James Buchanan, Jr. was the United States’ fifteenth president. According to historians, and to writer/director Bruce Dellis’ film Raising Buchanan, he wasn’t exactly one of its best.
It isn’t just that Buchanan’s reputation suffered because his immediate successor was Abraham Lincoln (though that certainly didn’t help). The Pennsylvania Democrat’s presidency was, to put it charitably, a dumpster fire drizzled with clusterf**k sauce. Essentially, Buchanan blew just about every opportunity he had to be on the right side of immediate pre-Civil War history. He took sides against abolitionists, supported the barbaric Fugitive Slave Acts, and, finally, failed to prevent southern states from seceding from the union. It might be argued that the only worthwhile thing he did while in office was leave it.
And yet, as portrayed by the late, beloved character actor René Auberjonois, Buchanan becomes a guy that you can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for and, to some degree, maybe even respect.
“Once Ruth acquires Buchanan’s remains, the long-dead president periodically starts appearing to her as a kind of wisdom-dispensing imaginary friend.”
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A little explanation is in order, first: Raising Buchanan is neither a biopic nor a period piece, but rather a low-key caper comedy set in the present day and revolving around the late president’s mortal remains. The protagonist is Ruth Kiesling (Amanda Melby), a 40-year-old ne’er-do-well who hatches a plan to steal Buchanan’s corpse (or, whatever is left of it after more than 150 years in the grave) and ransom it back to its rightful owners. The joke inherent in that premise? Nobody really cares enough about the forgotten president to comply with her demands.
Raising Buchanan‘s setup – not to mention its title – might suggest something in a darkly comedic Coen Brothers vein, but the film stays mostly lighthearted, more of a slight sitcom than the pitch-black grave-robbing comedy it might have been. Ruth is likable despite her many faults, her bubbly coworker Meg (Cathy Shim) makes for a fun partner-in-crime, and even her parole officer (Terence Bernie Hines) is a kindhearted soul just trying to do right by everyone. It’s obvious pretty early on that, despite their dirty deeds, nothing too terrible is going to befall these characters – nor should we want it to.
"…Buchanan becomes a guy that you can't help but feel a little bit sorry for and, to some degree, maybe even respect."