Early in The President’s Analyst, Wynn Quantrill (William Daniels), self-described political liberal, explains why he keeps his house—perfectly secure, deep in the New Jersey suburbs—packed with guns. It’s because of all the right-wingers, like the Bullocks down the road. Real fascists. “American flags up every day,” Wynn says, eyes darting this way and that, “Right-wing extremists. Disarm them, and us liberals will disarm.”
In this 1967 movie, paranoia like Wynn’s runs rampant. This is a world where distinctions between good guys and bad guys are increasingly uncertain, where the response to such ambiguity is the threat of force, even if it undermines the very identities you’re trying to rescue from doubt.
The President's Analyst
James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney
US DVD: 8 Jun 2004
Such uncertainty is clear in the movie’s neurotic premise, in which Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn), a successful Manhattan psychiatrist, is recruited by “CEA” agent Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) to minister to the psychological needs of the President of the United States. Although Sidney reacts with detached fascination on learning that the President might require services of this sort, the rest of us might be understandably less sanguine about it.
As you might expect, Sidney’s new job disrupts his life completely. Uprooted from New York City to Washington, D.C., he’s summoned to therapy sessions too randomly and frequently for him and his would-be fiancée Nan (Joan Delaney) to establish any sort of new life, never mind the beautiful new house they’re provided in Georgetown. Spies of sundry nations take after Sidney on the fairly safe assumption that his sessions with the Chief Executive have left him in possession of state secrets. The combination of being constantly pulled away to the White House and being dogged by foreign agents on the streets of Washington, prove more than Sidney can take and, paranoid to the verge of nervous breakdown, he engineers his escape by picking a family on a White House tour—the aforementioned Quantrills—and convincing them to drive him out of Washington to their home in New Jersey for a few days, on the pretext that he’s conducting research on behalf of the President.
At this point, the movie really gets underway: the CEA scrambles to round up Sidney; smelling blood in the water, the rival Federal Board of Regulations puts out orders to kill him; and hostile and friendly governments from the Russians to the Canadians all redouble their efforts to find out what he knows. It’s a bigger mess than Max and 99 ever managed to stir up.
Never seen or heard, the executive office holder in The President’s Analyst has serious emotional issues, but because of the regard with which Sidney holds doctor-client privilege, we never learn what they are. Neither is it ever established what official mysteries Sidney might have accidentally gleaned while studying the President’s psyche, so that like so many other spy and caper movies of the time, The President’s Analyst revolves around something that could be called a maguffin.
Usually, the maguffin is a physical object—the microfilm in The Defector (1966), say, or the mysterious red scroll in Never Say Anything Wet (1967)—the specific content of which is less important than the fact that everyone wants it. In The President’s Analyst, what we have is more like a mega-maguffin: the mere potential for a mystery, the mere assumption on the part of the various interested parties that Sidney is carrying something of interest in his noodle, by virtue of his circumstance. Up until the movie’s climax, when Sidney and the audience are finally apprised of a genuine secret, there is always the chance that he knows nothing of value.
All the mystery makes everybody redouble their efforts, since their ignorance leads them to assume the worst, or at least the most dramatic. One of the movie’s more memorable scenes has Sidney rolling about in a meadow with a dreamy-eyed flower child (Nan having long since been forgotten, apparently), oblivious to a great nest of assassins and abductors closing in for the kill on all sides. At the moment of truth, each would-be killer is overpowered by another, and the scene ends with an aerial shot of the couple, unperturbed in their lovemaking and still unaware of the many dead spies, all victims of the movie’s principle that the less people know, the more they compensate with force. Sidney, never so much of a prize as these frantic governments seem to think, is at his most oblivious here—mop-headed and paisleyed by virtue of his effort to go undercover in a rock band.
The scene also serves as a punch-line for the movie’s running joke about the inscrutable motives and ideologies of national governments. Soon this is boiled down to the two principal political players of the Cold War, when V.I. Kydor Kropotkin (Severn Darden), a Soviet spy, kidnaps Sidney by commandeering a yacht he’s on and pointing it toward Mother Russia. The idea, Kropotkin says, is for Sidney to defect, an act he tries to make sound less like a sellout to authoritarian communism than it might otherwise seem. “Every day your country becomes more socialistic, my country becomes more capitalistic,” he explains as he and Sidney cruise the peaceful seas. “Pretty soon we’ll meet in the middle and join hands.”
And what might this meeting in the middle, this muddling of nation states into a blend of capitalist and authoritarian ideologies, look like? The movie’s climax gives us more than a clue when Sidney’s path is diverted one last time, into the secretive corporate headquarters of TPC—“The Phone Company,” a knockoff of Bell Telephone, which was in 1967 a tremendous and unpopular monopoly. Spirited away to the star chamber at the center of TPC, Sidney is briefed, James Bond-villain style, on the future of the human race by TPC president Arlington Hewes (Pat Harrington), aided by an animated film that sends up the brilliant propaganda cartoons Frank Capra and others made for Bell Labs throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.
Only this ain’t Our Mr. Sun. The company’s scheme, Hewes explains, is to make communication more convenient by embedding electrical chips called “cerebrum communicators”—which are rendered in the cartoon as adorable, big-eyed sprites—straight into its customers’ brains, thereby eliminating the need for expensive cable lines and infrastructure. In effect, TPC hopes to turn its customers into nodes of its communications network. “Congress will have to pass a law substituting personal numbers for names,” Hewes explains placidly, “as the only legal means of identification.” This technological nightmare fuses free-market corporatism gone amuck with the regimentation and loss of individuality that characterized the Soviet empire—a meeting in the middle.
Sidney doesn’t think much of Hewes’ idea, particularly not when he discovers Hewes is himself an automaton, powered—as is the entire TPC board of directors—by what looks like a 1/4” phono plug running into his right ankle. So a calculating conspiracy lurks behind all this chaotic spy craft and political infighting, after all.
As political dystopias go, The President’s Analyst is impressively forward-looking, presaging not only movies like Westworld (1973) and Blade Runner (1982), but also more recent movies like The Matrix (1999), in which humans become mere accessories in artificial systems. In some other ways, The President’s Analyst is a bit less prescient. For instance, in its implication that the vagaries of public sector politics are offset by the clarities, however sinister, of the free market. Once Sidney learns about the plot at TPC, the path to world salvation becomes perfectly clear. It involves yet one more application of force—only this one is as decisive as the others have been feckless and confused. Sidney grabs a machine gun and some compatriots who have infiltrated the TPC building, and together they mow down the firm’s malevolent androids like so many movie extras. Problem solved—at least for now.
The apparent moral of this story—that the world can be kept safe for baffling political intrigue only so long as the misguided utopianism of the free market is kept at bay—doesn’t date particularly well, founded as it is on fairly clear lines of distinction between public and private enterprise. Thirty-seven years later—in an era of Enron-sponsored energy task forces and private contractors who do the work of soldiers—the question is less whether the public or private sector will prevail, than whether there remains any way to tell the two apart anymore.