The US election is nearly upon us, and the leader of the free world will be anointed. Not accounting for the sudden death of the both of them, the president shall either be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Whether either prospect fills you with joy, dread or an intense feeling of apathy, the decision to appoint a president will have vast effects on the future of America, such as the economy, the environment and foreign policy. But what about the future of film?
Naturally, it isn't quite so easy to say that because one president or other acts in a certain way that cinema follows that exact trend to a T. Naturally, there is spill-over between presidents and film productions and ideologies and trends; this analysis will not be an exact science. Nevertheless, if we are talking in a broader sense I would venture that there is certainly a general correlation between policies, public opinion and ideology with the way Hollywood operates and either shuns or perpetuates that ideology. Film and TV can be seen as holding up a mirror to our society, reflecting our fears, our desires, and how we feel about any given event. Let's start, for the sake of length, with:
Nixon And Paranoia
When Nixon was elected, he was seen by some as the corrective the country needed after the social upheaval and instability of the 60s. By many others, he was seen as a bully, who inspired a certain culture of fear not only among counter-cultural leaders, but also among his own people. These fears were confirmed when Nixon and his party were found to have wire-tapped the opposition. Watergate would have a profound effect on American culture, severely eroding the trust people had in their government.
If the man in charge was paranoid that people were plotting against him, then those in Hollywood also felt that paranoia. Films like The China Syndrome, The Conversation, All The Presidents Men, Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View flourished, capitalising on the idea that the people in charge were not to be trusted, hinting at large conspiracies, cover-ups, surveillance, and secret men in black suits who were willing to assassinate you or worse in order to protect state secrets. The epitome of this distrust could be seen in Chinatown, where the protagonist Jake Gilles, tries his best to uncover a vast conspiracy regarding the water supply in L.A. only to find that it is larger than he can control. As critic Alan Glynn says of the era:
"Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces."
In a way the Nixon era changed cinema forever, allowing darker and more morally complex stories to be told, as they had to be told to reflect the times people lived in. And as the 70s wore on, paranoia gave way to despair, leading to:
Ford, Carter And The Cinema Of Hopelessness
Gerald Ford did not do much to restore faith in American government after he was elected. One of his biggest mistakes was to pardon Nixon for his crimes, which many of the public saw as the government not being able to accept its own culpability. The ironic part is, despite the country going through its darkest, most economically deprived time since WWII, the subsequently depressing films that emerged, in conjunction with New Hollywood and auteur cinema, was, in my opinion, the pinnacle of American filmmaking.
Only in a country cracking apart at the seams would you have films as bleak yet as stunningly resonant as Nashville, Taxi Driver, Network, The Deer Hunter and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Here you had anger and pain transcribed into high art.
Sidney Lumet's drama about television Network is a great, quintessential example of the era, brilliantly suggesting that presidents and governments aren't even the ones who hold the power anymore, instead stating that the world is in the grip of multi-national corporations and unstoppable globalization:
As globalization increased, and traditional industry declined, there was a feeling that something essentially American was being lost. The Deer Hunter, although ostensibly a Vietnam drama, spoke to those fears by setting the first half of the film in the small working-class town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. Tellingly, they are steelworkers before they go to Vietnam, but there is a sense that this in an industry that will be eroded in the years to come, as it was in real life. It ends in a moment of tragic irony: everyone singing "God Bless America" despite having lost most of their faith in their country. This was reflected by Jimmy Carter's speech made during the energy crisis:
"It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation..."
Admittedly, this was in the specific context of telling people not to waste energy, but it still spoke to a much larger national problem. Nevertheless, there was still hope. This hope was embodied in a man renowned for making the nation semi-Great again: Ronald Reagan.
Reagan And The Macho Years
The 80s is a decade renowned for being insanely cheesy, for the rise of yuppies and the privatisation of industry, and one in which the three greatest filmmaking nations — USA, England and France — all had a leader that spanned more or less the entire time: Reagan, Thatcher and Mitterand.
Reagan always had scripted responses at press conferences and often compared being a president to being an actor. In this respect, cinema also became more formulaic and polished, also reflected by the end of New Hollywood — when Cimino's Heaven's Gate bankrupted United Artists, Reds was too long and preachy, and 1941 was simply a complete mess. This is not to say that auteur cinema didn't stay alive in some form or another, only that the predominant trend of the 80s was that of bluster, cheese and an assertion of individual power. In turn, action cinema would develop a new language, the vocabulary of which is still in place to this day.
Action cinema in the 80s reflects this macho ambition on behalf of the Reagan Presidency. This, after all, was a man who told the leader of the Soviet Union to just "Tear down this wall!" — a plainspoken demand that I can't imagine any Democrat engaging in. He turned the narrative of the USA into a simple moral one. They were the good guys — despite having many flaws in their foreign policy, such as the scapegoating of Gaddafi, which were covered up by lies rephrased as "perception management" — and everyone else were the bad guys.
A prime example of when the 80s went too far in its black and white morality was Cobra, which redid the ambiguity of Dirty Harry to create an ode to fascism. Its essential message was instant justice, with Stallone deciding who deserved to live or die. Yet, a more potent way in seeing how the culture had changed would be in comparing the first two films in the Alien franchise. Whilst the original 1979 film is a creepy and tense horror, featuring an unknown element on the ship that slowly kills everybody one by one, the second is a far more gung-ho action picture. Both succeed as masterpieces of the genre, but reflect the way 80s action pictures evolved to become even larger spectacles.
The same can be said of how the Rambo picture evolved from the original to the sequel. Vietnam was explored less as a sight for trauma — the exception being Platoon — but as an epic battlefield where the strongest survive. The ideology prevailed, and the Soviet Union crumbled. When Bush Sr. took over, he essentially took over a whole new world.
Bush Sr. And A New World
George H.W. Bush oversaw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the Reunification of Germany. Now he wasn't particularly responsible for these things, but his level-headedness in diplomacy made sure that the transition was made smoothly. Naturally, the change in European cinema is easier to track at this time — with notions of European identity still being challenged and interrogated to this day — but these changes in Europe would also have ramifications in Hollywood across the pond, yet these wouldn't be seen to manifest so obviously until the Clinton era, which although a return to the centre, seemed to validate the ethos of Reagan.
America were the victors of the Cold War. They were the world's dominant superpower. But Bush was quite the different president to Reagan. Not an actor, he was actually quite boring, more focused on doing a diligent job than any theatrics in front of camera. Nevertheless, macho action cinema didn't go through so much of an obvious change as during the Reagan era— as Reaganomics were validated by the defeat of the Russians — only that the budgets got bigger, thus resulting in extravaganzas such as Terminator 2, Total Recall and Point Break. With Bush Sr mostly acting as a provisor over events he didn't start — apart from the disastrous Gulf War — his presence wouldn't change the course of cinema too much. Things would reach a boiling point with:
Bill Clinton And Liberal Optimism
Following the early 90s recession that led to Bush Sr. failing to maintain office, Clinton was elected. The subsequent economic boom was extremely high. Clinton, despite numerous sex scandals, left office with the highest approval rating of any president since WWII. He was also voted in a poll as the third most popular post-WWII president after Kennedy and Reagan. It was a genuinely good time for America. As written in a New York times article:
It was simply the happiest decade of our American lifetimes.
The world of Hollywood followed suit, mostly. This feeling of good times is best optimised by President Whitmore in Independence Day, a man whose iconic speech epitomised American optimism at its best:
The world wasn't exactly perfect in the 90s. The horrors in the Balkans and Rwanda were some of the worst conflicts of the 20th Century. But this was pre-9/11, pre-War-in-Iraq, pre-Afghanistan and mass surveillance. Any threat to American soil was arguably easy to deal with. The problems were more internal, such as the rise of the use of prozac and mass incarceration, made worse by the three strike law Clinton signed and which proportionally affected black households. These poor law-making decisions were problems America had been dealing with since the Nixon era. This was chronicled in both the Bush Sr. and Clinton era by the rise of Hood dramas and comedies such as Menace II Society, Boyz in The Hood and Friday.
On an international front however, action films reached an apex of masterful, gleeful stupidity. Think Con Air, The Rock, Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Armageddon. Never really bettered before or since in terms of sheer ridiculousness. True Lies for me is the epitome of how stupidly overblown and trivialised America's threats appeared. The terrorists are seen as buffoons, and the stereotypes are mostly satirical. Likewise in Three Kings. Sure, the film criticises the Gulf War, but its mostly a lark. Things would change drastically after 9/11.
Want More Trump-Related News? Check Out:
- 'South Park' Season 20 Episode 5 Addresses The Leaked Trump Tape
- Michael Moore Just Released A Surprise Trump Documentary
- If You're A Harry Potter Fan, You Probably Hate Trump And Here's Why
George W. Bush And Serious Action
Despite being the son of the previous president, George W. Bush left quite the different legacy. If George Sr. oversaw a world in transition, before admittedly losing his presidency for failing to deal with the early 90s recession, George W. Bush oversaw and exacerbated a world slowly tearing itself apart. Assuming power after a farcical situation regarding the vote count in Florida, the rest of his career would follow suit. To be fair, he never stood much of a chance. 9/11 happened.
It's not an overstatement to say that 9/11 changed the course of cinema forever. Weirdly the 90s kept predicting it, showing New York being ravaged over and over again by bombs or natural disasters, and then it actually happened. A hugely televised event, it changed the American perspective towards domestic terrorism: it wasn't a fantasy any longer. J. Hoberman lists a few immediate examples:
"Warner Bros. postponed Collateral Damage, and the screenwriters, David and Peter Griffiths, suffered another setback when Fox suspended their top-secret project, Deadline, a hijack drama written for James Cameron. Jerry Bruckheimer decided that the time might not be right for World War III, which called for nuclear attacks on Seattle and San Diego."
This change of mood is best epitomised in Black Hawk Down, a film that ditched the corny one-liners and chest-thumping nationalism of previous American action films, instead looking for verité in portraying those in the U.S. forces. Released a year after 9/11, it represented a more sombre bent when looking at contemporary wars abroad. Likewise these times saw the rise of action hero Jason Bourne, an antidote to Bond's decade-spanning hedonism. Coupled with the rise of mass surveillance, the 00s saw us paranoid again — when would the next terrorist attack be? —and cinema followed suit in thrillers such as Minority Report, Phone Booth and Vantage Point. Television also saw one of its finest anti-terrorist fighters in the hugely successful TV series 24.
Yet perversely enough, action cinema in the cornier sense did mutate into something else: superhero movies, a trend that blew up with the super-serious Dark Knight Trilogy, the Spider-Man trilogy and 2008's Iron Man, by this year being established as something of an industry unto itself. The superhero became the new space for the mega-spectacle; by retreating into fantasy, villains being other comic book characters, there was still an opportunity to be relatively corny, and to believe in good-old heroes again.
Whilst the argument can be made that superhero films showed a retreat into childhood in order to avoid tackling serious questions in action films, I think that they act as a good trojan horse with which to sneak in much more serious themes. As we are still in the middle of the superhero era, it can be seen to spread across both Bush and Obama, and probably through the next two terms of presidency as well. One notable thing Obama did influence however, was depicting race on screen:
Obama And Post-Racial Cinema
For a lot of people, Obama being elected represented a huge advance in American politics. The fact that a black man was now president was seen as a massive symbolic victory for equality. There were now black presidents in the fictional White House — whether its Jamie Foxx in White House Down or Morgan Freeman in Olympus Has Fallen or Danny Glover in 2012. These films are all terrible, but now that a president was black, it was no longer a surprise to see a black president on screen.
Additionally, films depicting black lives and dealing with black issues increased, such as Fruitvale Station, Dear White People, Django Unchained, and The 13th. Additionally, Martin Luther King Jr, finally got his own biopic with Selma. It is frankly amazing it took so long. The watershed moment, which has yet to be replicated, was when drama 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture, the recognition forcing America to finally confront its violent and ugly past. Things have changed since Driving Miss Daisy.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Obama's election not bringing about the change people anticipated, and the increased attention concerning police violence towards blacks, came a resurgence of the civil rights movement with Black Lives Matter, a group dedicated specifically to ending this violence more generally for complete equality between blacks and whites.
Diversity executives in film and TV have listened somewhat, and now the internet has made it easier to stand up and complain about whitewashing, helping POC get the representation they need. There is still long way to go, but the Obama era can be seen as when issues of representation and equality really started the ball rolling. Films coming out this year such as Fences, Moonlight and even the controversial Birth Of A Nation, have shown the increasing diversity of black cinema. Hopefully this is only the start.
Somehow, for Obama, a man who hasn't even stood down yet, the nostalgia for his earlier years is already kicking in. Films such as Southside With You and Barry look at the president as a young man and college student. He's seen as an easy-going, down-to-earth guy, not afraid to smoke openly, and I'm not just talking cigarettes. As today's struggle fades, I think Obama will be looked upon fondly, if not now.
In the 90s, maybe Obama could have done OK, but dealing with both the worst depression since the 30s and a senate positively opposed towards him, as well as the failures of the Arab spring and the rise of ISIS, Obama really has had his hands full when trying to be a diplomatic leader of the free world. His failure to contain these manifold problems has led to the divisive election we have today, which finally gets us around to the question we have all been asking:
What Would It Mean If Donald Trump Were Elected?
Looking at these precedents, which previous president does Trump most resemble? Like Reagan and his acting career, he became famous from popular culture such as The Apprentice. Like Bush Jr, he is a continuous subject for satire. Like Clinton he has cheated on his wives. Like Nixon he is paranoid and isn't a fan of the newspapermen.
Yet unlike all of the previous presidents, he has not had actual experience in politics. This makes him one of the easiest figures of satire available, and he has been constantly lampooned in shows such as SNL, by stand-up comics and in films such as The Art Of The Deal. More darkly, Louis C.K's TV series Horace and Pete takes an extremely bleak look at what a Trump victory means:
I'm going to get political and just assume that Trump being president will be bad for nearly everyone; bad for people of color as he will legitimise racism and start with mass deportations, bad for the economy as he tries to cut 'deals' with other countries, bad for women as he wants to reverse Roe vs Wade, and bad for NATO, as Trump — in a rare move for a president — has allied himself with Putin. All the good work put in by Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and to a more debatable extent, Obama, in controlling Russian aggression, would be neutralised. Conversely, given that he is a complete liar about nearly everything he says, he could do the opposite. It's hard to say.
Nevertheless, it would be a pretty dark time. This could result in some intriguing filmmaking, just like in the mid to late 70s, although due to the way Hollywood operates now, it would surely manifest itself differently. How, I couldn't exactly say. Given his hatred of a free press however, who could say if he would allow the most stinging criticisms to even be made?
What Would It Mean If Hillary Clinton Were Elected?
When Obama was elected, many believed (erroneously) that we lived in a post-racial society, and cinema (and television) appeared to vastly increase in terms of racial representation. Is it possible to say that with Clinton's election, we will see another misguided belief that we have moved past gender? It depends whether you think Hillary's election will actually be good for women; the jury is out among many feminists. Given the misogyny apparent in this current campaign, we still have a long way to go towards ridding the world of hatred towards women.
Nevertheless, despite her many flaws, Clinton is prepared to be president. She has been preparing her whole life. That may open her up to accusations of careerism or cynicism but at least she is highly smart and capable. Michael Moore has even made a film promoting her. Nevertheless, if anything, having a woman lead the free world is a powerful image, and like with Obama's election, will surely lead to more depiction of female presidents on screen.
We can see it already occurring with Sela Ward's female president in Independence Day: Resurgence, a performance she said was modelled after Hilary's mannerisms. Given that it is a film about 90s nostalgia, and how much simpler things seemed, it suggests that voting for Clinton is in a way its own act of nostalgia, like those who want the Reagan years back are more inclined to vote for Trump. Yet, Clinton's victory will be seen by many on the left not as a cause for celebration, but merely one of relief: at least the other guy isn't in power. The country will remain divided. For one thing, cinema will have a far less interesting or at least obvious target to hit.