OFF WITH HIS HEAD?: Hollywood sends Bush a message
The signs are getting bleak for the man in the White House and the party in power. Iraq, the Foley scandal, the North Korean bomb, Iran’s nuclear program, all make for baleful midterm-election prospects. Evoking shades of another doomed Republican administration, Bob Woodward has spilled the beans in his latest book and Henry Kissinger haunts the Oval Office. The polls tell an ugly story — but the movies have an even darker tale to tell.
It takes at least a year to produce a film (and sometimes decades to get one off the ground, from script to final cut), but somehow, when these projects reach completion, they often tap into the deepest anxieties and desires of their audience. They provide a mirror to the culture’s subconscious, distorted sometimes, but legible nonetheless. The great film critic Siegfried Kracauer thought as much, and used that insight to trace the political landscape of Germany from the end of World War I to the rise of Nazism in his classic book From Caligari to Hitler.
Applying a similar interpretation to some of this year’s high-profile releases, the message is clear: off with their heads. All the King’s Men, The Last King of Scotland, The Departed, The Queen, Marie Antoinette, Death of a President, Apocalypto — these are not movies in which a Republican administration and Congress could find much comfort.
Rather, they chart deep and growing discontent, the dismay of a people who have suffered patiently through years of deceit, incompetence, abuse of power, and arrogance. On the surface, perhaps, their outrage has been muted, even silent, because that is how good Americans behave in times of trouble. But on a deeper level, in those places where doubt and anger grow, places explored by dreams and movies, changes are already under way.
Taking down Nixon
This would not be the first time movies prefigured a drastic change in regimes. Back in 1972, after one of the most lopsided presidential-election victories in history, Richard Nixon seemed invincible. But even then the movie screens hinted at trouble. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) ruled the box office and the Oscars. The film was a masterpiece, but part of its appeal lay in its suggestion that the mafia was the shadow image of the so-called legitimate government.
By 1973, the movies had progressed from suggestion to assassination. The target in Day of the Jackal (1973) was Charles de Gaulle; in Executive Action (1973), JFK. But, perhaps unconsciously, audiences with growing doubts about the government were seeing the people and party then in charge through the crosshairs.
The following year, suspicions about who was really running the country took overt shape in films. Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), a pre–Oliver Stone assassination-conspiracy thriller starring Warren Beatty (fresh from the disappointment of serving as George McGovern’s advisor in the ’72 election), posited a Halliburton-like multinational corporation pulling the strings of governments around the world. Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1974), a spy thriller about murdered CIA agents starring Robert Redford, cast the CIA itself as the villain.
As films drifted deeper into paranoia and disillusionment, Richard Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, and the Democrats won back Congress in November. By the time All the President’s Men came out in 1976, Jimmy Carter was on the road to taking back the White House for the Democrats. In development for several years before its release in 1977, Star Wars, the mother of all evil-empire films, was described by director George Lucas as a loose allegory of the overthrow of both the Nazi regime and the Nixon administration.
The Parallax View
Did these films offer premonitions of Republican downfall? Or were they manifestations of Hollywood’s usual liberal bias? The canards of conservative critics notwithstanding, the film industry, like any other, would not last long if it indulged its political biases at the expense of profits. It makes money by selling tickets for entertainment that fulfills the fantasies of its audiences, many of which are political. And when it comes to being political, Hollywood can’t afford to be partisan; it must strive for the middle of the road or the lowest common denominator. Like politicians, it must gauge the public mood and cash in on it.
Clinton was not immune
Beginning in 1996, when Bill Clinton handily won a second term, the films being released were almost uncannily prescient of the doom to come.
Alongside president-as-action-hero films, such as Roland Emmerich’s 1996 Independence Day (President Bill Paxton leads a triumphant counterattack against the aliens) and Wolfgang Peterson’s 1997 Air Force One (President Harrison Ford battles terrorists who have hijacked the title plane), emerged more realistic plot lines. As the Whitewater investigation plugged along and Paula Jones pushed her law suit, filmmakers started pitching hints of the president’s extracurricular activities as box-office bait. In Absolute Power (1997), Clint Eastwood is the only witness to the adulterer in chief’s murderous disposal of his latest Oval Office tryst, and in Murder at 1600 (1997) presidential hanky-panky again goes hand in hand with homicide and conspiratorial cover-ups.