My least favorite subgenre of film and television doesn’t have a name, and I don’t think I would be able to give it one if I had to. I have to use a lot of words to describe it, something like “movies or shows with famous white people in prosthetics playing Republicans.”
The films “Vice” and “Bombshell,” along with the Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice,” all came out within one year. They epitomize this strange genre phenomenon through their depictions of former Vice President Dick Cheney, various former Fox News anchors including Megyn Kelly and former head of Fox News Roger Ailes respectively. The three projects were released as if they were on a schedule, with almost exactly six months between each of them. It’s like Hollywood had a Republican biopic quota and was trying to fill it as quickly as possible.
It was quite the trend. I remember looking up at a massive billboard for “The Loudest Voice” in the summer of 2019 and thinking, “this is that Dick Cheney movie’s fault.” When I watched the first trailer for “Bombshell” later that year, I thought, “this is that Roger Ailes show’s fault.” It’s not that movies about Republicans hadn’t been made before (Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” and “W.” come to mind), but it was the first time that I’d seen them churned out so quickly.
The entertainment industry is liberal: Everyone knows that. When a movie or TV show is about American politics, the protagonists are usually Democrats, but no one really makes a big deal about their party affiliation. In “The West Wing,” President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen, “Judas and the Black Messiah”) and his successor are Democrats. In “The Ides of March,” George Clooney’s (“The Midnight Sky”) character is a Democratic nominee for president. Even in “Definitely, Maybe,” a romantic comedy, Ryan Reynolds’s (“Deadpool”) character is an enthusiastic volunteer for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Democratic politics are so casual in Hollywood that whenever someone makes a movie about Republicans, it really has to be about Republicans. There has to be a spectacle — i.e. putting actors like Christian Bale, Charlize Theron and Russell Crowe into heavy prosthetics to make them look like carbon copies of the people they’re portraying. It has to be something gimmicky that will win awards and underscore the inherent “otherness” of movies about conservatives, which stand out in an industry that so obviously leans left. And Hollywood usually takes the bait — Bale won a Golden Globe for “Vice,” and “Bombshell” won an Oscar for makeup and hairstyling.
It’s almost like movies about Republicans and conservative media are thought of as boundary-pushing. As far as turning politics into entertainment goes, I can understand why the Republican Party and the vast media empire that props it up might be more fun to write about than their Democratic counterparts. I’m pretty confident that no one is writing spec scripts about the lives of Al Gore, Rachel Maddow or whoever the head of MSNBC is. Republicans are just more entertaining, even if it’s not for good reasons.
But there’s something so insidious about making Republican politics seem subversive through film and TV. It’s not that “Vice,” “Bombshell” or “The Loudest Voice” are even particularly generous to their subjects — “Vice” blows up Cheney’s villainy into Shakespearean proportions at the end — but none of these attempted revelations actually reveal anything. Cheney’s warmongering and Ailes’s sexual misconduct are well-documented, and Kelly’s move from Fox News to NBC after Fox News’s #MeToo moment created a massive media stir. The people who care to see these stories fictionalized are most likely people who are already somewhat informed on the stories’ realities, not people who might be coming in as a blank slate.
So what is the value of retelling these stories on screen? Is there any at all?
The conservatives who might watch these movies will find that they’re perfect fodder for their perceived victimhood, something to point to and whine that they’re being oppressed by the liberal media. But they’re also great for feeding liberal superiority complexes, which thrive off all of the finger-wagging the movies do. They also allow a self-satisfied Adam McKay (“The Big Short”), the director of “Vice,” to comment directly on exactly how edgy and groundbreaking he thinks his movie is through an unnecessary, meta, mid-credit scene in which a focus group argues over the film’s political biases.
The real purposes, then, of productions like “Vice,” “Bombshell” and “The Loudest Voice” are first to employ every white actor in Hollywood, and second to indulge their creators and the misguided creative instincts that tell them what they’re making is somehow valuable to political discourse. In practice, they just end up either preaching to the choir or to a congregation with pre-drawn conclusions, both of which render the sermon needless and empty.
As far as I know, nothing else has come out that fits the very specific criteria of famous white people, prosthetics and Republicans, so I’m hopeful that Hollywood has learned something from the fact that both “Vice” and “Bombshell” underperformed at the box office, if nothing else. I’m crossing my fingers that they represent a bygone era, because if I ever see a billboard advertising a biopic about Mitch McConnell, I might try to rip it down myself.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.