Welcome to a new ongoing feature here at FedLine: Silver Screen Feds! Your trusty FedLine bloggers don’t just breathe federal government news day in and day out. We’re also die-hard pop culture geeks, and nothing entertains us more than seeing how federal employees are portrayed on television and in film.
Hollywood’s depiction of feds runs the gamut — from dashing heroes to hissable villains, from incompetent comic relief to self-sacrificing martyrs. In this series, we’re going to take a lighthearted look at the Best and Worst feds in television and movie history. Every Friday, we’ll profile two characters — one depicting the best federal employees have to offer, and one not-so-great fictional fed. We may even focus on a few who blur the line between good and bad.
For this first entry, Andy takes a look at the postal workers who save the day in the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street.” And Stephen examines the tragic flaws that bring down the Environmental Protection Agency’s Walter Peck in 1984’s “Ghostbusters.”
BEST FEDS: Postal employees, “Miracle on 34th Street.” (Andy Medici)
The story is a classic. A man who calls himself Kris Kringle and acts like Santa Claus charms New York City’s children, but is soon accused of insanity and involuntarily committed to Bellevue Hospital. In the movie’s climax, U.S. Post Office workers haul bag after bag of letters addressed to Santa Claus into the courtroom where Kringle’s fate is being decided. The judge — who is running for reelection — happily throws out the case and rules that because the Post Office is an arm of the federal government, its recognition of Kringle amounts to official recognition by the government. (Nice to get that kind of respect, right?)
Everyone lives happily ever after, and the main characters get married. But how did we get there?
For a few minutes — when Kringle’s lawyer is badly losing his case and in danger of flubbing the whole deal — we cut to a mail processing plant, where hundreds of employees are sorting through letters by hand and tossing them in the correct bin. An unnamed postal worker picks one letter from the pile of thousands and sees that it’s addressed to Santa Claus at the New York County Courthouse. This amuses him, because of all the letters to Santa he sees, this is the only one headed to a courthouse.
He calls over his boss, Lou, and the two have an impromptu discussion about how many letters to Santa they have — Lou puts the number at more than 50,000 — and gee, wouldn’t it be great to just dump those on someone else? That’s when the unnamed postal worker asks the question that turns the tide of the case and brings about one of the most iconic endings in cinematic history:
“Why should we be bothered with all that stuff?”
Then, in what is perhaps the greatest-ever display of creative work-shirking, Lou and his employee decide to ship 21 bags of Santa letters to the courthouse and get rid of them for good.
The two postal employees thought quickly on their feet, and in one fell swoop tackled the problem of surplus mail and created a new legal precedent just by sending a few mail trucks downtown. And that makes Lou and his employee great representations of postal workers. They have heart, and while they toil ceaselessly in the background, they have real world effects on people all over the country.
WORST FEDS: Walter Peck, EPA, “Ghostbusters” (Stephen Losey)
The third act of “Ghostbusters” kicks into gear when EPA employee Walter Peck storms into their fire station headquarters and — over the Ghostbusters’ vehement objections — shuts down the containment grid housing hundreds of angry, captured ghosts. The facility explodes and unleashes the ghosts, setting in motion a process that brings the demon Gozer the Gozerian to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and nearly ends the world. After the Ghostbusters defeat Gozer, the liquified remnants of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rain down, drenching Peck in gallons of white goo.
The tragedy of Walter Peck is that he is absolutely right. While we all love Bill Murray, would you want him carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back around your children’s schools? (Especially one that could cause total protonic reversal. That’s bad.) The Ghostbusters’ headquarters appears to be highly unregulated and nowhere near up to code. It houses an experimental laser containment grid in a densely-populated neighborhood (albeit one that is compared to demilitarized zone), that appears to have few — if any — failsafe mechanisms.
While Peck is undoubtedly responsible for shutting off the grid’s power, one has to wonder what would happen if, say, an earthquake or Sandy-spawned flood were to cause a power outage to the Ghostbusters’ headquarters. It’s perfectly reasonable for the EPA to be concerned that New York may constantly be one blackout away from Judgment Day.
But the haughty, condescending Peck goes about his business in the worst possible way. He takes Peter Venkman’s insults far too personally and is provoked into a fistfight by comments about his manhood, abandoning any shred of the objectivity crucial for a public servant to do his job. Peck is too willing — eager, even — to resort to physical violence, at one point urging a New York cop to shoot Venkman over a petty comment. He blithely commands a ConEd man to shut down the grid, without even considering what the consequences might be. And he has to be cajoled into showing basic courtesies, such as saying “Please.”
While the Ghostbusters have no doubt committed at least a half-dozen environmental violations, Peck’s behavior only reinforces the worst stereotypes of federal regulators: That they impose their will on small business owners without considering the real-world effects. Had he not been so hotheaded and instead pursued the EPA’s complaints in a reasonable fashion, the conflict could have been resolved without nearly destroying Manhattan. Walter Peck is an awful federal employee, and gives EPA employees nationwide a bad name.