“The ideological analysis of mainstream movies became a house specialty after Ronald Reagan was elected president”, wrote J. Hoberman a couple years back, in his history of the Village Voice film section. (The practice made a glorious return in the long Hobereview of Rambo this spring.) It is in that spirit, and with the idea that mainstream culture reveals much about innate mainstream attitudes, that L film writer Henry Stewart looks at how Hollywood is choosing to roast our nation’s lame duck.
By Henry Stewart
With their country mired in endless war, its international reputation demolished and its economy combusting while the Hoover-esque Bush fiddles, the American people have finally become fed up with the president they twice (debatably) elected to high office. The polling data screams nationwide disillusionment, and thus two distinct types of heroes, who address the country’s Bush blues, have emerged from Summer â08’s blockbusters: The Anti-Bush, a restorer of American pride, and The Idealized Bush, the vindicable bungler.
So far, a couple of summer movies, paralleling present times, have been set against an America-in-crisis backdrop: not accidentally, Lucas and Spielberg situated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull amid 1950s McCarthyism, Hollywood’s favorite not-too-distant stand-in for an era of national disgrace. (On the arthouse front, this summer has also seen the release of Trumbo, a documentary about the famously blacklisted screenwriter.) In Crystal Skull, right-wingers have destroyed the country’s integrity — the Inquisitors even muster the gall to challenge the patriotism of a national hero as iconic as Dr. Jones. He’s pushed out of his (apparently untenured) teaching position.
But HUAC’s aggressive anti-Indy Swiftboating proves inadequate to undermine Jones’s for-love-of-country heroism. (During an early confrontation, the Soviets ask Jones if he has any last words. Before escaping, he answers: "I like Ike!") In the end, he beats the Commies — though how he does so is impossible to say, thanks to Lucas’ gonzo story — clears his good name and, in the process, victoriously champions anti-McCarthy ideals. That is, he does his part to reclaim the nation’s bygone prestige. The audience subconsciously wonders: could our next president do the same?
Iron Man follows a similar line. Set in an America embroiled in war, the film exposes a nefarious web of perfidious cave-dwelling Afghans in cahoots with a crooked U.S. corporation. Like Crystal Skull, Jon Favreau’s film offers a bleak vision of America: with our weaponslust turned against us, we are helpless in the face of terrorism. But, here, an action-ready hero responds to save the country from collapse (and to redeem said weaponslust). Iron Man faces down the terrorists in two uncomfortably fanatic revenge fantasies (burn them all!), takes on the double-dealing munitions manufacturer and, in the process, restores American might and moral majesty. Again — could our next president do the same?
Judging from box office receipts, Americans seem to hope so. But, while imagining the reversal of the damage incurred during Bush’s two-term reign, Crystall Skull and Iron Man nevertheless ooze with conservatism. Both blockbusters spotlight go-it-alone heroes, in that classic John Wayne mold, who unhesitatingly turn to violence in order to defeat the American arch nemesis du jour. In contrast, consider the subject of an upcoming film: the Avengers, a costumed-fighters coalition — including Iron Man — that battles its enemies with United Nations-style superhero super-cooperation. (And, sure, violence.) For more than practical, plot-related reasons, the Iron Man franchise-to-be didn’t begin with The Avengers movie. Holding that film until 2011, its producers must be banking on halcyon years of an ally-building America under President Obama. But from the mammoth returns on these two reactionary blockbusters, the country, unawares, could be leaning towards four years of John (Burn Them All!) McCain. A recent AP poll found — surprise! — that more Americans trust McCain than Obama on matters of national security.
But, more and more every day, this election is shaping up to be about something other than terrorism — it’s the economy, stupid! Americans hinted at their economic anxieties at the onset of blockbuster season when Speed Racer flopped; the public stayed away in no small part because the film celebrates, even fetishizes, the automobile. It’s a cruel tease. Only two years ago, Pixar got away with that in Cars. But, in summer 2006, oil cost $70/barrel — a bargain. Today, the price of oil has doubled, forcing many a citizen, against their will, to start walking, bicycling or riding public transportation. Summer movies are meant to help audiences forget their troubles, not to hit them over the head with them. (Oliver Stone’s biopic bring-down, W, won’t come out until the autumn prestige season, at the earliest.)
So, aside from the aforementioned fantasies of dignity restored, a different type of Bush-inspired, "cheer up!" film has also emerged this summer, one that offers not a rosy vision of the future but of the past. Iron Man bridges the gap between these two Bush-movie types. Its playboy hero, Tony Stark, drinks hard, like George, Jr. in his pre-gubernatorial days, but sobers up to rise to a heroic occasion when called upon. Other blockbusters, like Get Smart and Hancock, feature similar Bush-like protagonists who go on to transform from reckless to responsible and thus atone for their failings.
Get Smart, in fact, has two Bush stand-ins: first, James Caan who, as the film’s American president, essentially plays George Walker, complete with the down-home accent — which makes properly pronouncing "nuclear" a challenge — and unsophisticated manner, evinced by his distaste for classical music, which lulls him to sleep. Several of the film’s gags trade on 43’s shortcomings, from the Cheneyesquely sinister vice president to W himself, who, notes the Dargis, "reads Goodnight Moon to the kiddies as the country teeters on the brink."
As Get Smart‘s most overt Bush stand-in, Caan mildly elicits a bit of cathartic chuckling for his presidential ineptness. Caan is the Bad Bush, the dumb one, and we can snicker only because the film balances him out with a Good Bush, a knucklehead who makes right. In the theatrical teaser, Get Smart‘s hero — America’s favorite clueless leading man, Steve Carrel — has trouble executing a task as simple as exiting a phone booth, as our president has been known to have trouble, say, eating a pretzel. But by the end of the film, Agent 86 performs heroically, no longer the victim of his own bumbling. He unmasks a traitor and thus saves Caan’s life — that is, Carrel rescues the country from conspiratorial ruin, in spite of his dimwittedness.
Similarly, Hancock (judging from trailers and internet spoilers) features a would-be-hero gone to seed — a modern superman-with-issues, such as a chronic tendency toward property damage. Will Smith stars as the reckless and titular Ãbermensch, who refuses to accept his lot as a real-world superhero. Instead, like Bush in his younger years, he spends his time alcoholicking and recklessly handling vehicles. (Bush drove drunk; Hancock tosses automobiles atop the Capitol Records spire.) In his undependability, Hancock is Bush: he wreaks accidental havoc on Los Angeles, much as Bush has spent his presidency wreaking (arguably intentional) havoc on America. But then, tapping into our deepest desires, Hancock, like Carrel in Get Smart, reforms and becomes a legitimate force for good. If only Bush would, or could, do the same.
But with very little time left before Mr. Bush leaves office, it’s becoming increasingly less likely that he’s going to call a press conference and reveal that the last eight years were a joke. And so Americans, trying to make the next few months go by as quickly as possible, are indulging vicariously, through air-conditioned escapism, their daydreams of what shape a Bushless tomorrow might take, or what a Bushful yesterday might have been.
Though some summer movies have looked, without allegory, at Bush in the present. In Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the titular stoners accidentally crash the Crawford Ranch. The filmmakers depict "Bush" — actually James Adomian, one of several actors making a living off of impersonating the president — as a pothead doofus, but not a bad guy; that is, not quite presidential material, but a "why don’t you come over and watch the game and we’ll have nachos and then some beer" kind of guy. That might be who Bush really is, and always was. If so, it’s one of the central reasons why he never should have been president in the first place.