10 Films for the Age of Trump
In his biography of media studies pioneer Marshall McLuhan, Douglas Coupland traces McLuhan’s antipathy to the technological and social changes of the twentieth century alongside his desire to analyze and understand them. Noting McLuhan’s admiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story, “A Descent into the Maelström,” Coupland picks up Poe’s account of a sailor who escapes a whirlpool in order to describe McLuhan’s approach to surviving the modern world:
this maelstrom is a marvellous metaphor for the way to keep one’s head above water in a changing world. Rather than be sucked into a yawning, gaping mess, be nimble and analyze the broader scope of what’s going on. Don’t hang on to something that’s going to drag you down. You may not like your environment, but don’t allow it to overtake you or drown you.
This whirlpool strikes us as a suitable metaphor for our own turbulent times, with the cataclysmic election and presidency of Trump and the attendant paroxysms of opposition and fear, when conflicting currents in politics and culture clash and threaten to draw in and swallow everything. To borrow the imagery of Coupland and Poe, it seems vital to us to try to analyze and, if possible, escape the present vortex.
We’re not the only ones to think as much. Dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World were topping book sales charts earlier in the year, as people turned to speculative fiction to make sense of our increasingly grim reality. Apparently, April 4 was even branded 1984 National Screening Day (the novel opens on April 4). With this weekend marking Trump’s 100 Days, with Brexit still being worked out, with the French presidential election upon us and waves of populism working across Europe, what films might helps us make sense of the maelstrom?
To be clear, we’ve tried to avoid the easy targets and lame jokes such a listicle could easily generate, so don’t tell us we forgot to add Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. This article isn’t about Trump-bashing or liberal-baiting; rather, it’s a genuine attempt to try to understand current events through film.
All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Donald Trump has positioned institutional journalism as his arch nemesis. This isn’t anything new to American politics, but Trump would be wise to remember that journalism took down a former president: Richard M. Nixon. While the current fourth estate is a far cry from the righteousness of Woodward and Bernstein, this film should remind journalists about the proper way to go about speaking truth to power. It champions a relentless investigation into truth and an unwavering belief that political power does not excuse moral failure. The juxtaposition to current news media, which spends its days dissecting tweets and ignoring greater abuses of power, is alarming. In short, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t believe journalism’s fight against injustice could be accomplished through a pithy social media post and an argument summed up as “This.” After cozying up to a charming president who superficially supported the press even as he attacked whistleblowers, journalists are now waking up to the reality that journalism and politics have a necessarily antagonistic relationship. All the President’s Men is that sober reminder of how objective journalism is truly essential. (Aren)
An American Tail (Don Bluth, 1986)
Stories about Muslim immigrants and refugees might be dominating the news now, dividing people along political lines, so it’s strange to think of the past as a time when an immigrant narrative could serve as a children’s blockbuster. But this animated film from Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg is a reminder of a simpler attitude towards immigration, when the plight of refugees inspired sentiment, not dispute. To be sure, it’s an open secret that America refused to accept Jewish refugees in the years before World War Two, not wanting to antagonize Adolf Hitler, so the country’s relationship to Judaism and anti-semitism is more complicated than the film might like to admit. But perhaps there’s something to learn from a film like An American Tail about escaping religious persecution and pursuing the dream of tolerance and opportunity that America represented for millions of immigrants throughout the twentieth century, even if the reality of the country so often falls short of the dream. (Aren)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
In 2006, when Alfonso Cuarón debuted his dystopian vision of a world where no new children have been born in 18 years, I proclaimed it a masterpiece of bravura filmmaking. A loose adaptation of P.D. James’s novel, the film has lost none of its visual potency or immediacy. Yet it’s treatment of political impotency and a declining Britain walling itself off from the world has only become sharper, perhaps even unbearable to watch in moments, for the ways it feels so similar to our own post-Brexit moment, as European states turn to populist nationalisms (e.g. Le Pen in France) in acts of desperate, self-destructive preservation. Few films have portrayed the fear and anger aimed at immigrants and refugees during times of difficulty quite so memorably, but the film’s greatest thematic weight comes with the suggestion that hope lies in the figure of the child, whose very presence can bring an all-out war zone to a standstill, if only for a moment. (Anders)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Most of us born after 1980 are fortunate to have spent the bulk of our lives without thinking about the very real fear of nuclear armageddon hanging over us, but Stanley Kubrick’s biting black comedy reminds us of the absurdity and madness that almost consumed the world during the Cold War and seems to be making a comeback as Syria and North Korea present potential flashpoints for conflict between the world powers. Kubrick also understood the absurdity and personal madness driving the actions of many key figures in world power. Upon hearing the reasons for General Jack Ripper’s (Sterling Hayden) launching a nuclear first strike on the USSR (which involve the preservation of his “precious bodily fluids”), the hapless president Merkin Muffly (Peter Sellers) exclaims “This man is obviously a psychotic!” His advisor, General "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott) responds, “I'd like to hold off judgement on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in.” Well, the facts are in and as Kubrick suggests, the psychotics have been in control of the war machine for a long time; let’s just hope we can stave off armageddon once more. (Anders)
Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
With the election of Trump and the rise of the alt-right, anxiety about fascism is everywhere in today’s political and cultural writing. Back in 1999, Roger Ebert decried Fight Club as “the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since ‘Death Wish.’” In an essay from 2013, I countered, “Fascism is appealing. That’s a dark secret many of us think but fewer admit—which is understandable in the wake of the many atrocities fascism perpetrated in the twentieth century. What the film demonstrates, though, is that the idea of following a charismatic leader in forcefully remaking society is seductive, especially for angry, capable young men disenfranchised by that society. This can be seen right now in Europe, in the wake of one debt crisis after another and startling levels of unemployment, but it is also manifesting itself in the U.S. and Canada as regular people continue to feel the impact of the Great Recession caused by greedy, and still rich, financial institutions.” I thought Fincher’s satire was prescient a few years ago; now it looks downright prophetic. (Anton)
HyperNormalisation (Adam Curtis, 2016)
Many, myself included, assumed that Hillary Clinton had the US election entirely wrapped up on November 8th, but, in the words of British docu-essayist Adam Curtis, “Then a strange thing happened.” However, what Curtis’s film (which can be found on YouTube and the BBC iPlayer, once again showing the impact of new media) shows is that the election of Trump was perhaps not so strange or unforeseeable after all. The term “hypernormalisation”comes from the late days of the Soviet Union and refers to the sense that everyone, including the elites and masses, knows that things are not working as they should, and yet we go about pretending that everything is operating just fine. Curtis traces networks of power in the late-twentieth century, drawing together a tangled web of events from the American relations with the Assad family in Syria to our growing reliance on computers to “manage” the financial industry and preserve the status quo, and even the operations of one now infamous real estate speculator from New York, to tell the story of a world seemingly out of control. The film was released nearly a month before the US election, and in the aftermath its message seems like a voice of warning to us all. (Anders)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
The original cinematic dystopia portrays a technocratic elite who enjoy freedom, health, and all the pleasures money can buy in their metropolis, while far below the city’s surface the workers toil hour after hour. Long story short: a sinister robot impersonating an inspiring female worker fans the flames of labour discontent into riot and revolution. While the film criticizes the blindness and oppression of the elites, it also warns how the legitimate anger of the discontented masses can be manipulated. The film’s directly stated (and too often repeated) moral—the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart—sounds ham-fisted and schmaltzy, but it rightly points to the need for better, and honest, relations between the establishment and the discontented periphery, or things will just get worse. Ignorance and anger can only lead to conflict and destruction. (Anton)
Star Wars: Episodes I, II, and III (George Lucas, 1999, 2002, 2005)
First point: Say what you will about the dialogue, acting, CGI, etc., etc. Instead, consider the themes. What you’ll see is a trilogy that understands the contours of history, and how large events can have small origins, and how, yes, trade policy and taxes do shape the universe. Just as Lucas drew on the broad patterns and arcs of the hero’s journey in the original trilogy, the prequels conform to the patterns of democratic decline and imperial ascendancy visible throughout history, most notably in the case of Rome. “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.” Second point: it’s taken as common knowledge that the prequels are failures—but the truth is that they each received solid reviews upon their releases and generated enormous box office revenues, even if a segment of the fan base was never pleased. The prequels are a lens for exposing some of the key forces of Internet culture: its flashes of anger, judgement, and snark, and how repeating (and sharing) something enough would seem to make it fact. Episode I just might mark when the corners of the internet began to shape the mainstream of cultural discourse.
They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
John Carpenter lashed back at the alt-righters who were reading his bizarre science-fiction macho-action flick as a latent alt-right manifesto. In the film, unemployed drifters discover the system is rigged against them, but also that the sinister elites are far more sinister than they ever imagined. Everything is actually run by aliens in disguise, which a special pair of glasses can reveal. A few years back, I wrote in my review that They Live spoke to the Occupy Wall Street moment. I would say now that what was considered a third-tier sci-fi actioner has become one of the important SF cultural texts of the turn of the millennium, and it’s precisely the film’s ability to speak to diverse slices of the disenfranchised spectrum that speaks to its newfound impact. The film also highlights the economic downsides and left-behinds of late capitalism and modern consumerism that fuel anger on both the extreme Right and Left. (Anton)
West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961)
The immigrant narrative has come to dominate the conversation in western culture. It’s important to remember this is not a new conversation, especially in America. This Best Picture-winning musical from 1961, based off the Broadway hit, tackles the immigrant question head-on, depicting the struggle between two New York City gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. While West Side Story is largely adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the film version of this musical is as specific to American politics as it is to tragic romance, especially in the standout number, “America.” In the lyrics we hear, “Life is all right in America--If you’re all white in America.” The song is both a celebration of America’s freedom and a reminder that that freedom has historically only extended to America’s whitest population. (Aren)