Hollywood vs. Trump
Hollywood might hate Trump, and the feeling is no doubt mutual, but so much of what the city of angels churns out these days cements Trump’s base. I don’t mean that blockbuster films today glorify neo-Nazis - the definitive statement on that came from the awesome American History X, a film before its time. Or that its mocking Me-Too or female empowerment generally - we are now living through a very welcome surfeit of smart & brave female heroines: Wonder Woman, Jessica Chastain’s Mia in Dark Zero Thirty, Poppy in Trolls. The problem is deeper - in story structure, the ways in which movies tell us the world works, how problems can be solved, who you should distrust. Of course, these are stories we like watching, that sell - and Hollywood can’t be blamed for serving them up; but these films also teach and affirm how we see the world. And a lot of what sells these is weak and easy gruel - and dangerous. Trump just came along and pressed play - his audience was already primed.
There are four things I think are going on here.
First, our enemies these days are way too excellent at what they do. In White House Down the terrorists are so damned-well organised they take out White House security, the DC police force, several battalions of marines and a squadron of fighter jets. Ditto for Olympus has Fallen, and all the sequels. And the Mission Impossible franchise. I blame Fox’s 24. You had to throw disbelief in the shredder and lob in a grenade too for good measure to watch Kiefer, but it was stupendously innovative and seat-of-the-pants thrilling. Its success opened the sluice gates, though.
In reality, of course, most terrorists are pathetic - and our security services are excellent. The most successful terrorists in our life-times booked some flying lessons, brought some box-cutters and did not have to fire a single bullet. They changed the world on 9-11 - enticing the US into a battle which, looking back, will likely be identified as one of the main accelerants of America’s decline. But no terrorist has got even close since. These guys might manage to smuggle some home-made explosive onto a bus or slice at innocents with machetes. And these things are terrifying and horrific. But their scale is small, the techniques are simple and their tools are bought from B&Q. But the movies make it out as though terrorists are better-funded than Google and are an existential threat.
How to solve such a problem? Here comes movie-meme number two: “the one-man and/or small-team saviour”. Think the Mission Impossible catelogue again. A lot of Denzel’s recent output, and all of Liam’s. Every Avengers movie. Every Transformers explosion. All beaten by a single man or small team of renegades. Ridiculously terrible odds? No matter. Vastly out-manned and out-gunned? Forget about it! A single bullet, big cojones and one-man smarts will save the day. But of course, the world does not really work like that. The problems any president faces are crazy complicated and the solutions available are always messed-up compromises. The good leader knows his job is to take us a step away from the awful, but our movie-minds expect pure wholesale defeats of everything bad.
If you thought that the “one-man savior” meme was popular, then wait for our third movie plot meme; the “shit - we’ve just been betrayed by the shadowy establishment” plot twist. The elite pretend to be good and upstanding, but its all fake - they hate you and they’re just pretending. Too many movies to choose from. The Jason Bourne movies, about which nothing bad should ever really be uttered are exhibit #1. Each is exactly the same storyline; Bourne gets provoked, he just wants to find out the truth, and the CIA guys have to disguise their repeatedly re-started & super-secret assassination program. So you can’t trust the CIA. This elite-betrayal storyline is endemic when you start looking. There was always someone back at 24’s CTU who was ready to hack for the bad-guys. Jack Ryan, another one-man saviour, battles the criminal underworld - and corrupt FBI and military officers. The Cyberdyne corporation built SkyNet, betraying humanity for profit, which only two O’Connors can save us from.
I don’t know whether to blame James Bond. He was the movie-innovator of the “shadowy elite plotting to blow-up the world” story-line - and the one-man hero. But at least the British establishment was backing him up with some gadgets and a stiff-upper lip. Mi6 remained trustworthy. So, you knew who was good and evil - Bond did not have worry about M betraying him - just taking away his gun for his own good occasionally. But that all changed in Spectre (a movie awful in more ways than a quantum computer could handle). Suddenly, at the heart of Mi6, there was ‘C’, Andrew Scott, a.k.a. Moriarty, a.k.a. the ultimate betrayer, merging the good guys in with Spectre. The world of Bond just collapsed.
Fourth, and here is just gets plain nasty, is the law-snuff movie. Case in point: Law Abiding Citizen. Gerard Butler’s wife and daughter get stabbed in a brutal, low-life home-invasion. In front of his very eyes. Butler then turns not into cynical thug revenging angel. The plan: capture and torture the murderer, and them blow up the entirety of law-enforcement because they let the murderer go free. Due process, liberal judges, cops obeying the law - all need to be punished. I think its supposed to be cathartic - and maybe it is for alt-right. But its just nasty. Again, its one man against the corrupt elite - but he doesn’t even bother now being righteous. Remind you of anyone?
These four story memes have brought us to the point where Trump and the stories he tells make sense to many. Movies that suffer these plot-lines have become sterile and predictable to many, so maybe other stories will blossom. One reason why The Wire - and other TV shows - are so wonderful is that they have the time to some complexity, to show solutions are not easy. The things which cause folk pain and failure in Baltimore is not a shadowy elite betraying the good folk, but just tight budgets, short-term targets, a refusal to liberalise drugs. Game of Thrones tells you that no political figure is completely good, that alliances and difficult bargains have to be struck if real evil is to be defeated. It’s still a great story, though, with a huge audience.
But telling real stories takes time. I don’t know how we get a president and political leaders generally who are able to tell better stories in the seconds allotted to them. Maybe we just bore of these politicians, like these movies. But I worry we won’t.