Donald Clarke: Are we living in a time of Trump-era cinema?
Hollywood has a habit of capturing the political mood before it has emerged
Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the set of “The Post” which portrays the “Washington Post”’s efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Photograph: Niko Tavernis/Twentieth Century Fox
It is just over a year since Donald Trump blathered his way to an unlikely electoral triumph. It is, thus, surely too soon to assess the cinema of the Trump era. Films take a long time to develop. We won’t get any sense of the industry’s response until the second half of Trump’s current term. Right?
Fake news! Sad! Failing liberal media telling lies!
In a few short weeks, the US will get the first juggernaut production to spring from Trump’s election. If you look back through The Irish Times’ archives you will find an apparent error in our cinematic predictions for 2017. In early March, we guessed that, come Oscars season, Steven Spielberg’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara would be in pole position for best picture. That film is now nowhere.
The film takes place among the east coast elites that east coast elitist Trump pretends to hate
Just three days after we napped Edgardo Mortara (thanks, Steven), the great man announced that his team would instead be working on a film concerning the Washington Post’s efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Meryl Streep would play the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham. Tom Hanks was to take on the role of editor Ben Bradlee. There is little doubt that Spielberg’s decision to swivel towards a newspaper’s engagement with a notorious US Defence Department leak was connected with the recent inauguration of the most worrying president since Richard Nixon. Liberal journalists and publishers are again the heroes. The film takes place among the east coast elites that east coast elitist Trump pretends to hate.
Cultural pundits of the future will have fun setting The Post alongside films that, over a year earlier, directors wrongly felt would capture the spirit of late 2017. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s delightful Battle of the Sexes, released here next week, concerns the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs.
Steve Carrell is the middle-aged hustler. Emma Stone is the determined women’s champion. After an ill-tempered run-in characterised by endless sexist abuse, King eventually triumphed and edged gender equality a few steps forward. When the picture was being shot and edited last year, it must have felt like a perfect analogy for the fight between Trump and Hillary Clinton. It now suggests an elegy for her doomed campaign. Battle of the Sexes is both history and alternative history.
We already have more than this to offer future pundits. No review of The Post will fail to mention Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men. Released in 1976, featuring Jason Robards in the Bradlee role, the film detailed the Post’s investigations into the Watergate scandal. All The President’s Men came to be seen as one in a series of conspiracy thrillers that reflected the angst Watergate kicked up.
Two other films by Pakula, Klute and The Parallax View, have been grouped with President’s Men to form a “Paranoia Trilogy”. Yet those earlier films were conceived long before the Watergate break-in. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which appears to examine the surveillance culture that characterised the administration, was based on a script finished before Nixon was even elected. Much of the supposed cinematic discourse on Watergate emerged from musings on the assassination of John F Kennedy over a decade earlier.
The films that reveal the most about a political mood do so by accident
Similarly, the cinema of 2017 does look to be telling us things about Trump’s America before any such commentary should be available. Films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Richard Linklater’s upcoming Last Flag Flying go among the communities left behind by the economic shifts of the new millennium.
Logan Lucky, in particular, looks as if it was designed as a primer on the key Trump demographics. West Virginia, where the movie is set, delivered a higher percentage for the orangutan in chief than any other state in the union. The decline of the mining industry (a favourite Trump bullet point) has left the characters destitute. “Shooting in the fall we had no idea we’d be in this position,” Soderbergh told me. “I was happy there was no explicit political input in the film. Look, it doesn’t matter who the president is for these people. Nobody is going to help them.”
The films that reveal the most about a political mood do so by accident. The Conversation is an example from the Nixon era. The best example for 2017 might be a film released back in 2014. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, the patriotic tale of a proud blue-collar Navy Seal, opened to respectable reviews and little Oscar chatter. It went on to secure a best picture nomination and to become the highest grossing film at the US box office that year. Those takings skewed heavily towards the constituencies that would vote Trump in 2016.
There were lessons there for those prepared to listen.