What Protocol Says About Politics in the 80s

If there’s anything in the political arena that the U.S. government put emphasis on in the 1980s, it was the Middle East. Second to or perhaps neck and neck with the issues presented by the Cold War, Ronald Reagan’s foremost focus centered on the problem of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) relations. As a result, movies like Back to the Future and, of course, Protocol, featured plotlines heavily centered around Arab nations and American dependency on fostering “good” relations there in order to secure a peaceful balance centered around unrestricted access to oil.

In Protocol, international relations are the farthest thing from Sunny Davis’ (Goldie Hawn) mind in spite of the fact that she lives in Washington D.C. (for a motiveless reason, she moved there from a small town in Oregon called Diamond Junction). Our introduction to Sunny finds her car breaking down in the middle of a diplomatic convoy’s route to the White House. The convoy in question is for the emir of a fictional emirate called Ohtar as he obliges the U.S. in wooing him to allow them to build a military base in the strategic location of his country. As mayhem ensues over Sunny being unable to start her car and blocking off the path of traffic for Emir Khaled Abin Abdul Majid (Richard Romanus), her primary concern is being late yet again for work.

Her job as a cocktail waitress at local dive Lou’s Safari Club is just one of many hardships Sunny must endure in addition to car trouble and constantly being stood up by her dates. Worst of all, her lateness lands her in the worst costume, that of the emu, which makes her look like a chicken. At the end of the night, Sunny says to one of her fellow waitresses, “It’s got to get better.” She replies, “Does it?” Sunny counters uncertainly, “Doesn’t it?” Walking past an event for the visiting emir on her way home, Sunny catches a glimpse of a Middle Eastern man who roughly pushes past her. She jokingly asks, “What’s in there, a gun?” The man looks back at her in shock, an instant admission of his planned attempt to kill the emir. Sunny thoughtlessly thrusts herself into harm’s way, pulling at the man’s arm as the gun goes off and biting his hand to loosen his grip. Nonetheless, he still clips her in the left buttock. This entire plot point echoes the occurrence of an earlier assassination attempt in the decade, that of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. in 1981. Indeed, the commonplace nature of violence spurred by political unrest in the 80s makes this particular defining moment in Protocol one of the most believable elements of the story.

In the wake of Sunny’s act of bravery, she becomes the subject of national and international media attention, currying immediate favor with the emir, who offers to make a trade with the U.S. government: Sunny for their military base in his country. Under the guise of giving her a real job in the Protocol Department, political aides and ambassadors Mrs. St. John (Gail Strickland), Hilley (Cliff DeYoung) and Hassler (Ed Begley, Jr.) treat her like an autistic three-year-old, biding their time until they can pawn her off on the emir.

While, earlier on in the film, a reporter noted, “Although the emir has had to reconcile dissident factions for years within his traditionally conservative nation, he is considered powerful enough–if not popular enough–to assure his own people that the long-term economic benefits from such an arrangement would more than help his suffering country,” it is clear by the third act that Middle Eastern folk will never accept “the American way,” as it were. His decision to make Sunny his wife cultivates an underground insurgency that rises up once Sunny is lured to Ohtar under false pretenses, realizing too late that she’s been traded off by her own government.

Sunny, feeling duped and betrayed, turns to the Declaration of Independence, which (like many Americans) she had never read before until taking on her position as a government official. Earlier in the film, Sunny noted to her gay roommate (it was a politically big deal in the mid-80s to have a gay roommate) of people in government, “They talk funny. They sound like they’re saying things that they’re not really saying. I can’t figure it out.” Now that she’s had the epiphany that no one does say what they mean in politics, she knows her true place lies as a private citizen–but not before she gets all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a sentimental but accurate speech:

“Do you know what my dad says? He says that if you let a guy sell you a diamond ring for only ten cents, the chances are your ring isn’t worth a dime. Well, I bought the whole mine. I thought I was getting a free ride or at least a real cheap one, and I really have them to thank for that–I mean the people who sold it to me. You wanna know something? Before I started working for the government, I’d never read the Constitution. I didn’t even begin to know how things worked. I didn’t. I didn’t read the newspaper, except to look up my horoscope. And I never read the Declaration of Independence. But I know they had, the ones we’re talking about, the experts. They all read it, they just forgot what it’s about. It’s about ‘We the People.’ And that’s me. I’m ‘We the People.’ And you’re ‘We the People.’ And all of us, we’re all ‘We the People.'”

And so, with this teary-eyed speech, Sunny proves that before Irangate, Americans in the 80s were still rather hopeful–trite even–when it came to placing faith in the principles of the Constitution and the belief that Nixon-level corruption was a one-off. The original writers of the screenplay, Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer and Harvey Miller, clearly still upheld a sense of strong patriotism, not prepared for the onslaught of more cynical political films to come post-80s, including JFK, The Pelican Brief, Dick and Wag the Dog.