Struggling as I’ve been in these first few days after Trump’s election to do something –anything!– constructive, I started seeking out films that I felt might offer some insight, inspiration, or critical reflection of a world that has suddenly gone from challenging to terrifying. Starting (predictably) with some movies about the civil rights movement, I then started thinking about movies that resonated with other aspects of our current predicament, and ended up posting a list of about a dozen films on Facebook as a “recommended movie list.” Before long, other people’s additions started rolling in, as did further ideas of my own. Finally, one friend’s suggestion to work out this list as “a more formal syllabus” was all the encouragement I needed to sit down and spend an evening expanding that original list into a thematically organized film program. So here is a first version of part I, on Populism and Politics.
I. Populism and Politics
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
In one of the most cutting and prophetic films about the toxic effects of celebrity in US politics, Andy Griffith stars as a folksy, down-to-earth folk singer whose meteoric rise to fame is accompanied by increasingly egocentric and sociopathic behavior. Having established himself as an entertainer, others in power are quick to lure him towards a political career, where he proves to be as ruthless and cynical as he has been endearing and charismatic to the public. As in so many twentieth-century cautionary tales about populist heroes (see also: Citizen Kane and Batman Returns), all it takes to trigger his downfall is his inadvertent public revelation of his true nature – something that seems downright quaint in the age of Trump.
Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins, 1992)
Tim Robbins’ directorial debut is an on-the-nose but depressingly accurate “mockumentary” about a rightwing folk singer who soon becomes the figurehead of an alt-right political movement. While Bob Roberts himself is clearly inspired by Reagan, the ease with which his deeply sinister campaign manager helps him coast toward success also uncannily reflects the complete collapse of the political Left in the 1990s, with the sole investigative reporter (Giancarlo Esposito) determined to reveal Roberts’ true nature effortlessly marginalized and silenced.
The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
Chaplin’s film heroically tries to fight fascism with an appeal to sentimentality and human decency: naïve, perhaps, but also understandable – if only because the full extent of fascism’s horrific nature wasn’t yet revealed in 1940. The thing that lingers most from this film in the Trump era are the scenes where Chaplin ridicules these dangerous and thoroughly evil dictators as thin-skinned, childish, and completely egomaniacal halfwits. It isn’t hard to see deeply inept but terrifyingly powerful morons like Rudolph Giuliani and Chris Christie in the dictator’s entourage.
Nashville (Robert Altman, 1977)
Altman’s swarming country-music microcosm of a bicentennial USA is easily and understandably interpreted as an allegory for Hollywood’s film industry. But Nashville also cuts more deeply into the complex intersections between entertainment and politics. Just as the music industry forms its own chaotic and porous ecosystem of personal and professional fears, abilities, and desires, the film constantly foregrounds how both the content of their work and the context in which it is developed is profoundly political. This is underlined by the ubiquitous presence of populist presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker, whose easily digestible campaign slogans mercilessly spoof the rhetoric of populist politicians.
Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995)
One of the most disastrous US presidencies is approached by Oliver Stone as a Shakespearian drama about a doomed protagonist whose psyche is ruled by pettiness, low self-esteem, and spite. Portrayed as a hard-working man who feels cheated by those who achieve success “the easy way,” Nixon is motivated only by his bottomless desire for public validation, the insufficiency of which sends him spiraling off into paranoia, psychosis, and the systemic abuse of power. His monomaniacal obsession with John F. Kennedy brings to mind how Trump may have been similarly motivated to run for president to get even with a man who mocked him publicly and made him feel ridiculous.
Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)
Beatty’s scathing satire of the American political establishment portrays a Senator with nothing left to lose: depressed, disillusioned, and in danger of losing his seat to a young populist, he plans to commit suicide by hit man, which suddenly frees him from the deadening weight of hypocrisy and corruption that has become the bread and butter of his political life. Re-discovering the progressive values of his younger years, he finds sudden succes (and a new will to live) by speaking his mind plainly – but unlike the cynical and incoherent populism of his rival (and, indeed, of Trump), Bulworth’s new political program is grounded in his growing awareness of and solidarity with the black community.