The next time someone in a movie says “America First,” I will spontaneously combust

Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - 3:33pm

'The First Purge'

'The First Purge' Buy this photo
Universal Pictures

The next time someone quotes Donald Trump in a movie and tries to pass it off as political satire, I am going to spontaneously combust in the theater.

It’s a feeling that began festering inside me this summer when I watched “The First Purge” and bore witness to a scene in which a man in a dollar store demon mask grabs a woman by her nether regions only to be fought off and declared a — ahem — “p*ssy-grabbing motherf*cker.” Since then, it’s only grown, and most recently it reached its climax with my viewing of “Venom,” which saw fit to include a scene where the villain dismisses reports of human experimentation as “fake news.”

“It’s going to happen,” I realized then. “My soul will detonate, and it will take my body with it.”

To be clear, these are not the words of an angry Trump supporter who can no longer bear the thought of those dastardly Hollywood liberals besmirching the good name of the Donald. Quite the opposite — I believe film and satire are art forms uniquely suited to tackle the problems posed by the current administration and galvanize the public in opposition to them. The problem now is we’re not satirizing Trump. We’re just sarcastically repeating what he says.

The foundation of satire is taking an ideology and turning it inside out, whether it’s “Cabin in the Woods” turning horror tropes into a workplace comedy or “The Death of Stalin” turning the murderous power-jockeying of post-Stalin Soviet politics into a Monty Python-esque farce. Whatever the case, there’s an idea that’s being engaged with and subverted.

The problem is we’ve been foregoing this analysis in favor of simply quoting Trump and leaving it at that, shifting the focus away from where it should be both politically and satirically: his actions. Trump could be a thespian of Shakespearean wit and vocabulary, and if he still dehumanizes everyone who isn't a straight, white, American-born man with his every action, he would remain the worst president we've had this side of World War II. We should be able to take stock of what he’s done and build a movie around something.

Yet for whatever reason, Hollywood seems reluctant to move away from mere quotes in favor of something more substantial and lasting. Instead, we get Alec Baldwin’s gaudy, inexplicably Emmy Award-winning Trump caricature. We get “The First Purge” dressing half its cast like Nazis with a leather fetish. We get the aforementioned “fake news” line in “Venom” and any number of other films like it. This doesn’t mean any movie, in order to make a statement, has to be straight political jargon, either. Just look at “Star Wars.”

Die-hard saga fans and film history buffs will probably know that the original trilogy is a critique of Nixon-era politics, particularly regarding the Vietnam War, in which the technologically advanced Empire stood in for America and the underdog Rebellion took cues from the Viet Cong. Those weren’t the only influences — Lucas took inspiration from everything from World War II dogfights to western serials to Japanese cinema — but through it all, the framework was kept the same: a hostile, technologically advanced, imperialist force tries and fails to overcome a much smaller opposition.

Those political musings continued into the prequels, with Lucas aiming to tell a story of how democracies can be supplanted from within. By the time “Revenge of the Sith” rolled around in 2005, he had updated his real-world targets to include Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Even the sequels, which began as a what-if scenario on the idea of Nazis regrouping in Argentina, evolved into a commentary on the entitlement and fragile identity politics at the core of the alt-right as time went on and the movement entered the mainstream.

Popular entertainment and political analysis don’t need to be kept separate. They just need to be smart about it. As with the Force, there has to be a balance. If Luke had walked into the throne room in “Return of the Jedi” and the Emperor had started belting out Nixon quotes, something magical would have been lost. Likewise, if Lucas hadn’t been so passionate about communicating his political beliefs to the masses, “Star Wars” may not have gotten made, and the landscape of cinema as we know it would be a different — and, I would argue, worse — place.

On the other hand, if a film wants to be through-and-through political, it has its own tightrope to walk: It has to toe the line between resembling a cultural moment enough to be relevant and distanced enough from that moment to continue to be relevant years and even decades down the road. “BlacKkKlansman” comes as close as any film I’ve seen to satirizing Trump-era politics as it presents and combats an ideology, but it then makes the mistake of explicitly tying itself to Trump. Instead of being about the continual reoccurrence of white hate, it becomes about one specific reoccurrence. It will be all too easy for future generations of nationalists to pass over it once the age of Trump has ended: “That’s not about us. It’s about Trump, see?”

Compare that to “Wag the Dog,” which follows a Washington spin doctor and a Hollywood producer as they construct a fake war to distract from a presidential sex scandal. The film is based on a book that acted as a critique of Desert Storm, but it was released on Dec. 17, 1997, exactly one month before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and about nine months before Clinton was accused of bombing suspected al-Qaeda bases to distract from said scandal. The film was famously brought up then, but in the age of “Look over there!” politics, “Wag the Dog” has stayed relevant, its message adaptable to multiple political climates but never less than incisive.

That’s what we should be striving for: Films that can combat Trump, that can show people who may not otherwise realize what he truly is, but which won’t lose their meaning the moment he leaves office. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But it will, I believe, be worth it.