- - Monday, February 22, 2016

Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio may be promising very different approaches to the White House, but they appear to at least share the same taste when it comes to morally ambiguous strongmen in movies.

When asked to name their favorite films, both men — and they are far from alone among recent presidential hopefuls — have named one or more of the “Godfather” films, whose most-iconic character famously offered a rival “an offer he can’t refuse,” a practice not unknown in the political world, if usually not tied to assassination threats.

This is, to an extent, not a surprise. Part of it is generational — the two more-revered films in the trilogy were huge box office hits made in the early 1970s, and each won the Academy Award for best picture (“The Godfather, Part II” was at the time the only sequel ever to do so). Someone who was a child or a teenager then would be in his political prime years now.

Besides Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio, recent presidential candidates Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, as well as President Obama, have cited “The Godfather” and/or its sequel.

Scott Cawelti, who teaches film studies at the University of Northern Iowa, noted that candidates can be expected to choose safely when it comes to naming their favorite movies.

“The more familiar and publicly beloved the candidates’ favorite movie, the more a candidate seems like a normal, everyday good person,” Mr. Cawelti said. “So no widely controversial movie will make the list. No David Lynch for sure, or even any foreign language film. Too quirky. No candidate wants to seem like they are above the masses or mass tastes. ‘Elitist’ would be a dreaded tag.”

Strategies and numbers aren’t everything. Talking about favorite movies paints a presidential candidate as an ordinary person, akin to other forms of’ personal revelations such as their strong marriages and love for family or defining moments such as surviving a deadly disease or a religious conversion.

“The benefit of talking about favorite movies or television shows or sports teams is the element of humanness. You use it to create a personal connection with voters. They don’t have to agree with you; it just shows you care about things outside of the world of politics,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Yet it can also be substantive — any half-serious cinephile can tell you that a favorite film offers clues to a person’s character.

Mr. Trump, for example, runs as the man who can get things done for America by whatever means — whether that means interrogation techniques worse than waterboarding (“leave the jug; take the cannoli,” to paraphrase a “Godfather” line), or hinting that China could be persuaded to do to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un what some mob rivals did to Sonny Corleone.

Consistent with his blunt Jersey persona, Mr. Christie made the political point of the “Godfather” films directly. When children at a Camden elementary school asked him about his favorite movie, he replied “The Godfather” and added, “That’s a more important answer for the legislators than it is for you.”

Mr. Rubio, the youngest contender in either party’s race, also counts some newer films among his favorites. He told The Daily Caller that “Pulp Fiction” and the raunchy comedy “Wedding Crashers” are two of his favorites, as well as the first two “Godfather” films. He said the consensus view about the third installment, made in 1990, is merely “OK.”

Mr. Rubio’s choices, a mix of new and old classics, might say something in and of itself.

“You can use the selections to reinforce an image of yourself to voters,” said Mr. Schnur. “Rubio is running as a next-generation candidate, and just as he talks about rap music, he picks a couple of movies that might appeal to a younger crowd.”

During the last debate before the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Christie laid into Mr. Rubio by dismissing his fellow “Godfather” fan as a repetitive robot. Given how that meme stuck, Mr. Rubio might have felt that debate was Mr. Christie’s equivalent of sending him a horse head. Mr. Christie dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire contest.

The “Godfather” films are also about family loyalty. The overarching plot of the trilogy is Michael Corleone’s attempts to resist following in the footsteps of his father, Don Vito Corleone (a dream shared by Vito in the first film) and in the later films to “go legit.” But fate and family loyalty — an attack on Vito, the killing of brother Sonny, later events — always “pull me back in,” Michael laments in the third film.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising (or is it?) that the campaign of Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, did not mention “The Godfather” when asked about his favorite movie before dropping out this weekend.

Instead, the former Florida governor’s favorite film is the 2006 Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” said his son Jeb Jr.

Indeed, after the intense ridicule Mr. Ferrell has aimed at former President George W. Bush, this choice might suggest a more forgiving personality in the matter of brother insults than Michael Corleone.

Of course, one might wonder whether a politician can be trusted, even with something as seemingly benign as naming a favorite movie. Mr. Schnur says political campaigns study such details carefully.

“My first campaign job after college was working for then Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. We would collect these types of questions: favorite food, favorite music, favorite movies. A candidate might like an extremely controversial movie in private, but they’re probably not going to tell the world,” he said.

“There’s no reason to doubt that these are movies the candidates did enjoy,” he said. “But they’ll also be careful to pick. They’ll make selections that aren’t going to offend very many people.”

Most of the candidates in the current election cycle who have mentioned favorite films besides “The Godfather” are clearly sending some sort of political message.

Not one to be thought of as en elitist, Sen. Ted Cruz told The Washington Times that “The Princess Bride,” Rob Reiner’s 1987 fantasy adventure, is his favorite. The senator has even been known to quote his favorite scenes to audiences and reporters.

Mandy Patinkin, one of the film’s stars, has admonished Mr. Cruz for “not putting forth ideas that are at the heart of what the movie is about,” but that doesn’t appear to have affected the senator’s love of the film one bit.

“The Princess Bride” tells a parody-fantasy story of knights battling one another and evil beasts for the hand of a fair maiden, but is framed as a bedtime story that a grandfather is reading to a boy.

One of Mr. Cruz’s more famous Capitol Hill moments had a similar touch. He maintained the Senate floor during a filibuster by reading aloud “Green Eggs and Ham” so his daughters could watch him tell their nightly bedtime story.

One of Mr. Trump’s film choices seems all too appropriate. He gave Movieline in 2012 a list of his five favorites, which besides “The Godfather” were “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Goodfellas” and, in first place, “Citizen Kane.”

Orson Welles’ 1941 drama centers on a tycoon who, among other things, runs for political office because the voters love him. Does this sound familiar? Indeed, in the scene that wraps up that section of the film, the editor at Kane’s newspaper chooses between the banner headlines “Kane Elected!” and “Fraud at Polls!” anticipating by more than 70 years Mr. Trump’s reaction to his defeat at the Iowa caucuses by Mr. Cruz.

“‘Kane’ is a great choice since Trump potentially understands the emptiness of untold wealth and the ego required to rule over it all. ‘Kane’ is actually a dark, tragic story and a warning about how little happiness money will buy,” Mr. Cawelti said.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told Buzzfeed that his favorite movie is James Cameron’s 1994 spy film “True Lies,” which he called a “very, very funny movie,” a rare appreciation of the action bonanza’s clever, humorous moments.

Democrat Hillary Clinton is married to a famous cinephile, but she has some classic favorites of her own. She cites “The Wizard of Oz” as the favorite movie of her youth, with “Casablanca” and “Out of Africa” among her adulthood favorites.

“‘Casablanca’ and ‘Out of Africa’ are both classics of the romantic genre, but not slushy rom-coms at all,” Mr. Cawelti said about Mrs. Clinton’s choices. “They are serious films that take women seriously. Just like the candidate is supposed to.”

Mr. Cawelti noted the bipartisan nature of the picks. “Imagine a tea party type listing a Michael Moore film or a Democrat liking ‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,’” Mr. Cawelti said. “Why risk losing votes unnecessarily?”

Even candidates no longer in the running sent clear messages with their choices.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a longtime critic of the surveillance state and drone strikes, picked the 1998 Will Smith thriller “Enemy of the State,” which centers on a National Security Agency plot to kill a U.S. congressman and the subsequent cover-up.

Carly Fiorina told Fox News that her favorite film is the 2010 period drama “Secretariat” because “it’s about both a woman and a horse that are underestimated and that surprise everyone” by winning horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Sen. Bernard Sanders couldn’t be reached for comment on his favorite movie. For a man of the people, he likes to keep his movie preferences close to the vest, but Mr. Cawelti has an idea.

“I might guess what his favorite would be: Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film ‘Modern Times.’ Oppression and triumph of the working class, funny, and it’s very old.”

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