By Matt Singer
President-elect Barack Obama doesn’t take office until January 20th. His effect on foreign policy, the economy, and the environment won’t be known for months, even years after that. But before he’s even set foot in the Oval Office, Obama’s election has already had an impact on the world of film.
Movies, at least the ones made by the major Hollywood studios, are enormous undertakings. They take hundreds of millions of dollars and several years to envision, produce and distribute. The world they’re released into is often a very different one from the world in which they were conceived. A movie made for an America run by President George W. Bush could look very different in one that’s just voted for Barack Obama.
Take, for instance, the latest James Bond adventure, “Quantum of Solace.” The 21st century 007, played by Daniel Craig, bears little resemblance to the one played by Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan. He doesn’t sleep with a lot of women; he falls in love with one, then obsesses over her when she’s murdered. He doesn’t quip, he questions; and particularly in “Quantum of Solace,” he’s beset by all sorts of moral quandaries that the Bonds of the past were too busy shagging and shooting to ponder: Should he seek revenge against the people who killed his lover? How far should he go to find them and hurt them?
As President Bush’s foreign policy decisions came under greater and greater scrutiny, even the typically escapist world of action films began to address, however obliquely, the feelings of a country growing ambivalent about its involvement in wars around the world. Heroes like Craig’s James Bond, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne struggle with finding the appropriate response to loss. To varying degrees, they all have to decide whether punishing the guilty is enough to alleviate their own guilt. But the “Bourne” trilogy ended last year while the President was still firmly ensconced in Washington; “The Dark Knight” was released this summer and the film served, in some ways, as a final summation of various Bush-era attitudes on terrorism. “Quantum of Solace” came to U.S. theaters on November 14th, just 10 days after Election Day and its accompanying vote for change. Even though he would have felt right at home a few months earlier, with the nation’s mood turning more upbeat, a dour, moody Bond suddenly felt out of place. Intended to be completely of the moment, he wound up hopelessly out of date.
A similar problem was faced by Oliver Stone’s “W.,” which sped through the production process during the summer to ensure its release less than a month before the election. But regardless of the circumstances behind the scenes, no sense of urgency actually made it into the finished product, a surprisingly toothless apologia for the Bush presidency. A superb lead performance from Josh Brolin notwithstanding, Stone’s intentions and ambitions remain unclear: if you’re going to have the audacity to make a movie about the flaws and mistakes of a sitting president disapproved of by three-fourths of the country, why do it to take pity on him? Audiences weren’t too sure either; the movie made less than $30 million at the box office.
Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” took pity on its presidential subject, too. Howard’s Nixon, like Stone’s Bush, is flawed but not without redeeming qualities. Though he suffers from a martyr complex, and still refuses to acknowledge his hand in the Watergate scandal, Nixon, as played by Frank Langella, is witty, charming and fiercely intelligent. The image of a deeply unpopular president belatedly fessing up to his mistakes after years of stonewall denials in “Frost/Nixon” calls to mind President Bush and his repeated insistence of a justification for the war in Iraq. But if Howard intended the film to serve as wish fulfillment for a frustrated country, the current president himself provided his own shocking anticlimax when, on December 1st, during the very week “Frost/Nixon” went into limited release, President Bush told ABC News’ Charles Gibson that the intelligence failure in Iraq was his “biggest regret of all the presidency.”
Some activists expressed their own regret that Gus Van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, didn’t arrive in theaters before voters got to cast their ballot on California’s Proposition 8, the initiative that restricted the state constitution’s definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and which passed on the same day of Obama’s election. But “Milk,” which would be a touching and powerful story in any political climate, seemed bioengineered to serve as the first movie of the Obama presidency. Milk, like Obama, got his start in politics as a community organizer. When he campaigned for his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he articulated a message that would be echoed on the popular Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster that became the unofficial image of the Obama campaign. “We’ve gotta give ’em hope,” Milk says. “Without hope, life isn’t worth living.”
As we see in “Milk,” some of the man’s best work was done in reaction to the efforts of his enemies, as when he led the demonstrations through the Castro district in reaction to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, the guiding force behind Proposition 6, a California ballot initiative that would’ve made it legal to deny housing and jobs to openly gay people in 1978. While the parallels between the political climates of the two eras are striking, “Milk” is ultimately not about what happens on Election Day, but about the positive change that can happen as a result of adversity. Instead of looking back over what has been lost in the past, like the James Bond of “Quantum of Solace,” “Milk” teaches us to look to the future. What changes will come over the next four years under President Obama remains to be seen, as will the nature of the films that are produced during them. The best we can hope for are heroes as relevant to tomorrow as Harvey Milk is to today.
[Photos: “Quantum of Solace,” Columbia Pictures, 2008; “W.,” Lionsgate, 2008; “Milk,” Focus Features, 2008]