Are big-screen bureaucrats anything like their real-life government counterparts? Short answer: No. Long answer: They're infinitely better. While the paper pushers in the real Washington sit behind desks and talk through press secretaries, the ones in the movies are doing real, important things--like saving the world.
Take, for example, Harrison Ford. You won't find find him doing much talking as POTUS in Air Force One (1997)-- he's too busy taking down terrorists in hand-to-gun combat and trying to save innocent bystanders aboard the presidential jet. We can guarantee that President Obama's never tried to save his deputy press secretary from Russian radicals while on Air Force One. So we took to the movies and compiled a list of 10 Hollywood bureaucrats you wish were running our country.
1. Wedding Crashers (2005)
Christopher Walken as Tim Cleary, Secretary of the Treasury
Christopher Walken as the powerful secretary of the Treasury is hilariously clueless about the antics of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers. Thankfully, the ability to spot a party crasher isn't needed in the secretary's day job. What they require is a little more knowledge of financial policies. From his days in the Office of Management and Budget, to his sometimes controversial private-sector experience, current Secretary Jacob Lew acts a little less of a fool. And good thing too: Lew has been through some tough battles and will continue them in the future, including the ongoing implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform.
We do think that one thing Walken does better is signing his name—but only marginally.
2. J. Edgar (2011)
Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, Director of the FBI
We know, we know: J. Edgar Hoover was a real bureaucrat. But Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of the infamous FBI director tends more towards the fictional: As critics have pointed out, the screenplay is an amalgam of factual historical events, rumors of Hoover's sexuality and love life, and a tortured, overly dramatic rendering of ambition and paranoia.
DiCaprio's character is a lot more lenient with the law than the current director-designate, James Comey. Set to succeed Robert Mueller in the position, Comey is J. Edgar's ethical antithesis. When he was working as the deputy to Attorney General John Ashcroft, he threatened to resign rather than agree to re-certify the Bush administration's domestic-surveillance program. In terms of real-life governance, that's pretty dramatic. According to his most fervent supporters--which include President Obama-- Comey is a man that sticks to his principles. It's a likely bet that, unlike DiCaprio, he's not one to see legal violations as just "bending the rules a little bit."
3. and 4. Dave (1993)
Frank Langella as Bob Alexander, White House Chief of Staff
Kevin Dunn as Alan Reed, White House Comms Director
Dave (1993) provides us with a double serving of two great Washington insiders. When the president has a heart attack while engaging in an affair with a White House staffer, Frank Langella as the White House chief of staff and Kevin Dunn as its communications director rush to cover up the scandal. The real challenge: fooling the entire country into believing their president isn't gravely ill. To save face in public, they recruit Dave—a nobody off the streets of Georgetown—to impersonate the leader of the free world. It's not quite in the real-life job description, but we're sure the current Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough can both agree that their jobs in the heart of Washington aren't easy.
And in an ironic twist, Palmieri's career has a surprising parallel to Kevin Dunn's communications director role. Palmieri, in a former life as a deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House, has also fought against allegations of a president's extramarital activities.
5. Contact (1997)
James Woods as Michael Kitz, National Security Adviser
In this strangely sentimental sci-fi movie, James Woods does an excellent job as national security adviser. After all, castigating Jodie Foster when she talks about close encounters with aliens is precisely what's required of a handpicked presidential appointee. If only. But unlike her Hollywood counterpart, current National Security Adviser Susan Rice isn't known for skewering scientists on the threat of alien invasion. Instead, she's been on the receiving end of the congressional firing squad: Earlier this year, Rice even had to withdraw from consideration as secretary of State because of Republican backlash over her public comments on the Benghazi attack in Libya.
6. Ghostbusters (1984)
William Atherton as Walter Peck, EPA Inspector
He's lean, he's mean, he's an arresting machine. William Atherton as Environmental Protection Agency inspector Walter Peck lays down the environmental law in our favorite '80s flick, Ghostbusters. This EPA agent may have single-handedly destroyed the planet if not for the famous vanguard of paranormal police, but he sure is entertaining when he's apoplectic.
And then there's the current inspector general at EPA, Arthur Elkins. He's not as trigger happy as Atherton, but his role does have him strictly overseeing and auditing EPA and its contractors. Granted, it's not the most exciting of job descriptions. On the other hand, he never ordered the shutdown of a nuclear device releasing hundreds of ghosts to wreak havoc upon the streets of New York City. So that's always a plus.
7. Traffic (2000)
Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, Office of National Drug Control Policy
Michael Douglas must look distinctly Washingtonian, for all the bureaucrats he's played on the big screen. He's appeared as a Superior Court judge in The Star Chamber (1983), as a government agent in Haywire (2011), and as president in The American President (1995). In Traffic, he plays the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in another of his vast film oeuvre. The current director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, shares startling similarities with Douglas's character, who becomes personally embroiled in the drug war after learning of his own daughter's cocaine addiction. Kerlikowske also has a familial relationship to illicit drug use: his now-estranged stepson has previously faced misdemeanor charges related to marijuana possession. He had stints as Chief of Police in several cities before he took over in revamping our national drug-control policy.
8. Seven Days in May (1964)
Burt Lancaster as Air Force Gen. James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff
Accused of being a "strutting egoist with a napoleonic complex" and criticized by the president for an attempted military coup of the U.S. government, Burt Lancaster's character is arguably Hollywood's most dynamic--and power-hungry--Air Force general. It's a personality that's quite the polar opposite of our current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Martin Dempsey, who actually wanted to turn down the chairmanship, saying he was content commanding the Army. But when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on him to lead, the West Point graduate couldn't decline.
That sense of duty to country is as strong in the current chairman as Lancaster's fictional Air Force general. But that's where the similarity ends--we can't imagine, for instance, the overly serious James Scott singing with a fine tenor voice. According to the National Journal's profile on Gen. Dempsey, the Chairman likes to show off at official functions with his renditions of Irish ballads and "New York, New York."
9. No Way Out (1987)
Gene Hackman as Secretary of Defense David Brice
Gene Hackman sees a lot of blood spilled in his No Way Out role as secretary of Defense. Hackman doesn't seem to be too concerned with policy making, though: His screen time isn't spent running the Pentagon or working around an increasingly sparse defense budget. Then again, being involved in a murder cover-up at the top tiers of government tends to take up all of one's time.
Current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can probably attest that his days aren't filled in quite the same way. Hagel has too much on his plate trying to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dealing with potential nuclear threats in the Middle East, to really be of any use in fabricating elaborate cover stories for the murder of lovers ... we hope.
10. Air Force One
Donna Bullock as Deputy Press Secretary Melanie Mitchell
Donna Bullock as a deputy press secretary certainly gets the raw end of the deal. She might get to fly on Air Force One with the president, but she also has the dubious honor of being held hostage by Gary Oldman, Russian terrorist extraordinaire. White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest probably wouldn't want the job if that were a regular occurrence--though we bet that after the recent public relations nightmare of the IRS-DOJ-NSA scandal trifecta, he can handle himself in a crisis.