Review by Matthew Kresal
The Man himself. James Earl Jones, who becomes President by accident.
The Man (1972).
Picture courtesy Moria Reviews.
One of the problems of writing near-future fiction, particularly of the political kind, is how soon reality can overtake them. Yet they can also make for interesting thought experiments and exploration in hindsight. Particularly when they imagine events that, even decades on, come to pass.
One such example of that hails from more than a half century ago in the form of the 1972 film The Man. A film that presented a vision of something that would only come to pass more than thirty years later: America’s first African-American commander-in-chief.
That president, the titular “man” of the film’s title, to use the slang of the time, is James Earl Jones’ Douglass Dilman. Jones is the film’s heart, taking viewers with him on a journey that begins with a fateful phone call that launches the film’s main title sequence. One that sees this mild-mannered, often quiet former college professor turned senator into the world’s most powerful political office. Watching Jones deal with the aftermath, finding his feet as others attempt to puppeteer him or bring him down, is something akin to a masterclass. In every scene, Jones brings the right note to play, from a man out of his depth to Dilman putting morality ahead of political expediency at times. If there’s anything that makes The Man worth seeing, even decades later, it’s Jones’ performance.
James Earl Jones playing another ruler - this time Othello.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
It helps that Jones has a solid supporting cast backing him. On the political side of things is Martin Balsam as the White House chief of staff who stays on to help him, Burgess Meredith as a powerful but racist senator, and William Windom as the would-be kingmaker Secretary of State with Barbara Rush as his ambitious wife. Closer to home is Janet MacLachlan as Dilman’s activist daughter who butts heads with her father and Georg Stanford Brown as Robert Wheeler, a young activist accused of a crime that puts him at the heart of a diplomatic incident involving the apartheid regime. Their interactions with Jones as Dilman bring out some wonderful moments in his performance, as well as giving each of them some solid material to play with on their own, especially in regards to Meredith and Windom trying to keep the upper hand.
It’s as a production that the film is at its most mixed. Joseph Sargent’s direction has an assurance throughout, and surprisingly mobile given The Man was made in the era before Steadicam. Indeed, there are times when the shots in White House corridors offer pre-echoes of The West Wing’s famed “walk and talks”.
Legendary film score composer Jerry Goldsmith also hands in a sparse but effective score, built around the main title theme that captures the promise and pomp of the presidency, as well as the poignant loneliness of the office. Yet for all of that, the fact that The Man was a made-for-TV movie given a cinematic release instead is clear throughout, with even the White House sets lacking a feature film’s sense of full decoration, or how protest scenes are shot really close-up by and large, and especially in the film’s final sequence which betrays the budget despite Sargent’s direction. None of which is fatal, but it does take the film down a star or two.
If Jones as Dilman is the heart, then the script from Rod Serling is the soul. Serling, the legendary creator of The Twilight Zone and who had adapted Seven Days in May for the screen, had the unenviable task of adapting a sprawling 800 page novel by Irving Wallace (who, two decades on, would write the “Hitler survived WWII” novel The Seventh Secret ). Given the passage of time between the novel’s publication and the film was produced, and knowing it was an eternity in political time, it isn’t difficult to imagine that Serling didn’t make use of a good deal of the novel’s content. Indeed, the passing of the 25th amendment, with its effects upon the line of presidential succession, likely played some role as well. How much of the novel made it into this 90-minute film, I can’t say, but I’d be surprised if much did.
What’s left here is a compelling narrative centred on the obvious questions of race in America immediately after the Civil Rights era and how that would affect relations with apartheid South Africa. Serling’s script does its best not to sugar coat things, which sees some racial epithets used that would be no-goes today (and with a character’s utterance of one quoted on one of the film’s posters), and that itself is something that dates the film. Yet, like much of Serling’s scriptwriting, there’s also a timely quality to it for the same reason as the questions it asks about race and politics, and how an African-American president would deal with matters of race, have resonance even in the post-Obama world.
Finally, The Man was to prove to be prophetic in another way. Dilman is thrust into the Oval Office by an unlikely series of events, making him a president that is an accidental and unelected one. Within a couple of years of the film’s release, Gerald Ford, a congressman appointed vice-president by Richard Nixon and confirmed by Congress, would assume the presidency without ever having been elected thanks to the Watergate scandal. Ford’s presidency would, like Dilman’s, prove to have its own series of ups and downs until Ford would, after a bitter campaign for his party’s nomination, lose the 1976 presidential election.
Perhaps proving that fact is stranger than fiction.
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Matthew Kresal is the author of Our Man on the Hill, published by SLP, and is a contributing author to Building a Better Future, an anthology of stories to raise money to help rebuild Ukraine, published by Sergeant Frosty Publications.
His list of books can be found Here.