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Fictional Presidents as Antagonists in American Motion Pictures:
The New Antihero for the Post-Watergate Era
By Ralph R. Donald
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
|Ralph R. Donald Ralph R. Donald (Ph.D., Communication, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst; M.A. and B.A. , Communications, California State University, Fullerton) is a Professor in the Department of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He has taught broadcasting, journalism and film at the college level for 29 years. His professional credits include jobs as a newspaper reporter and copy editor, radio and television news producer, TV station production manager, and a producer-director of film and video. His research interests include film and television propaganda, motion picture history, gender-related studies in film and television, pedagogical and curriculum issues in mass communications. Leadership in national academic organizations include serving as President the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association and founding editor of that organization's journal, the Mid-Atlantic Almanack and chair of the Courses, Curricula and Administration Division of the Broadcast Education Association. In addition, he is a member of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the Radio-Television News Directors Association.||
The portrayal of fictional presidents in American film has changed dramatically over the last half century from respectful, even adulatory portraits in the era of F.D. Roosevelt, to the oily or philandering politician in films like The Pelican Brief and Wag the Dog. Ralph R. Donald shows how the rot set in with Richard Nixon and Watergate, and how presidential office is now fair game for criticism, satire and earthy humour.
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Too Tough An Act To Follow
Let’s face it: the presidency of the United States isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time in America the office of president was highly respected. Certainly some occupants of the Oval Office have enjoyed more public adulation than others, but they were nonetheless presidents, and the office has always meant something. In decades past, children were advised that if they worked hard at school, lived a good life and made something of themselves, they could grow up to be president.
Now it seems that most of America’s best and brightest do not seek, nor would they accept the nomination of their party to be president – or even to run for state or local office. The price has become too high – and the respect vs. reward ratio too low -- to become a politician. And president? Just the dirty tricks the opposition party plays on candidates and their families are enough to cause most to decline the honor.
And the cultural reasons for the decline in public admiration for the office of president? These are certainly arguable. I posit that this erosion of respect began in earnest with President Nixon and the Watergate scandals.
Some say it was President Johnson’s deceit in what he told the American people about the progress – or lack of it – of the war in Vietnam. Or perhaps it was LBJ’s deception regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which resulted in a coerced Congress approving deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into Vietnam. Nearly 60,000 Americans died there. Protests against the war and President Johnson himself had grown so strident by 1968 that he wisely chose not to run for reelection.
A few say that the image of the presidency began to slip in earnest when the media began disabusing Americans about President Kennedy’s Camelot myth. A decade or more after the youthful president was assassinated, Americans learned that the man they believed to be the faithful husband and doting father – the righteous King Arthur in the Camelot tale – was actually a satyr and philanderer equal or greater in dubious stature to President Clinton, with whom Americans recently learned that he shared an interest in young, pretty White House interns.
But President Nixon was certainly the last straw: resigning the presidency just in time to avoid impeachment and multiple criminal indictments arguably did more than any other to sully the reputation of the office of President of the United States. And then President Ford’s pardon of Nixon convinced many Americans that the “fix was in.”
After Nixon, the presidency would never be quite the same.
|Too Tough An Act To Follow||
Perhaps Nixon’s fall was more dramatic because of what people in the film business call the “set-up.” In media of the era, and especially in Hollywood movies produced during World War II, Tinseltown’s producers, working closely with President Roosevelt’s appointees in the Office of War Information in Washington, put the president on such a lofty pedestal that few who would succeeded him could keep their balance.
Many films of the World War II era either begin or end with inspirational words from President Roosevelt. These quotes take the form of title crawls, deferential references to the president's wartime policies or statements and even sound bites from FDR's speeches. When these recordings are heard, Americans listening are portrayed as rapt and respectful -- even reverent, as though they were listening to their minister’s sermon. It’s also interesting that this deference and awe extended beyond the end of the war. A number of war films produced from 1946 until the late 1950's featured scenes of shocked and tearful Americans stopping whatever they were doing to listen mournfully to radio reports of Roosevelt's death and funeral.
For example, Action In The North Atlantic begins and ends with the words of FDR, starting with a title-roll and ending with a voice‑over from the President about the dogged determination of the U.S. Merchant Marine. The title roll reads:
FDR: It is the will of the people that America shall deliver the goods. It can never be doubted that the goods will be delivered by this nation, which believes in the tradition of "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
During a conversation among sailors in the film, America’s confidence that America will win is summed up in this line, spoken by the ship's carpenter:
At the end, Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey and their long-suffering crew do indeed deliver the goods to our ally, Russia, amazingly destroying a German U‑boat and two Luftwaffe dive‑bombers in the process. Then the film concludes with this recording of an FDR speech:
In the films Air Force (1943), God Is My Co‑Pilot (1945), and Flying Tigers (1942), American aviators reverently and silently listen to FDR's "Day of Infamy" speech on short wave radio. In all three films, flyers, shown with serious, determined looks on their faces, are inspired by their revered commander-in-chief who says,
In the conclusion of Air Force, it’s 1945 and much later on in the war, and flyers are preparing the first bombing mission over Japan. Audiences are given an FDR quote for an epilogue, reminding us that we are on the offensive, and that we will not relent until the enemy has his back to the wall.
Audiences witnessed two hours of Norwegian courage and heroism in Edge of Darkness (1943). After the defeat of the Germans, the picture concludes with a fitting voice‑over by the President, asking the audience to follow in the victorious path of these "steel‑like" people:
In the films of World War II, Hollywood made the president America’s inspiration and our anchor. Like George Washington, these pictures portrayed the president as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Arguably in recent years, such a leader has truly become an impossible act to follow.
Even before the fall from grace of President Nixon, in the aftermath of the unforgettable and inimitable FDR, Hollywood filmmakers sometimes seized upon the opportunity to topple the pedestal, creating fictional presidents that they could use as comic foils and antagonists. But since Nixon’s resignation, the floodgates of antagonist presidents have opened much wider. In the remainder of this article, I’ll discuss a sample of relatively recent films and identify some new antagonist presidential typologies for consideration.
One of the most unfortunate side effects of the Clinton administration is a heretofore unthinkable sub-genre of presidential films under the general heading of “Clintonesque sexual escapades gone wrong.” Or, as Rep. Gary Condit unfortunately has discovered, what would have resulted if something bad had happened to Monica Lewinsky?
In two 1997 films, Executive Power and Absolute Power, philandering presidents are themselves responsible for the deaths of their illicit lovers. In Executive Power, the president is conducting a tawdry affair with a young White House aide. When she dies in the Oval Office (the body sprawled across the great seal, no less), the president enlists a Secret Service agent and a few trusted staff members to help him cover it up. The agent complies, but later he regrets his actions and retires from the Secret Service. Later he is called out of retirement because the other White House staffers who assisted the president in this cover up are found murdered.
In this new political film sub-genre, cover ups always end in disaster. This is borne out in Absolute Power. Gene Hackman’s president is a worse womanizer than the president in Executive Power. We find him in the middle of a wild, drunken assignation with the young “trophy wife” of the rich industrialist who helped put the president in the White House. So besides being profligate, the president also betrays his best friend. But when Hackman “plays too rough” with his lover, she fights back and jabs him with a letter opener. Drunk and suddenly feeling threatened, the president calls out for help, his Secret Service agents break into the bedroom and they shoot the woman. The chief of staff orders the two Secret Service agents to use their knowledge of forensics to carefully sanitize the body and cover up the crime scene. Later, one of these agents tries to kill the one witness to the crime. Thanks to the White House, this witness, a burglar who had the misfortune and bad timing to be hiding in the bedroom at the time of the killing, becomes the chief suspect. Later this resourceful burglar (Clint Eastwood), who plans to flee the country, changes his mind when he hears the president’s hypocritical speech about the murder. The burglar confronts the woman’s husband with the true facts of the crime and the husband kills the president.
|The H.R. Haldeman Syndrome||It’s important here
to note the number of times in these films that the White House chief of staff
is depicted as an even bigger villain than the president. If there is a contemporary
model for these creatures, it appears to be President Nixon’s infamous chief of
staff and principal author of all things Watergate, H.R. Haldeman. In Absolute
Power, to make matters more interesting, the chief of staff is female.
Alternately Lady Macbeth and Mephistopheles, this crafty chief of staff leads
the president down the road to a botched cover up and on to perdition. And in
so many films in which the President tries to cover up misdeeds, their slick right-hand
men/women do everything but perch on the president’s shoulder, pitchfork in hand,
advising him to take the dastardly course and to let the end justify the means.
If the president doesn’t want to have direct knowledge about the evil he sets
in motion, the chief of staff becomes his delegated evil-doer.
|Weak-willed and Weak-Minded Presidents||
Although not a true villain, Ronny Cox is portrayed as a president with a severe Hamlet complex in Murder at 1600 (1997). In this Wesley Snipes vehicle, the president, who has a Kennedy-like sexual reputation, is at first police detective Snipes’ principal suspect in the alleged rape and murder of a comely White House staffer. But later on, after Snipes’ character gets beyond the obligatory White House cover-up, we discover that the head of the free world isn’t that clever, crafty or even that sexually active any more. The president’s great fault is paralyzing indecision: He can’t make up his mind whether to risk war by mounting a military attack to rescue American hostages held by a hostile country. Despite a general public outcry for action, the president does nothing. He’s not a pacifist: he’s just afraid to act. As well, the president is depicted as a bad father. His spoiled, playboy son, who also is a suspect in this murder, is a selfish brat whose chief goal in life is to have sex in every room of the White House before his father leaves office. Hollywood often provides either a chief of staff or some other senior White House staffer to do the president’s dirty work. In this case, the president’s national security advisor, ostensibly in the president’s camp, turns out to be the true villain of the piece – and no friend of the president. Because of the president’s indecision in this crisis, this hawkish advisor, played by Alan Alda, concocts a plot for a palace coup. Although himself responsible for the murder, the national security advisor frames the president’s son and promises to reveal this evidence unless the president immediately resigns. The vice president, who stands ready to intervene to save the hostages, would then become president. Snipes’ resourceful detective character foils this plot.
Cox’s president is just weak-willed, but Robert Culp’s president in The Pelican Brief (1993) is also weak-minded. He’s a vapid, uninvolved figurehead with the mental awareness of a latter-day Ronald Reagan. Once again, this president is in thrall to a malignant chief of staff, played to the hilt by Tony Goldwyn. More engaged with teaching his equally dim-witted Irish Setter to do tricks than with pressing affairs of state, this president permits his chief of staff to engage in a monumental cover up. This time, one of the president’s rich campaign contributors is responsible for the assassination of two environmentalist Supreme Court justices. The idea was that when the President replaces the two dead justices with appointees less concerned about the environment, their votes on an upcoming Supreme Court case would permit the president’s friend to make millions in shady energy dealings. But a brilliant law student and a Washington reporter make the scandal public. Priceless is the deer-in-the-headlights look on Culp’s face when Goldwyn informs him that the scandal is about to be made public, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
President as Oily Politician
In Tom Clancy’s thriller A Clear and Present Danger (1994), audiences are presented with a president, played by Donald Moffatt, whose public persona reminds audiences of both Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior. But privately, Moffatt’s president is much more cynical than either Reagan or Bush. Moffat portrays more of a stereotypical bottom-dwelling politician than the elder Bush and a much craftier strategist than Reagan. Like Culp’s president in The Pelican Brief, Moffat’s chief executive conspires with another Machiavellian chief-of-staff in an illegal operation, this one involving American soldiers, the CIA and Columbian drug lords. Because these drug lords murdered one of the president’s close friends, he authorizes his chief-of-staff to orchestrate an illegal, covert, Iran-Contra-style operation to assassinate drug lords and break the back of the Columbian drug cartel. The plan succeeds, and a pack of Columbian drug lords, including a Pablo Escobar look-alike and their families, are killed. But CIA assistant director for intelligence Jack Ryan, played by Harrison Ford, finds out about it and confronts the president in the Oval Office. First the president tries to deny his involvement:
But Ryan shows his anger, since he knows what the president knew and when he knew it. Trying to calm Ryan down and head off disclosure and scandal, the president says:
After the president explodes in an equal outburst of temper and feigned outrage, they both calm down, and Ryan says that he must do his duty and report the whole affair to the Senate oversight committee. The president slinks back into oily politician mode, puts on a wry grin and says:
The movie ends as Ryan goes straight to Capitol Hill and tells all.
A more devious and malevolent president is Bill Mitchell – played by Kevin Kline – in the movie Dave (1993). We don’t see much of Mitchell because for most of the film, a look-alike named Dave is filling in for the president, who, due to a stroke, is in a vegetative state in a secret basement of the White House. The president suffered his stroke while having wild sex with one of the White House secretaries. Just as well, we learn, as the film plays out. The president was a hateful man, unconcerned with the American people, sarcastic, crooked and snide. An especially odious, chew-the-carpet attack dog chief of staff, played with lusty, over-the-top malice by Frank Langella, comes up with the idea of using Dave to impersonate the president long enough for the chief of staff to perform a covert palace coup. Langella plans to frame the innocent, boy scout-like vice-president with a bank scandal that Langella and President Mitchell were responsible for. That should result in the vice-president’s resignation. Then the plan called for presidential stand-in Dave to appoint his chief-of-staff as vice-president. Then Langella’s character would replace Dave with the real brain-dead President Mitchell, announce that the president had a stroke and ascend to the presidency by invoking the Presidential Succession Act. But instead, Dave, with the help of the first lady and a few loyal White House staffers, performs his own palace coup, fires Langella, clears the vice president of the false charges, incriminates the chief-of-staff and the real President Mitchell, fakes a stroke of his own and switches places in the ambulance with the vegitative president. The vice-president takes the oath of office and the chief of staff is indicted in the bank scandal.
In a way, Dave was a man very much like rank-and-file Americans, but in other ways, he was superior to the average citizen in character and in his love of the common people. Because he was from common stock, the film reinforces Americans’ perceived moral distance between Washington politicians, the president and the citizens they are elected to serve.
Presidents “Just Like Us”
Unfortunately, the next two presidents to discuss are entirely too much like the rest of us. Americans want their presidents to be intelligent, diplomatic, clever, wise and brave. At least Donald Pleasance, who portrays the president in Escape from New York (1981), is intelligent. On a flight to an important international summit meeting, carrying a tape containing a formula for cold fusion (or some similar kind of McGuffin), Air Force One crashes in downtown New York, which is no longer a thriving metropolis, but instead has been turned into a giant, maximum security prison in which the inmates are allowed to run amok. The hero of this film, Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell), is tasked with the job of infiltrating an anarchic New York populated by criminals, and rescuing the president in time to attend the summit meeting, where he would share the contents of his tape, thereby insuring world stability.
Plisskin finally finds the president, held hostage by a criminal “lord of the flies”, the “boss of New York.” But Plisskin – and the audience – are repulsed by the selfish, whining, cowardly president he is assigned to rescue. Unmindful of the fates of others who die to help him escape, the president is only concerned about his own survival. Finally, after affecting the rescue, Plisskin shows his disgust for the president by deftly switching the president’s tape cassette with a tape cassette that had belonged, ironically, to a taxi driver who died helping the president escape.
|The Good and the Bad||
Some presidents seem to be bad in some ways but possess other redeeming qualities. Such an enigmatic president is Jeff Bridges’ consummate, though devious politician-president in the film The Contender (2000). At first the president seems more concerned with his image and legacy than in doing the best thing for the country or his party. He seems most interested in his private game of “stump the White House chef.” At any moment of the day or night, the president calls the chef to request the strangest and most exotic dishes, hoping one day to order something that the White House kitchen can’t deliver. But it seems that this White House chef has the makings for any meal the president might want: even a shark sandwich on rye.
The president wants to cut his political losses when the female senator he has nominated to replace his late vice-president becomes embroiled in a sex scandal. Enemies considerably more odious than the president have faked video footage of this nominee performing sex for a succession of fraternity boys 20 years ago when she was in college. Throughout the scandal the sentator refuses to defend herself against these false charges because the same standard would not have been applied if she were male. Finally, at the end of the film, the woman’s sense of honor and dignity so impresses the president that for at least once, over the protests of yet another pit viper chief of staff, the president decides to do the right thing and supports her.
|The Lighter Side||
On the lighter side of antagonist presidents, in Wag The Dog (1997), director Barry Levinson gives us Michael Belson, another president reminiscent of Bill Clinton, who has a “sexual problem.” The president is up for re-election and it’s 14 days before voters go to the polls. But the chief executive is about to fall headlong into a career-ending scandal: Apparently the president has had sex with a visiting Firefly Girl (read Girl Scout) in his office. With two weeks to go before election day, the White House strategy is to “create a diversion.” They hire a Hollywood producer to create a phony war with Albania to move the Firefly Girl story to the back pages until after the election.
President Alan Alda in Canadian Bacon (1995) doesn’t have a sexual problem, but he’s incompetent and disliked – so much that his approval ratings have dropped dangerously low. Knowing that presidential ratings always go up during a war, the president decides to “pick a fight” with another country. They decide on Canada because “they’re so polite” they wouldn’t cause the U.S. much harm. Expertly manipulating the news media, the White House has TV announcers spouting the most insane propaganda:
The result? One character, the oafish Gus, horrified by all this anti-Canadian propaganda, says:
Under the heading of a comedy president you wouldn’t invite home to dinner unless you counted the silverware afterward is Jack Nicholson’s sleazy and inept politician in Mars Attacks! (1996). The Martians give pretty clear notice when they arrive on Earth that they haven’t come to socialize. For example, the first thing they do is incinerate a herd of cattle. Always the politician, Nicholson can only think of his place in history as president and first intergalactic statesman. One of his generals wants to “nuke” the Martians, while his science advisor leaps to the logic that because the Martians are capable of space flight, they couldn’t possibly have warlike intentions. Wondering out loud what suit he should wear to meet the Martians, the president talks it over with his wife, a Nancy Reagan clone, who insists that she won’t feed them off the good china.
Ultimately, when the president meets with the aliens, he shakes hands with the Martian leader and the spaceman’s hand comes off. The hand crawls around the president’s back, stabs him and then sprouts a flag out of his chest, insuring the president his prominent place in history.
|“Worst Nightmare” Presidents||
While Hollywood has provided us with presidents on the lighter side, there are also chief executives who reside in the darkest depths of evil. We can refer to them as “our worst nightmare presidents.” First, courtesy of Stephen King, there’s a man who only becomes president in another character’s worst nightmare. Ironically, this man is Martin Sheen, whose film career has included roles as President Kennedy, a good chief of staff in The American President (1995), and the admirable President Josiah Bartlett on the current TV series, The West Wing. But in King’s The Dead Zone back in 1983, Christopher Walkin plays John Smith, a man who accidentally has developed strange powers. By touching a person, Smith can see a vision of that person’s future. In this film, Sheen plays Greg Stillson, a promising candidate for the U.S. Senate. Running on a half-populist, half fascist platform, this crooked politician appears destined for success – until he accidentally meets and shakes hands with John Smith at a political rally. Smith sees Stillson’s future: he not only is elected senator, but later president. But power corrupts and the president goes barking mad. In a scene reminiscent of one of Nero’s insane outbursts, President Stillson orders up a nuclear war – out of a dual sense of paranoia and self-glorification.
Horrified by this vision of Armageddon, Smith decides to assassinate Stillson before he ascends to power. Smith hides in the rafters of the town hall with a rifle and intends to shoot the politician during a town meeting. When Stillson mounts the stage, Smith opens fire, but misses, and is himself shot. But in the confusion following the gunfire, the candidate panics, showing his lack of character by grabbing a child to shield himself from the bullets. Smith dies, but thanks to a news photograph taken of Stillson grabbing frantically onto his human shield, the candidate is ruined and disgraced, never holds public office and ultimately commits suicide.
The most dated of the post-1940s films in this sample and the only film that predates President Nixon, the 1968 cult film Wild in the Streets is perhaps the most bizarre and extravagant example of “worst nightmare” presidents. This film emerged from the social unrest caused by the Vietnam War, which created the oft-cited “generation gap” between old and young. Remember the slogan, “Never trust anyone over 30”? This was the campaign slogan of Max Frost, 24-year-old rock idol and millionaire – soon to become the youngest president in our history. When a congressman uses the rock star to court younger voters, Frost, along with his cadre of stoned-out, turned-on friends, decide to change the rules that permit only the “old” to rule over the young. Frost and friends manage to persuade the California legislature to lower the voting age to 15, resulting in the election of one of Frost’s friends to the U.S. Senate. There she introduces a constitutional amendment lowering the federal voting -- and office-holding -- age to 14. Because Frost’s cadres spiked the Capitol’s water with LSD, the drugged-out congress passes the measure. Later, thanks to all the adolescent voters, Max Frost is elected president. One of his first acts – for the sake of “national security” – is to order everyone over the age of 30 into concentration camps for “re-education,” where they are kept constantly drugged on LSD.
But at the end of the picture, just as Max settles into a false stupor of security as president/dictator, a new menace arises: even younger children begin plotting to overthrow his government with slogan: “We’re gonna put everybody over 10 out of business!”
Jerry Falwell is the inspiration for another “worst nightmare” chief executive, Cliff Robertson’s president in Escape from L.A. (1996). Robertson’s character, a wild-eyed religious fanatic, predicts that Los Angeles, which he characterizes as Sodom and Gomorrah, would suffer the wrath of God. Coincidentally, soon afterwards L.A. is virtually destroyed in an earthquake, actually separating it from the mainland. As a result, this fanatic is elected president. Shortly after, the constitution is amended making him president-for-life. Soon, the new “Moral United States of America” becomes a religious fascist dictatorship. Lynchburg, VA, is named the new U.S. Capitol, and any non-conformist, anyone who protests the government’s actions, any citizen who sins, anyone who commits crimes – along with their families, including their children – are stripped of their citizenship and deported to L.A. Island. As in Escape from New York, L.A. Island is surrounded by national police (read S.S.) troops, who kill anyone who tries to escape. In a conversation with the cynical Snake Plisskin, again the antihero protagonist, a national police general describes the nation this new president has created:
Plisskin, certainly not the religious type, is about to be deported to L.A. himself when the president offers him a deal: his freedom and a clean record in return for his services. The president’s daughter Utopia, who has become a revolutionary, has stolen the president’s “black box” that controls a string of nuclear-powered satellites surrounding the earth. One of these satellites, when activated by a keypad stored in the black box, can disable the electrical power in an entire country: dial (appropriately) “6-6-6” and the whole world’s electricity is permanently neutralized. The rebellious Utopia has escaped to L.A. and taken the black box and keypad to her lover, a Che Guevara look-alike and gang leader. The president orders Snake to steal the keypad back, and while he’s at it, kill his daughter to avoid the embarrassment of a treason trial and a public execution.
This president is also cowardly. While the president is waiting for Snake to do his job, an earthquake shakes the building. Everyone else goes about his/her job while the president cowers in fear under a table. Later, when the situation gets tough, the president orders his plane warmed up and ready so he can escape.
Finally, Snake retrieves the keypad and the president’s daughter. The president condemns Utopia to die in the electric chair, but Snake takes the keypad and dials “6-6-6” to neutralize all electrical power, allowing Utopia to escape – and effectively putting the president out of business.
As one can see by the range and imagination in Hollywood’s villainous president characters, there is no end to the possibilities for Hollywood filmmakers. First a number of American presidents in a row will have to conduct their administrations so far above reproach that the public’s image of the presidency changes back from one of suspicion and disrespect to confidence and admiration.
And what are the odds that will happen anytime soon?
In the meantime, since many films with presidential villains have been commercially successful, the trend is likely to continue. Hollywood screenwriters have discovered a compelling new kind of villain to write about: a person who is extremely powerful, seemingly respected and leads the free world. The sins of America’s leaders, especially Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, will continue to inspire creative screenwriters to create new and interesting ways to turn the president of the United States into that guy in the movies with the black hat.
Click on any of the links on the right to read more about the film in the Internet Movie Database
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