A true ’70s obscurity that’s well worth tracking down, The Man is a whip-smart imaginary tale about the first black U.S. president. Built around a taut screenplay by Rod Serling and a commanding performance by James Earl Jones, the picture now seems quite prescient—believe it or not, the title character’s campaign slogan is “Change.” Based on a novel by Irving Wallace, the story presents a convoluted chain of events leading to the installation of Sen. Douglass Dilman as president. After the previous commander in chief and the Speaker of the House are killed in an accident, the sitting vice president exits the line of succession because he’s terminally ill. Thus, the presidency falls to the Senate’s pro tem president, Dilman. This doesn’t sit well with white power brokers including Secretary of State Eaton (William Windom), who has designs on the Oval Office, and Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith), an unapologetic racist from an unnamed Southern state. As a result, Dilman is a political target from the moment he takes power.
Even potential supporters have issues with Dilman, simply because his ascension carries the weight of history. In one of the film’s best quiet moments, Dilman shares an exchange with his activist daughter, Wanda (Janet MacLachlan), the night he inherits the presidency. “They were expecting a black messiah,” Dilman says about African-Americans. Her reply? “What they’ve got is a black president—that’s more than they’ve ever gotten.” Then Dilman delivers the kicker, which resonates strongly in the Obama era: “I can’t be what everyone wants me to be.” The Man poignantly anticipates the gulf between dreams and reality that has been the source of so much anti-Obama criticism and disappointment.
Yet The Man cleverly sidesteps the question of what a black president might do with a mandate, instead portraying Dilman as a dedicated public servant who inherits a racially charged mess. At the moment he takes the oath of office, a young African-American college student is under suspicion following an attempt on the South African defense minister’s life, and a minority-rights bill is working its way through Congress. Worse, domestic adversaries including Watson, Eaton, and Eaton’s Lady Macbeth-esque wife, Kay (Barbara Rush), forge political wedges with which to dislodge Dilman’s political standing, lest the accidental president decide he wants a full term.
The Man is preachy and talky—Serling shares with Aaron Sorkin the debate-club approach to dramatic structure—but the plot churns with enough Beltway skullduggery to ground the speechifying in suspense. Director Joseph Sargent, a reliable TV-trained helmer, serves the material well by staying out of the way, and the acting is uniformly vivid. Meredith and Rush are believably loathsome as D.C. barracudas, Georg Sanford Brown lends fire as the impassioned college student, and the great Martin Balsam provides gravitas and warmth as the president’s chief of staff. The whole movie rests on Jones’ shoulders, however, and he meets the challenge with grace. Portraying an intellectual who has channeled his indignation into diplomatic rhetoric, Jones employs his formidable powers to convey charisma, strength, and wisdom—the very qualities that, decades later, distinguish the individual who changed history in the real world the way the Dilman character changed history in the reel world.
The Man: RIGHT ON