Originally published, and surprisingly still accessible at epinions.com
Still funny, still lots to think about
Some of the anachronisms can be distracting
Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie’s plot
In 1967, James Bondian secret agents were all over the media, Cold War paranoia was at its peak, and a large percentage of the American people were asking “Is President Johnson NUTS?!?”
Into that atmosphere, James Coburn, who had already spoofed the superspy in “Our Man Flint”, headlined an under-appreciated classic of on-target satire that hasn’t lost its relevance yet.
The movie starts with the recruiting of Coburn, playing a New York pychoanalyst, into secret duty as the (unseen) President’s personal Freudian sounding-board, and his ultimate inability to adjust to the overwhelming demands of the job – being constantly on-call, entrusted with world-shaking secrets, and subjected to paranoid and paranoia-inducing security. A lesser movie would have stayed in D.C. and simply played off that paranoia, but “TPA” had far bigger plans. The already neurotic analyst freaks out and engineers a plan for escape that turns the film into a comic road trip into American ’60s culture, from a so-called typical suburban family headed by a young William (“St. Elsewhere”, “Knight Rider”) Daniels, to a hippie rock band led by ’60s rock icon Barry (“Eve of Destruction”) McGuire, to the secret headquarters of the most evil organization on earth… but, I’ll save that spoiler for later.
The plot plays well off the concept that America’s competing intelligence agencies (renamed the FBR and CEA to protect the guilty) are a greater threat to each other than to any outside enemy. And, though some will claim “TPA” is too soft on them Commie Russians (after all, it was the sixties), it scores comic bulls-eyes on topics from a family of spies “purging” each other to undercover Russians in America with stock portfolios.
Coburn holds his own comically, with an over-the-top performance highlighted by flashes of the biggest, toothiest, most garish smile captured on film before Kai’s Power Goo. And when not trying to hold that smile, his teeth are madly chewing the scenery, reacting to the various outrages around him with lines like “I’m not crazy! You are all spies!” In counterpoint, two great comic actors underplay their secret agent roles: Godfrey Cambridge (in one his few color-blind roles) as a CEA agent trying to protect the therapist who’s helped him overcome his guilt over assassination assignments, and Severn Darden (one of the first generation of Second City) as a pragmatic Russian spy who works out his issues with his “purged” father while transporting Coburn to the Kremlin. It’s that role reversal, with the flamboyant analyst played by an experienced action hero and the low-key “real-life” spies that raises “The President’s Analyst” above being just a comedy of cultural references (some now quaintly outdated, some still annoyingly current).
But it’s the final plot turns that (while losing some other critics) really made this movie one of my all-time favorite comedies. (Major spoiler ahead, big deal.) The ultimate threat to our lives and liberties is not the Communist juggernaut or sinister forces in our own government or some power-mad Dr. Evil-type villain. It’s the (then safely monopolistic) Telephone Company, depicted as run by robots (with Pat Harrington up front) and trying to achieve a world-dominating communications system by having microscopic phone transceivers implanted into our brains at birth and substituting permanent phone numbers for names. The concept was purely sci-fi fantasy in 1967, but today we’re carrying mobile phones whose inner workings could fit between brain and skull without discomfort.
In 1999, with James Bond, Austin Powers and G. Gordon Liddy still cashing in on the spy mystique, new Cold War revelations being de-classified daily, the current President going through “spiritual counseling” but bristling at suggestions of more serious therapy, and the latest big bad monopoly (Microsoft) getting the regulatory treatment while AT&T returns to the role of local monopoly as owner of cable TV systems, this wacky comedy, 30 years out-of-date in hairstyles and tie-widths, may be more timely today than it ever was.