Everyone's a critic -- even Bill Clinton

The president joins Roger Ebert at the movies.

Published February 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's often embarrassing to see public figures trying to act like ordinary people, discussing the things most of us talk about routinely when we're hanging out with friends. And it's wise to be wary of people who make vague and unrealistic statements like, "I love movies!" and, "I try to see everything."

But when Bill Clinton made a guest appearance to talk about films on "Roger Ebert & the Movies" Sunday night, he was surprisingly relaxed -- hardly at all like a public figure trying to act like a regular guy. Maybe that was because the president seems to have actually put some thought into why he likes the movies he does. And even if you disagreed with his taste, you would have to admit that he did a better job articulating his opinions than your average dinner party guest. As for seeing "everything," Clinton did mention "Comedian Harmonists," a 1997 Austrian-German picture about a 1930s singing group of the same name. This isn't a guy who limits himself to the new releases rack at Blockbuster.

Nor is Clinton a guy who merely drops the names of foreign films just to sound enlightened. He loves the perennial American favorites "High Noon" and "Casablanca," and had some insightful things to say about both "American Beauty" and "Fight Club," two pictures that anyone could have seen at a suburban multiplex.

Roger Ebert probably helped by striking the right note at the start of the show. He seemed relaxed himself, and effortlessly unobsequious. He mentioned "Fight Club" as a movie that disavows affluence and consumerism, which seemed like a thinly veiled way of getting the president to consider economics as they're reflected in the movies. Clinton responded by noting that while it's important to acknowledge that money isn't everything, lower unemployment and poverty rates do create "the possibility of fashioning a life that has integrity and meaning."

When Ebert mentioned "Three Kings," Clinton, with puppylike enthusiasm, cut him off. "I loved 'Three Kings,' did you like 'Three Kings'?" he asked as if he hoped that Ebert would agree, but was ready to go to the mat if he didn't. Oddly enough, although many liberal critics have accused "Three Kings" of whitewashing the Gulf War -- in a recent "Sight and Sound" piece, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman cluelessly treats the movie as just another glorification of a clearly unnecessary war -- Clinton seems to grasp just what the movie is about.

In fact, Clinton was more articulate about "Three Kings" than many critics were. He saw the movie as an indication that we need to face up to society's "oldest, most primitive problem, our tribalism, our tendency to go beyond a natural pride in our group, whether it's a racial or ethnic or religious group or whatever," which results in "fear and distrust and dehumanization and violence against 'the other.'"

Sure, he admitted to having liked the action sequences, but he'd also looked beyond the movie's obvious face value. He trotted out the old line about not just tolerating but celebrating our differences (OK, we've heard it too many times before), but then added, "The only way you can do that is to be secure in the knowledge that your common humanity is more important than your most significant differences."

If he hasn't already seen "The Rules of the Game," it's a safe bet it wouldn't be lost on him.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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Bill Clinton Roger Ebert