These days, it seems as though life in the Trump era could easily deteriorate into a nerve-racking thriller or an apocalyptic horror movie. But do leaders have any influence on films made during their time in office?
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump – the leader of the free world, as the holder of the office is usually called – taught us there’s no difference between good and evil, or between the good guys and the bad guys. That happened when Trump reacted to events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, when the Ku Klux Klan and other racist right-wing organizations arrived in the city to protest the plan to remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate army in the American Civil War.
During the event, a driver rammed his car into a crowd of counter demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring others. Trump procrastinated in responding to the incident, and when he did finally react assigned equal blame to the racists and their opponents, declared there was violence on both sides and, by blaming both, absolved the racists.
Since Trump took office in January, the United States is experiencing a continual nightmare. I didn’t choose the word “nightmare” by chance, but because I recently came across it in numerous articles describing life in America during Trump’s presidency.
Only a few weeks ago, we were on the brink of a nuclear war, the U.S. president threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea the likes of which the world has never seen, and the danger, which is still not over, caused me for one to feel – and it’s a disturbing feeling – that I trust the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, more than I trust Donald Trump.
It will be interesting to see when Trump’s still-young presidency begins to leave its mark on American cinema. Because of the way it is produced, cinema reacts to current events more slowly than television or popular music. The production process for most of the movies that will be released in 2017 and 2018 began long before Trump was elected president, and even before people had absorbed the horrifying thought that Trump was liable to become president.
Today, due to the many financial problems that plague the American film industry, and the complications they cause, cinema is slower than ever to reflect the reality in which it is made.
In October 1962, during the term of President John F. Kennedy, the world faced the danger of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and already in 1964 two very different films were released about a nuclear holocaust caused in error: Sidney Lumet’s somber “Fail-Safe” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” which made us laugh hysterically at the sight of the world exploding before our eyes.
Both World War II and the Korean War – whose outcome is affecting the present crisis – led to an immediate reaction in Hollywood, which mobilized to make films that would raise America’s morale on the battlefield and home front. But when the situation gets complicated, the reaction is delayed. For example, during the Vietnam War, only one film was produced that dealt directly with the fighting: “The Green Berets” (1968), the patriotic hit starring and co-directed by John Wayne.
Other films produced during that period dealt with the war in an indirect, allegorical manner, and Hollywood returned to the war only years after it had ended.
Nor was the social schism in the United States during those years – which was based primarily on attitudes to the Vietnam War – reflected immediately on-screen, with the exception of a small handful of films. The most prominent of them was “Medium Cool” (1969), directed by the outstanding cinematographer Haskell Wexler, which was filmed during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, where anti-war demonstrators were violently suppressed by the police.
Another example is the Watergate scandal, which, as a follow-up to the series of political assassinations that preceded it, introduced a degree of paranoia into American cinema. But direct engagement with it was postponed until 1976 and Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men,” two years after President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the affair.
As stated, the more complex the reality, the more difficult it is for Hollywood to represent it. And there is no question that Trump’s election and his term in office involve numerous complexities – relating to Trump’s style, his policy (if it can be called that), his hostility toward the media, his introduction of the term “fake news” to the lexicon, marking the existence of an alternative reality (and hasn’t it always been the role of cinema to shape such a reality?), and the general sense that Trump has dragged his reality TV show “The Apprentice” into the Oval Office (including the catchphrase “You’re fired!”). Therefore, the way Trump’s term in office is presented in American cinema, and the question of what will happen, are the subject of considerable interest.
Even if the world raised an eyebrow when second-rate actor Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president and his movie roots were in evidence during his two terms – he borrowed the name “Star Wars,” which had already become very popular, for his proposed missile defense system – that is as nothing compared to the feeling of the fake, and therefore dangerous, presidency conveyed by Trump.
But it’s Trump’s lesson in ethics, in which he blurs the difference between good and evil, that is actually his strongest link to popular culture. Hollywood long ago stopped dividing humanity into good guys and bad guys, and ethical ambiguity reigns even in the superhero films like “Superman,” “Batman” “X-Men” and “The Avengers,” as well as many other movies in which the heroes are torn between good and evil both within themselves and within the divided reality in which they operate.
The entire “Star Wars” series takes place in the rift between the “light” and “dark” side. And, interestingly, the degree of darkness in action and superhero films has long since signified its artistic merit for critics.
Even the malicious cheerfulness that characterized James Bond at the start of that spy franchise, when he was played by Sean Connery, developed into the dark torments of 007 as played by Daniel Craig in the most recent films. After considerable media speculation, Craig recently announced that he will return for the 25th Bond movie, due for release in November 2019. Barring unforeseen circumstances, this means it will be released during the Trump era – it will be fascinating to see how the next Bond film reflects this era of the man with the golden hair.
In that regard, in Trump’s reaction we can identify a link to a central component of American cinema – a connection that Trump, as usual, reduces to a basic, even primitive, extreme that makes it completely repugnant: A president who sees himself as a superhero enters the White House, and yet due to his character, his nature and his past, we can imagine him playing one of those greedy bad guys who want not only to rule the world but to dominate it while superheroes, intelligence agents and various representatives of law and order try to stop him from carrying out his global plot.
So it’s no wonder that, like in many of these films, there’s a sense of darkness now in the United States and the White House. Ethical ambiguity and darkness have been evident in Hollywood films since the end of World War II, in film noir and melodramas produced in the ostensibly conservative and complacent 1950s (during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower). During that period, paranoia also first infiltrated American cinema with all its power, in horror and science fiction films that reflected Americans’ fear of a nuclear holocaust at the start of the Cold War.
Is it possible to talk about cinema in the era of one president or another? The processes that propel American films when it comes to reality are more complex than the transition from one president to his successor, and from Republican to Democratic control and back again. But there is no question, for example, that the eight years of Reagan’s terms in office (1981-1989) produced patriotic and complacent cinema. And it is also no coincidence that those are the years when Tom Cruise – that representation of young American manhood in all its unbridled ambition – became a star.
If I had to choose one film that best represents the Reagan era, it would be 1986’s “Top Gun,” starring Cruise and directed by Tony Scott. It’s interesting to note that Cruise is planning to make a sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” during the Trump era, even though many Americans hope Trump will no longer be president by the time it is eventually released in cinemas.
But as has been true throughout the history of American cinema, the films of the Reagan era were also characterized by ambivalence, something reflected in their preoccupation with sex – in the years when the AIDS epidemic penetrated public awareness (although Reagan refrained from mentioning it for a very long time).
In that regard I will mention two equally representative films of the Reagan era: Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction” (1987), which warned against the dangers of one-night stands (specifically for the married man); and Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), which asked if men and women can ever be friends, or if sex always gets in the way.
And what about Israel? Is it possible to detect the influence of one prime minister or another on the films produced during a certain premier’s term in office? For example, was the so-called heroic nationalist cinema in the early years of the state created in the image of the nationalist vision of David Ben-Gurion (who, when attending the local premiere of Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” in 1960, declared it to be the first film he had seen in decades)?
Did the ethnic “bourekas” films that flourished in the 1970s [in which, as a rule, a downtrodden Mizrahi Jew prevailed over the Ashkenazi establishment]reflect a reaction to the rule of Mapai (the forerunner of the Labor Party) and herald the 1977 upheaval when the left lost an election for the first time, to Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud? Did Assi Dayan’s “Life According to Agfa,” which was released in 1992 – the year when Yitzhak Rabin returned to the premiership – foretell his assassination three years later? And has Benjamin Netanyahu’s long reign left a mark on Israeli cinema (and I’m not referring to the destructive marks his current culture minister is liable to leave on it)?
The way Israeli cinema presents the historical moment in which it is made, becoming part of it or ignoring it – like its representation of social and cultural processes that characterize Israel’s history – is too complex a subject to discuss in one column, so I will try to touch on these issues at some other point. Of course, that’s if no new civil war erupts in the United States with dire consequences for the entire world, or even a nuclear war. Because in the Trump era, there’s no knowing what will happen from one week to the next. It’s fascinating, occasionally even mildly amusing – but try creating movies in this tricky situation of continuous uncertainty.
Written by Uri Klien for Haaretz