During his shambolic debate Tuesday with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Trump mocked his opponent for wearing a mask, which experts still consider the best way to stem the virus. “He could be speaking 200 feet away, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen!” Trump crowed. Subtext: Get a load of this nerd!
If this were a 1990s disaster movie, we’d be watching the third-act twist, wherein the politicians who have been dismissing the scientific dweebs get their comeuppance. Remember the climate-change-denying vice president in “The Day After Tomorrow”? Remember how he changed his tune once Manhattan turned into the Frozen Apple?
The movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel developed a shorthand for this kind of moment: “Fruit cart.” Meaning that if a fruit cart shows up in a scene — especially during a chase — it is guaranteed that it will be overturned.
As much as we can rely on cinema to obey its own internal rules, the circuit has recently gone hopelessly haywire. Our most outlandish screen fantasies have morphed into a reality that feels ludicrous one moment and horrifying the next. Take Tuesday night’s decorum-free debate, which drew comparisons to a cage match, a garbage fire and a “hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck,” as CNN’s Jake Tapper opined. For movie fans, it felt like dystopian political satire coming true in real time.
Filmmakers have always let their imaginations run wild when it comes to politics, eagerly applying extravagant dollops of cynicism whenever possible. Classics such as “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” and “Network” and, more recently, “Wag the Dog” and “Idiocracy,” share a proudly jaundiced lineage that goes all the way back to Hollywood’s political urtext. Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” may ultimately lionize small-d democracy and civic virtue, but not before it marinates viewers in a Washington thoroughly corrupted by corporate greed, Machiavellian self-dealing, backroom betrayals and ruthless ambition.
In lampooning the ineffectual arrogance of political leaders, whether by way of satire or state-of-the-art planetary destruction, filmmakers always took for granted that the audience would heed their implicit warnings.
They gave us too much credit, as the past week made dismally clear. The American people — or at least a third of them — seem to have taken precisely the wrong things to heart, coming to accept “Mr. Smith’s” moral rot, “Wag the Dog’s” unholy union of politics and showbiz and “Idiocracy’s” outlandishly dumbed-down electorate as . . . life. It’s as if “Jaws” were being rewritten, this time with the mayor as the hero.
To behold the incivility, mendacity and self-defeating ignorance on display has been akin to watching a century’s worth of political-movie tropes all rolled into one — not as a collective cautionary tale, but as the elements of American political style.
But what if the problem isn’t that we’ve internalized the wrong messages? What if all the messages, uplifting and otherwise, have been packaged in a medium that is inherently deceptive?
Even at their most overheated and unhinged, the best political parodies have always contained a grain of truth. But it’s a version of the truth that has been shaped over decades of telling ourselves the same stories about how politics work. Individual movies might be stinging indictments of the system or sentimentalized paeans to its most enduring ideals — or a combination of both, as “Mr. Smith” achieved so brilliantly. But, when it comes to concepts such as power, leadership, progress and citizenship, they share a vocabulary that can’t help but distort reality and limit our collective imagination.
Admittedly, those limits have expanded over time. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, political films were most frequently associated with Great Man hagiographies like “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “Wilson,” carefully pruned biopics whose burnished portraiture sat well with Oscar voters, if not historians. In more recent years, filmmakers have attempted to tell more complex stories, whether they be of movements (“Milk,” “Selma”) or the anonymous bureaucracies that execute life-or-death policies (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Report”). The classic political films of the 21st century are far less likely to take place on Capitol Hill or the White House than in a featureless K Street office building or campaign-trail backwater. But rarely do they result in viewers feeling like fully engaged, empowered citizens.
In the past two weeks alone, no less gifted filmmakers than Billy Ray, Aaron Sorkin and Julie Taymor have sought to expand our notion of the genre: Ray’s Showtime miniseries “The Comey Rule” revisits the role former FBI director James B. Comey played during the 2016 election as a testament to institutional integrity; Sorkin’s theatrical release “The Trial of the Chicago 7” re-creates the factions of the antiwar Left of 1968; and Taymor’s “The Glorias” on Amazon Prime chronicles the mid-century women’s movement as seen through the eyes of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
Steinem herself rejects the “feminist icon” label. But film is an inherently iconographic medium: it gravitates toward an emotional center, usually in the form of a compelling hero or heroine. To tell the story of the women’s movement most accurately would be to plunge viewers into a sprawling, complicated, contradictory and ongoing story that defies the structural limits of the screen.
As often as not, those structural limits have defined — and foreshortened — our notions of progress itself: During an interview about “The Glorias,” Steinem noted that the frustrating one-step-forward nature of social change, which is so often an exercise in reinventing the wheel, is in reality something more organic.
“It probably helps to recognize that progress is not a straight line, it’s a spiral,” she explained. “So we repeat similar circumstances, and yet the spiral is going in a direction. If we're prepared for that, I think it helps. . . . Because if we think that progress is a straight line, we'll get disillusioned and pushed back.”
In other words, life is messy. But movies don’t like messy, and we don’t like messy movies. In a medium that abhors a spiral, it’s rare to find a movie that acknowledges — much less represents — the circular, cyclical rhythms of incremental change. (John Sayles’s 1996 masterpiece “Lone Star” marked one welcome exception, as did Steve McQueen’s 2018 political thriller “Widows,” both of which cast politics not only in the public-electoral sense but as something that threads through friendships, marriages and personal histories.)
It’s even rarer for a filmmaker to break away from the spell cast by a charismatic leading character and dig deeply into the people who can make or break our politics just by doing their jobs: the officials and employees who uphold the Constitution, fulfill their duty to advise and consent and bolster the guardrails against tyranny or, through countless acts of accommodation, enable tyrants to run roughshod. (Even while focusing on its title character and his relationship with Trump, “The Comey Rule” deserves credit for paying homage to those anonymous bureaucrats.)
Of course, in the movies, right about now one of those nameless public servants — or maybe a heroic team of them — would emerge to tell the truth about what may go down in history as America’s most dysfunctional presidency. But the Avengers aren’t assembling. If we succumbed too credulously to cynicism about politics, that might be because we naively believed in what the movies told us about how politics work, and what they should look like, at their best and at their worst.
If our norms and institutions aren’t the swamp of self-interest and shadowy cabals of Hollywood's darkest visions, nor are they the soaring monuments to rectitude shown in their most idealized state. Perhaps most destructively, the swamp-versus-soaring binary has left citizen-viewers feeling either disgusted or disempowered, when in reality it’s every citizen’s ethical commitment to the civic values that define this country.
The movies aren’t to blame for getting us here. But their narrative exigencies — linear stories, single protagonists, tonal consistency and readily discernible arcs — taught us what to expect from our common political life. Perhaps even more consequentially, they taught us what to expect from ourselves. We should demand better.