspired physicality he brought to more crazily high-energy efforts like The Pirates of Penzance, I Love You to Death, and the aforementioned A Fish Called Wanda. He’s like Cary Grant, Errol Flynn (whom he would later go on to portray in 2013’s The Last of Robin Hood), and Gene Kelly all rolled into one, and everything Kline does in Dave is nothing short of perfect.
Weaver is excellent as always. A scene in which she attempts to convince curious onlookers she’s not really the First Lady but instead a “Tomorrow”-singing, vaudeville-style impersonator is as hysterical as it is endearing. Langella oozes tyrannical menace, while Kevin Dunn, Ving Rhames, and Ben Kingsley all add unforgettable support. But it is Grodin who steals the show, and his scenes with Kline as the two discuss the budget over knockwurst and hot mustard are beyond compare.
Politics has become a zero-sum game, and it’s undeniably made the world a scary place. As a Trans woman, there are US states I can no longer visit, and there are moments when I shake my head and silently cry, wondering how it is we’ve gotten to this perilously critical point. I think it’s fear that holds us back, a heartbreaking inability to see beyond our own wants, needs, and desires that allows resentment, acrimony, discrimination, and other equally odious sentiments to fester and grow like an uncontrollable virus.
Dave is an aspirational reminder of the good that humans can do when they set their own needs aside and make the choice to think bigger. Miracles often require the smallest allotment of courage, and Reitman’s film goes out of its way to remind us all of exactly that. Kindness is a choice. Change is possible. Love should always be universal. Happiness is an inalienable right. And simply being a good person is frequently the greatest marvel of them all.
Also, once I caught a fish this big…
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Dave is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and to purchase digitally in HD on multiple platforms. It is also streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max).