Teens may think that it does not really matter who gets elected President. Or, they may think that the important issues in this year’s election are the domestic controversies that attract most of the coverage, like abortion and gun control. This movie gives teens a chance to think about the importance of a candidate’s character and judgment, and to imagine how they might respond if presented with the direst circumstances.
The movie is set in 2007. Iraq has invaded Kuwait and President Emerson has to respond quickly. At first, his advisers worry about how his response will affect the campaign. Then, when Emerson tells the Iraqis that he will use a nuclear weapon to destroy Baghdad, his advisers worry about survival.
One of the movie’s strengths is its grounding in recent history, including the bombing of Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Operation Desert Storm. The movie begins with news footage of Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton explaining, as they send troops into battle, that what they are doing will save lives and promote peace.
Like his predecessors, President Emerson must decide how to respond to aggression that affects the US indirectly – for the moment. But unlike his predecessors, he does not have the luxury of time. In the past, it took days to move troops around, and diplomats used that time to negotiate. But there is no time for diplomacy when both sides have nuclear bombs and one refuses to back down.
Emerson has a couple of additional complications. Like Gerald Ford, he was appointed Vice President and then became President unexpectedly. He has never been elected to national office, and is concerned that he does not have the broad support of the voters. The threat from Iraq comes in the middle of his first campaign for the Presidency. And Emerson is Jewish. The Iraqi diplomat refuses to negotiate with him because of his religion. And he worries that aggressive action will be seen by Americans as unnecessary, risky, and more based on concerns about Israel than about the US and world peace.
Talk to teens about how Presidents have made these decisions in the past, those that were successful, those that failed, and those that are still being debated. Ask them whose advice they would listen to, if they were in Emerson’s position, and what they would do if they did not have his Hollywood-style convenient resolution. What kind of qualities should a President have, and how are those qualities revealed in campaigns? What do they think about the way Emerson accepted the consequences of his decision?
FAMILY CONNECTIONS: Two excellent movies released in 1964 raised the prospect of a mistakenly fired nuclear weapon. The better remembered of the two is the classic comedy “Dr. Strangelove.” But the dramatic version, “Fail-Safe,” is also worth watching.