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Feature: Bush Movies in Obama’s America

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01122009_quantumofsolace.jpgBy 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.

01122009_w.jpgA 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.”

01122009_milk.jpgAs 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]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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