Guarding an irascible and irrepressible old woman in the “wilds” of Summersville, Ohio, is boring business for seven Secret Service agents, even if she is the former First Lady and widow of a President. It’s an assignment that the SAIC (Special Agent in Charge) Douglas Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) is sick and tired of and he wants out. He wants to be where the action is — not buried in the boonies jumping at the beck and call of Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine).
Her only amusements in life seem to be the remnants of her fading glory — videos and splashy magazine covers — and keeping seven grown men at the end of her tether. She loved the power of the White House and she is loathe to relinquish it. But Doug Chesnic wants to do his job by the book, even on such a “cupcake” assignment. But rules and regulations are made to be broken by those who are used to getting their way. So there is a major power struggle between her and her special agent.
However, she has a lot of her own rules and they are ironclad. The agents have to check their guns at her bedroom door. She hates guns and is always calling her agents “gunmen”. No smoking in the house. No one is to read the newspaper before it is brought to her. One of them, usually Douglas, must bring her breakfast upstairs on a tray with a single rose in a bud vase.
For five years the Secret Service detail has had it fairly easy except for her demands. Now, all of a sudden, she wants to get out, be active, live life. She wants to go to the opera. She wants to go golfing with outdoor temperatures at 38 degrees. She wants to go on a picnic in the snow — because she says . . . who can wait for summer. She gives her agents the slip — not once, but twice — by ordering her chauffeur, Earl, (Austin Pendleton) to gun it while the agents are out of the car. The men then have to go through the embarrassment of asking the local sheriff’s department to help search for her. She has made them a laughing stock.
And now the power struggle is really ratcheted up. She keeps two carloads of agents waiting because she won’t sit in the proper place in the car, and Special Agent Chesnic won’t let either car make a move until she does. Secret Service rules have reasons with far-reaching consequences. He knows his agents are bored and lax, which is dangerous. Doug tries to set a good example by not letting down his guard and doing his job. Whether it is one he likes or not.
But he can’t stand the role of lackey she has him playing. He quits, but she goes over his head directly to the President, who goes to the Secret Service Director, who has a chat with Special Agent in Charge Douglas Chesnic. Doug asks her why she even wants him around. They only argue. She says it’s because she likes him. Later in the movie we find out why she likes him. Doug was on her husband’s Secret Service detail back when he was President, and one moment in time convinced her of his loyalty and devotion, even above that of her two estranged children.
But Doug finally gets enough when she demands that he go after her lost golf ball. He tells her in no uncertain terms that he is not her caddy, and that his agents will no longer be used for menial service. But while he brags about his line-in-the-sand stand to his agents, he gets a phone call from the President. Tess Carlisle still has a lot of clout.
Finally, over a face to face talk in the dead of night between Tess and Doug, she tells him about her family and her relationship with the President, about her triumphs and heartaches. She asks that these revelations remain secret. “You can trust me,” said her agent. “I know that,” she said.
As Doug gets to know his First Lady, her graciousness and poise in the face of disappointment, her vanities about her public image down to every little detail, her quirky personality and backbone of steel, he grows to understand her more and more, and with that understanding comes caring. Then Agent Chesnic sets himself to guard not only her life, but her dignity.
Then when she inevitably goes missing, and he and his team are pushed aside by Washington bigwigs for letting it happen, they work through their shame and guilt for her sake. They know her better, they know the community and situation better. They also know the FBI and Secret Service are barking up the wrong tree.
And when it comes to saving the life of his First Lady, all rules and regulations go right out the window. Special Agent Chesnic won’t let anything or anyone stand in his way, even if he has to shoot somebody to do it.
Guarding Tess was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1995, and is one of my favorite movies. The acting is superb, and the details are both poignant and delightful.