The Trump presidency was often as outlandish as any Hollywood fiction - so why haven't the movies responded in kind? Arts & Culture Editor Milo Farragher-Hanks ponders why the cinematic response to the 45th President was so tepid.
Unappealing a thought as this might sound, cast your mind back to the days after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Amidst those anxious, despairing days, you might recall the quiet recurrence of one, peculiar refrain – that, bad as the Trump years might be, they would be great for the arts. Troubled times and unpopular regimes always lead to renaissances for oppositional art, we were told, and so Trumpism would incense America’s artists, producing passionate, volatile, rousing works that would capture and comment on the sickened soul of the body politic. “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again!” declared Amanda Palmer in the Guardian, having fled the US for Australia. Maccabbee Montandon was slightly more reasoned on the matter in Fast Company magazine, citing a range of precedents for the connection between political strife and creativity; from Italian neo-realism to the Harlem Renaissance.
At the time, this argument was, frankly, cold comfort; even to a Wilde-and-Nietzsche-hardened aesthete like myself, the notion that the very real fears many felt about a Trump presidency were balanced out by its artistic potential seemed tone-deaf at best. Now, as the Trump era draws to a (typically enervating and ignominious) close, it is worth revisiting just how staggeringly off the mark these predictions were. Of course, one article can’t address the total successes and failures of the arts in addressing Trump; however, as a film student, I am going to attempt a survey of the utter dearth of meaningful or even interesting responses to the 45th president in American cinema. For all the supposed “movies we need right now”, it’s rather staggering to reach the end of a presidency as hysterical and over-wrought as any Hollywood production and realise just how few films even tried to engage with it.
If you asked most people to name a great or essential piece of Trump-era popular cinema, a good many would likely reach for Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The label both does and doesn’t fit; Released weeks after Trump’s inauguration, its sense of an ancient, awful system of cruelty lurking just under the surface of white, liberal suburbia, undeniably tapped into the zeitgeist. But the film was conceived and filmed under Obama, and the anxieties it addresses predate his successor by centuries; reducing it to a ‘Trump film’ is to diminish it, and downplay its horrors. Films directly addressing the elephant in the room were thin on the ground. Steven Spielberg’s The Post and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman both sought to address the present through the recent past, using mid-twentieth-century true stories to address the President’s denigration of the press and enabling of white supremacist groups respectively. They’re both undoubtedly intelligent, powerful works by master craftsmen – but overall, represented the exception rather than the rule.
Trump serves as an just-out-of-frame force, “played” by footage of himself, in Bombshell, last year’s Oscar-nominated account of the sexual harassment scandals which felled Fox News founder Roger Ailes, with his infamous “blood coming out of her wherever” remarks to Megyn Kelly (played in the film by Charlize Theron) at the 2016 Republican debate serving as a turning point. But the film’s broaching of the subject, much like its handling of politics gender, workplace, and national, is timid and half-hearted; in particular, the film’s girl-power happy ending rings awfully hollow when everyone in the audience knows that the ascent to the Presidency of a man caught on tape bragging about sexual assault is mere months away.
Beyond that, Hollywood largely steered clear of the subject of the incumbent president almost completely, even in broad or allegorical terms (a lone exception here is Knives Out, which lets discussions of the administration’s border policy colour our perceptions of its characters and their actions). I can’t think of a single American film from the last four years that captures the national mood as adroitly as the nerve-wracked conspiracy thrillers Chinatown and The Conversation tapped into the paranoid malaise of Nixon’s last days, nor of a single image which sums up the discontents of the era as well as Blue Velvet’s reveal of a rotting, insect-filled human ear beneath a pristine suburban lawn articulated the cynicism many felt about Regan’s “Morning in America” messaging.
Perhaps this comes down to Trump being almost too fictional to fictionalise; how can show business properly respond to a President who has conducted his whole existence as one big show? How can satire effectively skewer a leader who outdoes the ridiculousness of any Ianucci creation by his third Tweet of the day? However, it’s likely just as much a result of the industry’s current order of business. Most of the films that major American film studios make their money from now are so expensive they have to appeal to all demographics, which sadly means that explicit topicality – let alone apparent partisan statements – isn’t a priority. Of course, that hasn’t stopped them from wanting us to think that it is. Indeed, perhaps the greatest gift Trump gave Hollywood was handing PR departments the ability to give the most empty-headed spectacle a veneer of relevance with some wishy-washy platitudes about ‘our current moment’ or ‘these divisive times’. Almost every blockbuster from the usual franchise stables was heralded by a round of interviews and press releases proclaiming its relevance. I’m not saying this was pure, shameless charlatanism (I’m just heavily implying it), but I will say I’m yet to meet even a single person willing to say with a straight face that Avengers: Infinity War or Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindlewald had ‘something to say’ about our epoch.
Of course, it’s possible that the great movies about the current administration are yet to come. That oft-cited maxim about the correlation between dark times and great art is something of a popular myth. In America especially, filmmakers and studios are often only comfortable confronting contentious political issues with the benefit of distance. After all, the canonical Vietnam films – Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon et al – were made after American troops had withdrawn from the country.
It’s probably impossible to tell, right now, which films will dominate our memory of the Trump era in years to come. After all, what I consider the most artful and pointed cinematic reference to Trump so far is his appearance as raging, portentous presence on the protagonist’s TV in Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning, a South Korean film that I’d wager few Americans saw. But if I were asked to pick a single American film to encapsulate the 45th President’s term, ultimately I’d go with 2018’s Gotti. A long-gestating biopic of mob boss John Gotti, it emerged with Entourage cast member Kevin Connolly directing and a heavily made-up John Travolta playing the lead. Make no mistake, it’s a terrible, dull, derivative film – very much the Four Seasons Total Landscaping to Goodfellas’ Four Seasons Hotel. But in its aggressive tackiness, fetish for Noo-Yawk tough-guy posturing, galling incompetence, and indulgence of us-against-them macho populism (“Some people say he went to prison, but, hey, nobody’s a saint!” says one real-life Gotti supporter against the end credits), it is an accidentally perfect time capsule of everything pathetic and terrifying about the Trump era. Now that’s “the movie we need right now”.