Inaugurate the FIRST DAUGHTER this weekend on getTV
In First Daughter, an action thriller from director Armand Mastroianni, the president’s bodyguard is played by Academy Award nominee Mariel Hemingway. If you’ve spent any time watching American presidents, you’ve probably noticed that Secret Service agents usually try to blend into the background and remain unnoticed, so this casting may require some suspension of disbelief. Who’s not going to notice the stunning star of Manhattan, Personal Best, and Star 80 – even in tinted sunglasses?
It helps that President Jonathan Hayes (Gregory Harrison) is also impossibly handsome, even for a celluloid commander-in-chief. He’s single too (widowed, actually) with a willful teen daughter named Jess (Monica Keena) who’s bristling against the restrictions of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (She can’t go to the clubs with her friends!)
But before you dismiss this 1999 telefilm as a “backstairs at the White House” soap opera, think again. First Daughter is actually a delightfully pulpy potboiler with some solid action sequences and surprising contemporary relevance. Think Curtis Hanson’s The River Wild crossed with the Taken series, plus a dash of the 1996 Sinbad comedy First Kid thrown in for good measure. And did I mention that Mariel Hemingway plays Secret Service agent Alex McGregor?
First Daughter opens in Beverly Hills, as the president rubs elbows with wealthy donors at the home of an Oscar-winning director. But the fund-raising soon turns hair-raising when members of a domestic terrorist group storm the mansion in retaliation for a military attack on their headquarters. Using her finely tuned survival instincts, Alex manages to save the leader of the free world from an assassination attempt, but she goes against established protocol in the process. In return, her sexist boss Daly (Alan Dale) slaps her on the wrist and demotes Alex to glorified babysitting duty – guarding Jess and her friend on a hiking and white water rafting vacation. And to make matters even more complicated, the 16-year-old thinks Agent Alex is on the make for her dad! Awkward!
By strange narrative coincidence, the president’s daughter happens to be vacationing in the exact same place where the scruffy, anti-government “American Freedom Fighters” are hiding out. (You’d think the Secret Service would check on that sort of thing first, but apparently not.) When they realize the prize that’s fallen into their laps, the anarchists stage a siege on the campsite, taking out Alex’s fellow agents and making off into the woods with Jess. Only one person can save the First Daughter: the Secret Service agent she hates!
Like pretty much every action film ever made, First Daughter hits all the expected beats, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something to be said for a predictable thrill ride that still finds ways to be fresh and engaging. But what makes First Daughter such a treat is the cast. Harrison, best known to TV fans as young surgeon “Gonzo” Gates on the 1980s drama Trapper John, M.D., is solid as a president forced to solve the problems of 300 million Americans and an adolescent daughter. David Wheeler is memorably hiss-able as the scruffy, David Koresh-esque leader of the right-wing militia group. And Doug Savant is excellent as Grant Coleman, the handsome river guide who locks horns with Alex but then becomes her partner in rescue.
Savant is probably best known as Matt Fielding on Melrose Place in the ‘90s and later as Tom Scavo, one of the husbands of the Desperate Housewives. He’s a charming screen presence and he and Hemingway have sweet, low key chemistry. Their will they/won’t they banter provides some welcome rom-com-style relief, but never gets in the way of the action. Only in movies do people “meet cute” while in the process of saving the president’s daughter, and thank goodness they do!
Director Mastroianni is a veteran of TV movies and mini-series, but his most enduring work may be as a producer/director on the underrated 1990’s primetime reboot of Dark Shadows. Like in that lavish, supernatural drama, Mastroianni stages the action in First Daughter in a grand cinematic style that belies the film’s made-for-TV pedigree. And he keeps the plot flowing as rapidly as the river upon which the action sequences are staged. (Much of the film was shot in Australia and the locations are breathtaking.)
If you need a break from real-life politics, why not enjoy the fictional intrigue of First Daughter? It’s well worth a look, and not just because the setting – and everyone in it – is gorgeous. But that certainly doesn’t hurt.
First Daughter airs this weekend on Sunday, January 22 at 5:35pm ET/2:35pm PT.