The following is an edited anthropological research review of the 1993 film, Dave. Initially written as an assignment for a course at KSU, it has since been revised. Scholars interested in anthropology and human psychology are chief among the target audience. This review is meant to encourage deeper discussion about the concepts discussed therein, including social, psychological, and cultural significance. Like with my review of Roxanne, this starts with a film summary, then makes use of the textbook The Essence of Anthropology, 4th Edition as a reference. Just like last time, it also recalls discussed concepts in the Intro to Anthropology course offered at Kennesaw State University. This particular academic review focuses on roles and social classes, with particular attention paid to the United States class system.
Dave starts off following two separate individuals, Bill Mitchell, acting president of the United States, and Dave Kovic, an impressionist who runs a temp agency. As it turns out, he pulls off near perfect impressions of Bill Mitchell, which caught the attention of the Secret Service, including Agent Duane Stevenson, who appears to lead the Secret Service at the time. They hire Dave to stand in for Bill Mitchell at a public appearance while he is otherwise preoccupied, and is brought on for longer by Chief of Staff Bob Alexander and White House Communications Director Alan Reed after Mitchell suffers a crippling stroke. Dave starts shaking things up, acting with the Executive Authority he’s suddenly given to help people. He even manages to sway Alan Reed to his side when he balances the budget to fund shelters for homeless children. He is discovered by First Lady Ellen Mitchell, who hates her actual husband, but falls in love with Dave. At the end, Bob and Dave are at odds, resulting in Bob being fired and then trying to get Dave in trouble using allegations of Bill’s corruption. Dave feigns a stroke after calling a joint hearing of the House and Senate to lay out the facts, clear the name of Vice President Nance, and set Nance up to be sworn in to continue an initiative to create jobs that Dave started.
The movie has a long list of characters, so for the sake of keeping this document down to a reasonable length, I’ve selected who I believe to be the seven most important ones on the list. The first two are Bill Mitchell, whose role in the White House Staff is that of the President, and Dave Kovic, the stand-in that was hired on and wound up with executive authority after Mitchell’s incapacitation. It is worth noting that Dave does start out at a lower social status, the indicators of which are his lower quality attire and office, and his mention of lower “barter based” income. Such indicators align with a discussion about “Indicators of Social Status” in chapter Thirteen of the text The Essence of Anthropology. It is important to note that social statuses can be ascribed or achieved in any society as discussed in the Status and Role web page on palomar.edu. Achieved statuses are acquired by doing something of social, cultural, military, or economic significance to name a few examples, while ascribed statuses are given through birth, association, or assignment. Both men achieved their statuses like many in the United States, Bill through a potentially rigged election, and Dave through his skills as an impressionist and quick learning ability. Dave’s temporary shift in his status was primarily a result of when he was asked to stand in for Bill Mitchell by Alexander and Reed, a clear indication of an element of “ascription” for his temporary role as President. For Mitchell and Kovic, throughout most of the film, they had a social status that could be considered “political elite.” However, realistically, Dave could actually be considered “middle class,” which is where the inconsistency between social class and role comes in throughout the film. He is still technically just a Temp Agency worker, hired on as a stand in for an incapacitated President, and not entirely through “legitimate” means.
Duane Stevenson turns out to be a very important character throughout the film due to his role as leader of the Secret Service, and his connection to the President. His status is probably somewhere in the “upper class” range likely due to his income as a Secret Service member and the high demand for his skill set. It is clear that his role is considered “achieved,” primarily due to the amount of training and effort required to become a member of such a prestigious national security force. Towards the end of the film, he ends up developing a healthy respect for Dave Kovic due to his efforts to clean up corruption and launch an initiative that would collectively strengthen the people of the United States. Near the end, he even tells Dave “I would have taken a bullet for you,” suggesting that a bond was forged, perhaps to the level of “fictive kin.” This term describes someone who is given a familial role such as “brother” even though there is no blood relation. It is also worth noting that Stevenson’s role ignores the racially biased stratification that has a presence throughout United States history, a factor discussed in Chapter 13. His racial classification as an African American might be considered a hindrance in some parts of the United States, even in the period between the 60’s and the 2000’s, which is the apparent time in which the film is set. This could indicate that the cultural concept of race and the usual associated conflicts either were not an issue in this situation, or were overcome through his effort. At the end, he does appear to downgrade to “middle class” when he ends up willingly working with Dave, helping him run for Councilman. It is possible that he will return back to his original role in the Secret Service or become a member of a presidential administration in some other capacity in the future, should Dave achieve the role of President legitimately later down the line.
Alan Reed and Bob Alexander clearly have the status of political elites, and fill the roles of White House Communications Director and Chief of Staff respectively. It is important to note that there is likely a mixture of ascription and achievement regarding how they gained their statuses and roles. The achievement side is likely through their efforts and experience as politicians and their apparent participation in criminal fraud and embezzlement. The ascription side is likely through their association with the President, Bill Mitchell, and his appointing them to their roles. Given their criminal behaviors throughout the film, there is a clear conflict between their roles in the White House, and the roles they would have as federal prison inmates if prosecuted and convicted. It is worth noting that Alexander’s role as Chief of Staff was lost when Dave used his executive authority at the time to fire him. Vice President Nance’s situation is similar; however, he doesn’t appear to have a criminal background playing any part in the achievement of his role and status. He fits the profile of a genuine and honest civil servant, suggesting a legitimate “achieved” status of his role. Despite Reed’s and Alexander’s efforts to smear his name and brand him a criminal, his nature as an honest civil servant led Dave Kovic to take steps to clear his name, whilst presenting evidence to the House and Senate that the real culprits in recent scandals were Bill Mitchell, Reed, and Alexander. Notably, Reed had a change of heart in the middle of the film after exhibiting a distaste for Alexander’s handling of the situation. He gave Dave the needed evidence to vindicate Nance. At the end of it all, once Mitchell passed and Dave’s stand in role ended, Nance wound up being ascribed the role of President, according to the laws of the United States should something happen to the President Elect. Unfortunately, it is possible that Reed wound up indicted alongside Alexander, and ended up with the role and status of “federal prison inmate” and “criminal” later on, unless a pardon was offered after the events of the film as a result of his effort to undo the damage he helped cause.
Finally, there is Ellen Mitchell, the First Lady. Also considered “political elite,” her status and role also appear to be a mix of achieved and ascribed. The ascription side is clearly due to her kinship with President Mitchell, being his wife. However, it is also worth noting that the American people seem to accept her role as First Lady in no small part due to her significant effort in supporting the poor and homeless, suggesting that, symbolically at least, her role and status are also “achieved” in the eyes of Americans. Her kinship status changes when Bill Mitchell succumbs to his edema however, but after falling for Dave, and seeking him out at the end of the film, it is likely she will become Dave’s wife later on. Consequentially, given that he may achieve a higher political office later, it is likely she will follow him up the social ladder, perhaps even to become First Lady once again someday. As of the end of the film, she is downgraded to either “Middle Class” or “Upper Class” alongside Dave once his role as Mitchell’s stand in runs its course.
Each of these examples appear to showcase a strong level of “social mobility” a concept in Chapter 13 that describes the ability to move up and down the ladder of social classes in a society. Through sufficient effort, and in some cases, through kinship, it appears that there is a fair degree of social mobility in the United States, even through legitimate, non-criminal means. In each character’s case, they moved up or down the social status ladder at least once throughout the film. In Dave Kovic’s case, he technically made two jumps within the film, from middle class to political elite, and back. It is still worth noting that his case was a special one within the film, and can even be considered somewhat far fetched. Regardless, at the end of the film, the actions of the characters Dave Kovic, Duane Stevenson, and Ellen Mitchell indicate that they still intend to utilize the potential social mobility to achieve higher political and social standing after the events of the movie, further suggesting a notable degree of social mobility in the United States.
- The Essence of Anthropology, 4th Edition, by William A. Haviland, Harald E.L. Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBride.
- Intro to Anthropology – Norman J. Radow College of Humanities and Social Sciences – Kennesaw State University
Feature image is a screenshot of Dave Kovic, from the movie Dave – Source