Presidential Imaginaries: Narrative, Phantasia, and the Historical U.s. President in Fictional Film

Open Access
Camacci, Lauren Rose
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
January 28, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Kirtley Hasketh Wilson, Thesis Advisor
  • U.S. presidents
  • film
  • popular culture
  • narrative
  • phantasia
  • rhetoric
Presidential Studies represents a robust facet of the field of rhetorical studies. Numerous distinguished scholars have shaped their entire career around the study of the United States presidency. Many other well-respected scholars of rhetoric focus their studies on the analysis of film. Both these areas of study have enriched rhetorical scholarship over the decades. Rarely, however, have studies of fictional film and studies of the historical U.S. president met. This is the intervention of this thesis. This thesis provides an in-depth examination of this phenomenon through an analysis of twelve feature-length fictional films. The project seeks to uncover the ways these fictional films portray the historical U.S. presidency, aided by the interactions of narrative and phantasia. After laying the preliminary theoretical background and structure of the thesis in chapter one, chapter two investigates the historical and contemporary presence of the U.S. president in popular culture, as well as the ways the president often becomes popular culture through various media portrayals. Chapter three of this thesis analyzes ten fictional films that feature historical U.S. presidents as characters, such as Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. The analysis follows two emergent criteria for analysis, exploring (1) phantasia-influenced portrayals of access to the president and (2) Walter Fisher’s narrative rationality and the creation of “realistic” presidential interactions in the films. I argue that these ten films bend or break either narrative fidelity or rationality in a way that disrupts what viewers believe makes sense or know to be true. This gap created—between reality and the images brought “before the eyes” onscreen—creates space for viewers to use phantasia to “see” the U.S. president and presidency engaged in non-historically sound actions. The fourth chapter in this thesis presents a detailed examination of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and FDR: American Badass!. Here I argue that these two films represent the entelechy of the historical-president-as-character in fictional film. These two films push the boundaries of how far the historical-president-as-character in fictional film can go and demonstrate the limits of phantasia in truly altering viewer understandings of the presidency and its interactions with popular culture. This project ultimately demonstrates three things: First, although the phenomenon of including the historical president as a character in fictional film outwardly appears to be reaching exceptional new levels, representations of the historical president in fiction tend to be remarkably conservative, reifying audience preconceptions of presidents like Abraham Lincoln. Second, considering the rhetorical concepts of narrative and phantasia as symbiotic facilitates an enriched understanding of each. Third, traditional boundaries protecting the president from the low-taste elements of the entertainment industry have deteriorated, creating the presidency as an extra “hook” for Hollywood films and ultimately opening the door for the president to become personally involved in fictional acting endeavors. By appropriating the historical president as a character, fictional films collapse the metaphorical distance between the president and the people.