I’ve been asking myself that a lot recently.
The United States seems to be clawing its way out of the pit the Trump administration pushed it into, inch by inch. There’s action being taken on COVID-19, the climate crisis and social justice. Anthony Fauci is smiling in press conferences, and the press conferences themselves actually seem truthful.
Still, there’s much to be reckoned with.
Over 400,000 Americans have been killed by a virus which many still don’t believe in, even as ICU beds continue to fill. Hate crimes are at national highs. Just weeks ago, there was an attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol building.
While all this hate and ignorance can’t solely be tied to the man who just left the Oval Office with his orange tail between his legs, Trump is an integral part of the blood-soaked, unraveling tapestry that the U.S. has become.
It’s our job to make sure history remembers him that way.
An important part of this will be Trump’s portrayal on film. While nonfiction texts provide the facts and subjective thoughts of those involved, they are not geared toward capturing emotional truth. For instance, reading “The Nazi regime killed six million people” does not have the same violent emotional punch as a film like “Son of Saul.”
Unshackled from the requirement to provide absolute, empirical truth, movies portray history’s emotional reality, which has the ability to bring it to thunderous life. Additionally, unlike prose, cinematic narratives visualize history and force viewers to confront what their own imaginations may smooth over.
While his administration ended just days ago, former President Trump has already been depicted cinematically. Unfortunately, the portrayal leaves much to be desired. Released last September, the Showtime miniseries “The Comey Rule,” written and directed by Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”), centers on former FBI Director Jeff Comey, who was fired by Trump after refusing to publicly exonerate him on his dealings with Russia.
Brendan Gleeson (“Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire”) does a fine job impersonating Trump, from the beady eyes to the strained vocal inflection, but that’s all “The Comey Rule” offers: an impersonation.
“The Comey Rule” portrays Trump as TV-obsessed, vindictive, arrogant, sexist, childlike and not very bright, feasting on ice cream and Egg McMuffins from silver platters. Other than what we’re used to — the slurred, nonsensical and self-glorifying lies — Trump says nothing relatable or unexpected. This matches the public perception of him, sure, but movies must offer more than the nightly news. At the very least, movies should make us feel.
The only emotional stance concerning Trump made by “The Comey Rule” is that he’s sinister. Trump is frequently shot in extreme close-ups and Dutch angles and backed by nightmarish music. Gleeson even takes exaggerated, jagged hitches of breath, like Immortan Joe from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
The White House exterior is almost uniformly shown in darkness and covered by a curtain of gloomy, twisted trees, making it very obvious what the filmmaker thinks of the 45th president.
Other than this general air of menace, though, Trump in “Comey Rule” is drained of any feeling, even visually — his face and hair are so pale they’re almost white. Say what you want about Donald Trump, but nobody can deny that the man is colorful.
One won’t come away from “The Comey Rule” with a sense that they understand Trump better, why he acted the way he did or how he affected other people and the country at large. They probably won’t feel much about him either, except for a general sense of foreboding. Kept in the cold shadows, Trump in “The Comey Rule” isn’t a human being.
One could say that this is appropriate; the man will undoubtedly be remembered by most as a monster, and for good reason. Is any other depiction possible? Can movies humanize the inhuman?
The 1984 film “Secret Honor” not only proves that we can, but reveals why we should.
Presenting a fictionalized version of Richard Nixon, the film forgoes factual accuracy to capture the raging madness of the 37th president. Directed by Robert Altman (“Gosford Park”) and starring only Philip Baker Hall (“Argo”) as Nixon, the film is essentially a ninety-minute mental breakdown. Sometime in the late 1970s in his home library, Nixon, armed with Scotch, a loaded revolver and a tape recorder, lays out his life story.
Hall explained that he didn’t worry about “whether I was being true to Nixon himself or what my own feelings about Nixon were — and they were, basically, negative,” but instead he wanted to portray “a real person, going through a real experience.”
The disgraced president describes how he grew up poor and deeply religious, was bullied and went on to serve as a veteran. He reminisces about his mother, cradling her Bible and playing her piano. Drinking heavily and gesticulating wildly with his gun, Nixon repeatedly asserts that he is an American like everyone else. “Look, I had feelings too!” he screams.
Nixon speaks quicker and quicker until his rant is almost unceasing. He paces the library like a caged animal, and the viewer is caged with him, caged with one of the worst presidents in U.S. history as he spews out anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, petty slights, nostalgic recollections and complete delusions.
Viewers are forced to understand Nixon as a person and recognize how a repressed young man became a power-hungry maniac. One almost pities him. Yet, there are moments, like when he gleefully recalls ordering airstrikes on Cambodia while partying on his yacht, which remind viewers that Nixon is one of the few bullied kids in history who has had the power to bring about nuclear armageddon. He may have grown up poor, worked as a carnival barker and loved his mother, but he also killed thousands of innocent people.
An insect wriggling in the amber of national disgust and mental illness, Nixon in “Secret Honor” is disturbingly relatable. The narcissism, prejudice and paranoia of Nixon are also almost identical to that of the 45th president depicted in “The Comey Rule,” yet the two characters are total opposites.
One is an emotional blaze, the other chilled concrete. Nixon in “Secret Honor” is almost constantly on screen, and makes viewers empathize with his deranged, wrathful personality. Trump in “The Comey Rule” orbits the plot in the cold, inscrutable dark.
“The Comey Rule” fails because it doesn’t add color to its sketch, let alone contradictions. When portraying Trump on celluloid, we need to keep in mind that, as unpleasant as it is to admit, the 45th president is human too.
Turning figures like Trump and Nixon into one-dimensional boogeymen is a disservice to our historical memory and an abdication of our communal responsibility. We need movies to remind us that anyone can commit atrocities. If a filmmaker decides to put Trump on screen again, he must be shown in all his insane, human multitudes. He can’t be on the sidelines, either. The filmmaker, and subsequently the viewer, needs to understand him as a person, not just a historical flashpoint.
Trump, like Nixon, may have grown up repressed, bullied or just plain spoiled. With its direct visualization of human emotion, unrestrained by the need to portray indisputable fact, cinema is the only medium which can interrogate that and ponder an age-old question: What turns us into monsters?
That’s the only way Trump’s era, that of the xenophobic rally, the conspiracy theory and the insurrection, could ever hope to be prevented from happening again.
Films must help us understand historical villains as human beings. This won’t excuse their crimes, or make them less horrifying — quite the opposite. By showing us that even the most vile of people started out as children and still love, fear and hope, movies reveal the true cost of their sins, the universal humanity that they have discarded. It also reminds us that we’re not so different from the monsters which fill the history books and the headlines.
After all, they’re only human.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.