Not Really An A-List:
The Bush Administration and Cinema
By Sean Collier
October 27, 2008

I say we're going to sit here until the Rangers win the World Series. Who's with me?

With the recent release of Oliver Stone's celluloid summation of the second Bush administration – not to mention this election thing we're gonna do pretty soon, here – I would like, if I may, to take a brief departure from the A-List format.

More than most White House tenures, the past eight years have had a great effect on the multiplex. It's easy to write this off as a result of the man in charge. Bush the latter is certainly the most divisive and controversial president since Nixon, and that's saying something when the last guy was taking blowjob breaks. However, there's more to the cinematic spillover than that. Hollywood has always been political, but the sheer number of films taking a stance is, I think, unprecedented.

Perhaps this is a result of 24-hour news, and the attempts of CNN and Fox to meld our politics with our entertainment in a permanent way. Perhaps it has something to do with the Internet – political movies are hard sells, but if you can rally your base online, as Fireproof recently demonstrated, you can still make some money. Most likely, however, it's a combination of factors, and I wouldn't be surprised to see many of these symptoms abate once someone new moves into 1600. (Notice how I pretended like we don't know who's going to win in that last sentence? Wasn't that nice and faux-partisan of me?)

The great splitting point, here – whether or not all this crossover is a good thing. Relevance and timeliness in the theater is certainly a positive, and the changing, healing power of art will never be questioned by me, in any form. However, I can't help but wonder if the response of contemporary filmmakers is act of obligation or of passion. It seems now that some directors and screenwriters are going political not because they necessarily want to, but because they feel it's the thing to do. One wonders how Clint Eastwood would've followed up the phenomenal one-two punch of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby if he hadn't felt compelled to go to the war genre (and then how would Spike Lee have followed up The Inside Man if he hadn't felt the need to respond to Clint?)

One field to separate, however – I'll bypass 9/11 and its effects for another time. These, too, are wide-ranging; the rebirth (or at least revitalization) of the disaster film, as seen most notably in Cloverfield, is one result, and realistically, the superhero genre owes something to the post-9/11 climate. However, politics aside, the attacks are a somewhat separate issue. Furthermore, a reminder that many of the films discussed herein would in no way make it to a normal A-List; I'll throw in a few picks here and there just in case you need to replenish that Netflix queue.

Without further pontificating or qualifying, The A-List presents The Bush Administration and Cinema.

War Movies Are Very Forcefully Back

The obvious entry is perhaps the most indicative of that "compulsion" I mentioned earlier. Artists, for better or worse, feel a need to respond and comment to their circumstances; for the past seven years or so, we've been living with war, as Neil Young would put it. Just as it did when Vietnam unwound – and lingered, and lingered – the cinema can't help but move to the battlefield. The curious thing this time around is that the audiences are simply not turning up. Some of the most direct comments on Iraq – The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, The Lucky Ones – have found meager to non-existent crowds. It's a sensitive topic – should these movies be made now? Probably, yes. Is there any call for them? No. Balancing that is up to the filmmaker.

Oddly enough, some have chosen to deal with that dilemma by switching wars. The aforementioned Clint Eastwood World War II duo, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, are two of the most acclaimed war films of the past eight years, even if they too struggled at the box office. Herzog's Vietnam film, Rescue Dawn, was similarly praised during its mostly art house run. And we can't overlook Tropic Thunder, which made more money than every film I've mentioned. One of the only films we've seen about the first Iraq war – Sam Mendes' Jarhead – was, in my opinion, one of the strongest efforts of this struggling movement. I know very few people are with me on that film, but I thought the slow, languorous portrayal of college kids thrown into the desert to sit around and wait for something to happen was easily the most timely and moving reflection of the current situation.

A-List Recent War Movies: Jarhead, In the Valley of Elah, Rescue Dawn

Subtle Comments Creep into Action Films

Action is a genre that can very well exist in a political vacuum. We do not need to know what the presidential picture is like to understand the concept of a Death Race. We need to know nothing about the global economic situation to understand why Jet Li and Jason Statham would like to kick one another. Yet, even seemingly unrelated action and drama films can't help but throw a bit of commentary in lately.

These moments are usually subtle, but powerful. When sneaking into the containment center in Children of Men, Clive Owen pauses to looks at subjects being interrogated in the style of Abu Ghraib. Alec Baldwin's gleeful police chief in The Departed celebrates his new observational freedom as a result of the Patriot Act. Batman engages in some light domestic surveillance, but only when it's really, really necessary – and only because he can't be the hero. These moments don't just serve as a nod or a comment – they perform the Orwellian task of grounding the film, not in the real world, but an ever-so-slight variation.

Bush Parodies Are Everywhere

During the Clinton administration, cinematic presidents didn't have to look or act like Slick Willie. Bill Pullman was not forcing a Southern drawl in Independence Day. Morgan Freeman did not have a thing for interns and jazz in Deep Impact. It wasn't necessary at the time – ditto for the previous few administrations. Now, however, every president that turns up on the big screen has a bad haircut, a Texas accent, and a cocky swagger. This may be a statement to just how ubiquitous Bush has become – we seriously can't even think of the office of President without picturing him, for better or worse. (Okay, for worse, for much, much worse.)

This has dragged down a movie or two along the way. Get Smart suffered from an incredibly tired series of Bush-isms by James Caan. Dennis Quaid's president-turned-academic was yet one problem in the mess that was American Dreamz. Conversely, the best examples of this have been somewhat tangential: Billy Bob Thornton's excellent cocky jackass of a Commander-in-Chief in Love Actually and Sam Rockwell's unmistakably Bushian Zaphod in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And of course, there's Josh Brolin in W. Though, to be fair, there's something oddly Bush-like about Brolin in No Country For Old Men, as well – the Texan lone wolf in way too deep.

A-List Bush Parodies: Love Actually, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, W.

Something Called Gorno Exists

Patton Oswalt has a joke about thinking we've slipped into a Bizarro universe without anyone noticing. "In our universe, spinach can kill you and torture is legal!" Connecting this sad fact of combat to horror movies is a bit of a stretch, but connect the dots – the United States starts using torture as an accepted act of war, and we have a whole subgenre that's mainly about torturing the hell out of people for no real reason. The Saw franchise has a distinct Guantanamo element to it – those who a shadowy authority figure perceives as evildoers wake up unexpectedly in a hopeless, brutal situation. Ditto for the Hostel films – deep in a secluded compound in Eastern Europe, a fortress of torture exists under the radar of national and global law. You could certainly trace the evolution of horror into these films independently of the political climate, but the mere fact that horror films about torture have some political relevance is sad and alarming.

Documentaries Make Money Now

It's still shocking now – Fahrenheit 9/11 made $120 million. A political documentary – not a narrative documentary, mind you, those still can't find audiences – that roughly half the population considered blasphemy found $120 million in box office. In a further shock, all of this money didn't pour from the coasts – in its opening weekend, Michael Moore's film wasn't just the number one film, it was the number one film in every last red state.

This, of course, paved the way for An Inconvenient Truth – basically a Powerpoint presentation broken up by the life story of the dullest man in Washington – to pull in $30 million, which people happily paid to hear about how we're screwed and it's our fault. Michael Moore's follow-up, Sicko, managed $25 million. And, because nothing makes sense anywhere, some movie about penguins walking around made $77 million. I can really offer no explanation of this, especially in the era of 24-hour news; theoretically, we should all be going to the multiplex to escape politics. And yet, these films more than anything demonstrate that now we want our politics everywhere.

A-List Political Documentaries: Bowling for Columbine, Sicko, The Fog of War