Here's a moral dilemma for you. You are a politician who has run a campaign based on integrity, and consideration for the rights of the people and you end up winning the election. But in the transition period while you are waiting to take office someone approaches you and tells you that the only reason you won was because of a computer glitch that caused you to be declared winner in spite of not having the most votes.
What do you do? You believe the person who tells you this information even though no one else does. The company she used to work for has set her up to look like a drug addict and seriously unhinged so in the event that she does go public no one will believe her, but you know she is telling the truth. What do you do?
This is the quandary that Barry Levinson has created for Robin Williams' character in the movie Man Of The Year, recently released on DVD. Mr. Williams plays a political comic with his own television show along the lines of many today, but is completely non-partisan. He thinks both the Republican and the Democratic parties are a bit of a joke and spends his shows decrying their idiocy.
Almost as a whim he decides to run for office and goes on the campaign trail as an independent. At first he plays it straight talking about the issues, but finally when he is invited to participate in the debate he breaks down and reverts to comedic form. For the rest of the campaign he runs as a comic – we get flashes of his speeches and they are classic Robin Williams political riffs.
The filmmakers do a credible job of making it seem like he has a chance to actually win the election judging by the reactions audiences have to him around the country. So on the first Tuesday in November when the results start rolling in and he is declared President at 1:30 am the following morning you have no trouble believing in the result.
Laura Linney plays a computer programmer who works for a huge software company who have created a fail safe program for counting and collecting ballots. Voters simply press the X on the screen next to the name of the person or the proposition that they support and their vote is recorded and tabulated.
But one night Linney's character is running one final check when she discovers a horrible glitch – if your name has double letters in it the computer will somehow select you as the winner no matter how many or how few votes you received. Of course if your name has double A in it you will beat someone who has double K, and so on.
Williams' character is named Tom Dobbs and his nearest competitor has double Gs, so the computer selects Tom Dobbs at every poll. When Linney's character sends her bosses an email telling them there's a problem they lie to her and send back reassurance that the problem is being dealt with. On election night while watching the results she realizes they are the exact same returns that came up in her tests that showed the bug existed.
Well, I already told you what happened when she went to her bosses with her concerns and the movie proceeds along fairly predictable turns and safe liberal platitudes. We know that Williams' character is going to do the right thing just because this is an American liberal film where gee whiz the corporate baddies are the evil ones but there's really nothing wrong with the politicians.
It's a type of Frank Capra movie for the 21st century and you know that everything is going to turn out all right in the end. A far more interesting movie would have had Robin Williams deciding to be President in spite of believing the revelations and going on to be one of the best leaders America ever had, in spite of the fact he hadn't been elected.
Jeff Goldblum as one of the corporate sleazes has one of the best speeches in the film where he says what matters most is that the impression is given that the system works, not that the system works. Nobody is ever going know that the person who should have won didn't, but it doesn't matter because everybody will believe that he did.
What elevates The Man Of The Year from being just another feel good movie are the performances. Robin Williams is of course just playing a variation on himself, but since that's what he does best, he is brilliant. The best part of the movie, as far as his participation is concerned, are his campaign speeches where he is given free rein of his formidable improvisational talents. The only problem is that they are a heck of a lot more abrasive than the rest of the movie.
His comments that Senators should wear advertising slogans like NASCAR race cars is brilliant – this seat is bought and paid for by Enron on the suit jacket of a Senator would certainly let the American public know who their representatives truly represent. Perhaps a Warren Beatty/ Robin Williams ticket for President and Vice President wouldn't be such a bad thing – at least state dinners would be a lot more fun to attend and speeches would be a lot more interesting.
Laura Linney does a really nice job of playing her role even though it calls for her to be as anxious as a deer in headlights throughout the movie. In spite of that she is able to let something of the person underneath the stress show through, enough to make Williams' romantic interest in her believable at any rate.
Of course any movie where Christopher Walken is given substantial screen time is worth the price of admission. He plays the manager of Williams' character and he brings all of his wondrous cynicism to play in the role of the show business veteran. He's the one who truly understands that a Presidential campaign is all about show business and pushes Williams to go back to being funny and stop trying to be a politician.
Walken has a beautiful scene where he's watching the presidential debate in the pressroom and acts like a sports commentator doing the colour commentary for a boxing match. He and Lewis Black play off each other brilliantly during those scenes.
I've got the wide screen version of the DVD and it comes with 5.1 surround sound in English, French, and Spanish so they cover the whole North American market. The special features include one of the standard "look what we did aren't we great" making of the movie features.
A second bonus features a look at Robin Williams' various stand-up routines throughout the movie and the takes that didn't make the final cut. What amazes me is that each time he did one of those shots he manages to include the lines the script demands right on cue while riffing his improv. He is the like the finest jazz musician when it comes to his performance.
Man Of The Year is a safe liberal political movie that will not challenge anyone intellectually or anyone's belief in the American system of government. What elevates it beyond the sentimentality of its message is the performance of the cast. Mr. Williams and the other lead performances are uniformly excellent, which is enough of a reason to watch this movie.