Henry Fonda For President


Reviewed by: Tara Karajica

Henry Fonda For President
"Through a punctilious study of many of Fonda’s films, Horwath creates a comprehensive canvas that encompasses both the past and the present of the US." | Photo: Mischief Films/Medea Film Factory/Michael Palm

In his lofty and lengthy directorial debut, author, curator, film historian and former Viennale and Austrian Film Museum Director, Alexander Horwath, takes on a monumental task, superimposing the biographies of two giants: that of acting icon Henry Fonda and that of the United States of America. It is a personal essay about the United States of America perceived through the life and work of the Hollywood actor.

It is not the first time that Horwath has tackled the subject of Henry Fonda. In 2020, he curated an eponymous programme for Il Cinema Ritrovato, exploring the political persona of Henry Fonda through films that trace this particular narrative. A programme composed of films that outlined Fonda's legacy even if only partially, with some of his greatest films, including The Lady Eve, My Darling Clementine, Once Upon A Time In The West, Jezebel, Jesse James, 12 Angry Men and On Golden Pond purposefully omitted. A programme that sought to present Fonda as a composite man who lived through various political and historical moments, how these shaped him and how he embraced them. As a matter of fact, Fonda made a name for himself in the late 1930s as a common Midwestern man, bothered by the dichotomy between democracy and capitalism while self-doubt and trauma invaded him during the Second World War and later in life. Finally, he also conveyed his hopes and fears brought about by the transition from the McCarthy to the JFK era.

Horwath follows up and expands upon his Il Cinema Ritrovato programme, which takes this theory further. According to Horwath, over the span of a few years, Henry Fonda was considered the “typical American,” as well as “the conscience of the United States” in his roles, but Horwath thinks there’s more to that. What interests him are the complexities of Fonda’s life and the way he played his roles, and thus epitomised attitudes that stretched far beyond separate characters.

Through a punctilious study of many of Fonda’s films, Horwath creates a comprehensive canvas that encompasses both the past and the present of the US. Ironically enough, Fonda’s disillusion in America is conjured up precisely by the magic of cinema, and this is exactly how Horwath crafts an elaborate cinematic testimonial to both Fonda – a president who never came to be – and the US. There have, indeed, been people – even a TV show – who wished he were a candidate for president. But, contrary to his former fellow actor Ronald Reagan, a career in politics never interested Fonda. He was a liberal Democrat but not a Communist and his political views were liberal enough that he was grey-listed for a few years and appeared on Broadway rather than Hollywood films. He was a man of many colors and his performances reflected that and the many opposites present in his non-conformist persona, co-existing peacefully and beautifully – he was the rebel outlaw as much as he was a politician or a professor, a millionaire, a farmer, etc.

Narrating the three-hour long essay himself and skillfully editing it with Michael Palm, Horwath interweaves footage of modern-day America through places directly connected to Fonda (and even retraces the Fonda family’s personal history and American roots after his ancestors emigrated to the US from the Netherlands in 1651) with scenes from some of Fonda’s most significant films, sound bites from his last interview with Lawrence Grobel in the summer of 1981 in Paris, a year before his passing, as well as video footage of Reagan’s speeches and much more. With these interview excerpts, Horwath actually creates a meta moment, making Fonda, the subject of his film, his co-narrator.

An intriguing lesson in and interpretation of film history and of the life of a major Hollywood icon, Henry Fonda for President - which premiered in the Forum section at Berlin Film Festival - takes us on a journey to an imaginary conglomerate of people, periods and places called “The United States of Fonda.” Film buffs and fellow film historians will find this well-researched unconventional retelling of Fonda’s life a very enjoyable watch.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2024
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Henry Fonda For President packshot
A personal essay about the United States, viewed through the life and work of the 12 Angry Men star.

Director: Alexander Horwath

Writer: Alexander Horwath

Year: 2024

Runtime: 184 minutes

Country: Austria, Germany


BIFF 2024

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