At the Movies with Campaign 2016

“What are we going to do?” asked the Professor. “At this moment,” said Syme, with a scientific detachment, “I think we are going to smash into a lamppost.”
~ G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

By all accounts, this has been a strange campaign season, and it’s only going to get stranger, so I’m turning to the movies. I’ve always found it both instructive and diverting to relate the news of the day to big (and little) screen spectacles—to help make sense of it all and then get my mind off of it.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way in these odd times.

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Take film historian Richard Blake’s recent essay in America that takes a look back at Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane. “On its 75th anniversary, coming in the light of this election cycle, it is eerily relevant, even timeless,” Blake wrote of the film. “In short, it is the story of a media manipulator who strives to turn his celebrity into elective office.” Blake then offers this charge to his readers: “Draw what parallels you may.”

The challenge in this case is that the parallels are so numerous—and so bipartisan. Sure, there’s plenty of bluster coming from Republican quarters, but witness the recent Wikileaks revelations about Democratic double-talk and scheming. In other words, there’s plenty of grandstanding to go around these days, and the back-to-back convention junket we’re riding right now is like a microcosm of the entire bizarre campaign season thus far. Extraordinary twists and turns come in such rapid succession that it’s more like hanging on to a bucking bronco than the usual scripted merry-go-round we’re accustomed to.

Which makes movie parallels all the more helpful I think.

Another that comes to mind is a 1997 feature, Wag the Dog. There’s a White House “handler” (Robert De Niro) dealing with a domestic scandal, and he enlists a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate a foreign war as a distraction. That’s the movie, the fiction.

Then there’s real life. Last week in Cleveland there was a political firestorm that seemingly distracted us all from a horrific military goof. I would’ve missed it totally if it hadn’t been for my friend, Mike Baxter. He posted a news story online about a US-led airstrike in Syria, adding this tagline: “While we obsess over Republican convention news….” The story itself, by Common Dreams reporter Nika Wright, was devastating. “Fifty-six civilians were killed on Tuesday by coalition forces, and 21 civilians were killed by the coalition on Monday,” she wrote. “The 77 civilian deaths included at least 11 children.”

Eleven innocent boys and girls, dead. “Mistakes are likely to happen,” is how the event was rationalized by a leader of the Syrian Civil Defense Force.

That was on Tuesday—and it didn’t cause a ripple of media comment or consternation, at least based on the NPR/PBS reporting I listened to all that day. Instead, what we did hear about, almost constantly, was Melania Trump’s Convention speech Monday night and how it overlapped with Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic convention speech. Media critics might ask whether the White House would need a Hollywood producer when the press regularly ignore news that might embarrass the president.

Even Hillary Clinton was distracted, or else the Syrian bombing didn’t bother her nearly as much as the Republican convention did. In fact, she came up with her own cinematic comparison in her critique: “Lots of sound and fury, even a fog machine,” Clinton commented, alluding to The Wizard of Oz, “but when you pulled back the curtain, it was just Donald Trump with nothing to offer the American people.”

The Democratic nominee doesn’t need my two cents of electorate analysis, but it’s pretty clear that “the American people” are just as frustrated with what Clinton’s offering them—even her own supporters. DNC conference attendee Matthew Mousley speaks for many when he told the Associated Press in Philadelphia that he’ll vote for the Democratic nominee, but only reluctantly. “I’m not excited,” he said. “I guess, it’s just, I feel like there should be better options.”

That goes for oh, so many of us, Republican and Democrat.

The reasons for our national misgivings and malaise with regards to this election are many and varied, but for Catholics it’s a particularly troubling situation. We’ve got a boatload of issues that we care about—or we’re supposed to care about. In their 2015 guide for American voters, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops fill 20+ pages with summaries of Church teaching and policy recommendations. Taking into account moral absolutes, such as abortion and euthanasia, as well as more nuanced questions regarding warfare, social justice, and economics, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find candidates whose policy positions line up with Church teaching even minimally. In this election, it seems to be well-nigh impossible.

I’ll let others far more capable and erudite than me tackle all those individual issues head on, and then duke it out regarding their differences and relative weight as far as voting is concerned. What I’m interested in, especially with regards to the movie thing, is what seems to be a depressed national mood—our overall disappointment in the miserable choice being foisted on us, and our near despair that this election is coming down to a decision between two highly objectionable candidates.

It’s a situation that led me to go to the library to check out a copy of The Manchurian Candidate from 1962—the exquisite original. (Why anybody thought it required a remake is beyond me.) It’s a Cold War thriller about McCarthy-like rightwing extremism and brainwashed G.I.s who are repurposed as sleeper-assassins. On the off chance you’ve never seen it (and you should), I won’t reveal much more than that—almost the entire film is a spoiler minefield. And I’m not going to argue for any simplistic political comparisons to current events either.

Instead, it’s the movie’s serial shocks and surprises that I find relevant today, beginning with the cast—Frank Sinatra in a serious, dramatic role for starters, and then Angela Lansbury as an unsavory, domineering mother. It’s not just disorienting, but also downright discomfiting to see Ol’ Blue Eyes and the surrogate Agatha Christy of TV’s “Murder She Wrote” spar with each other over world domination. Indeed, the whole movie is like a noir spoof of the American political process. According to Roger Ebert, critic Pauline Kael wrote that The Manchurian Candidate “may be the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood.” Ebert himself added that it is also comprehensive, “because it satirizes no particular target—left, right, foreign, domestic—but the very notion that politics can be taken at face value.”

Given the remaining cast of candidates in this national campaign, I’d suggest that Ebert’s summary neatly fits the contemporary bill. What we’re seeing (or what we’re allowed to see) is rarely, if ever, a true reflection of what’s going on behind the scenes. Instead, like modern commercials for pharmaceuticals, we’re given suggestive glimpses and persuasive images—just enough to manage our votes and gain market share. Yet, unlike the drug ads, we’re denied the disclaimers that normally follow. Pretty much, we’re left to fend for ourselves.

Which leads me to The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s innovative sci-fi TV series from the 1960s—not a movie, per se, but definitely a screen-based entertainment with applications to today’s political situation. McGoohan plays a spy who quits his post precipitously and without explanation, and so his bosses subsequently banish him to a mysterious, impassable compound for debriefing. Stripped of his name, McGoohan’s character is henceforth labeled #6, and he undergoes all manner of psychological torment while always on the lookout for a means of escape.

In “Free for All” (1967), an early episode written and directed by McGoohan himself, #6 is pressed into running to replace the current #2. “I intend to discover who are the prisoners,” declares #6 in his kickoff speech, “and who are the warders.” In the end, after a freewheeling and surreal (to borrow Clinton’s word) campaign, it becomes evident that none of it actually mattered—it was all a sham, and the campaign had no bearing on the ultimate shifting of power. “Free for All” underscores the cynical realism of The Manchurian Candidate, and serves as a campy warning against investing too much in the process—a perennially applicable lesson, unfortunately, with frustrating implications for those who deem voting a grave responsibility.

So what to do? Research, read between the lines, consult trusted authorities, and deliberate. Pray for wisdom, attend to your formed conscience, and pull a lever—even if you have to hold your nose while doing so. As the bishops hint, you might even “decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate” (FC 36)—or, like me and others, opt for “None of the Above” by casting a blank ballot.

In the end, though, no matter how unmoored you feel by the whole process, be content, and throw yourself ever more headlong into Christ, into his Church, into grace. To hearken back to Hillary Clinton’s Wizard of Oz allusion, we do well to remember that Dorothy’s “surreal” experience ended up being only a dream, and she wound up back home—really home—in the last scene. We, too, can be confident that, regardless of the political upheavals we face now, our true home, our final destination, will always be Jesus himself.


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