“All the Presidents’ Movies” makes tremendous television, mainly because it skillfully blends bits of inconsequential but juicy trivia with powerful insight into the presidential psyche. While it might seem slight to know which commander in chief watched the most movies (Jimmy Carter averaged one every three days), it’s intriguing to learn how films influenced the most influential.
Although three straight hours on commercial TV can be a challenging sit, the program is crammed with wonderful facts we never figured on caring about. And there are alternately touching and poignant moments that history buffs will cherish: Eisenhower loved Westerns but would not watch Robert Mitchum movies because of his disdain for the actor’s late-40s pot bust. Lyndon Johnson’s favorite flick was a 10-minute documentary about his transition to the presidency. Gerald Ford once fell asleep during the animated opening credits of a “Pink Panther” film, awoke during the end credits and told his family that he couldn’t believe they had sat through a two-hour cartoon.
There’s also information that historians — and maybe conspiracy theorists — will find intriguing: Nixon watched “Patton” just before ordering the bombing of Cambodia. After George W. Bush screened “Black Hawk Down,” he said his military would always get everything it needed. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that the climactic speech of “Mrs. Miniver” be printed on leaflets and dropped over occupied Europe.
The documentary makes room for controversy, of course, starting with the first film ever shown inside the White House: a 1915 screening of the entirely dicey “The Birth of a Nation.” Seems that Woodrow Wilson owed a favor to an old classmate who wrote the film’s source material, “The Clansman.” And there are hints that “Murder in the Air” — a minor 1940 film starring Reagan as a Secret Service agent trying to stop enemy spies from stealing America’s “ray gun”-like defense weapon — might have been an impetus for President Reagan’s ill-fated Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “star wars.”
It’s also interesting — and potentially controversial — to learn how presidents influenced films. An aging Jack L. Warner allowed Nixon to nix a politically sensitive number in the movie version of the Broadway musical “1776.” And John F. Kennedy supervised the casting of Cliff Robertson as the young Navy lieutenant in “PT 109,” then coached the actor not to use the regional accent.
The program bounces around, often seeming to lack focus or follow an outline. But then again, a chronological presentation would never have worked. And not every excursion in the three hours is a winner. For example, David O. Russell’s self-indulgent home video taken when his “Three Kings” screened at the White House goes on forever and is wildly inconsequential.
But overall it’s impossible to resist most of the nuggets presented in the show from exec producers Brett Hudson, Burt Kearns, William Knoedelseder and Irv Letofsky. The documentary will air as part of a cross-promotional campaign for Bravo’s Monday launch of “The West Wing” in syndication. That series’ chief executive, Martin Sheen, does a solid job of narrating.