In 2016, the Toronto-based author and my friend Kevin Courrier was working on a book proposal based on a lecture series he had started entitled Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors, an examination of the past six decades of American cinema organized by various presidential administrations. Kevin passed away in 2018 after a long illness without writing the book, by which point I had taken over the lecture series. It is out of respect to him and the many long conversations we had on the topic that I’m writing a monthly essay series at The Ringer that looks at the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact, beginning in 1960 with the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy and continuing through October to the Age of Trump—ending on a cliffhanger that may or may not have a sequel. By integrating some of Kevin’s film selections with more of my own, it is my hope to simultaneously reexamine a series of classic American movies and call attention to some neglected titles to further the idea of cinema as a fractured funhouse mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions.
1988-1998: Kinder, Gentler
“1989 / a number / another summer,” begins Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song officially Born on the Fourth of July. Commissioned by Spike Lee for the soundtrack of his drama Do the Right Thing—which screened in Cannes in May 1989—“Fight the Power” was released commercially on Independence Day, the perfect date for a track whose sonic assault (courtesy of production outfit the Bomb Squad) crackled and popped like fireworks. The right-here/right-now vibe of Chuck D’s opening line framed “Fight the Power” as a sort of state-of-the-union address, exhorting all-out rebellion against institutions including but not limited to political structures and police departments. By the third verse, PE was defiantly declaiming Elvis Presley (“a hero to most”) and John Wayne, deftly threading the needle between systemic racism and cultural appropriation, then jabbing it at anyone who’d sooner turn a blind eye.
Do the Right Thing is unthinkable without “Fight the Power,” and American cinema of the era is unthinkable without Do the Right Thing. The last major American movie of the 1980s was also one of the best, transplanting the social panorama of Nashville to Brooklyn; like Robert Altman’s great bicentennial satire, Lee’s film idles and ambles before ending with a bang. If the dominant Hollywood aesthetic of the Reagan ’80s had been a stultifying, luxurious passivity—the consumer-friendly brain massage of sequelized, commodified studio product—Do the Right Thing worked like a shock to the system. Its signature image of a garbage can smashing through a barbershop window strategically evoked complex legacies of civil rights–era activism while also signifying, on a purely visual level, that what Lee had on his mind was nothing less than a cinematic breakthrough, by any means necessary.
Do the Right Thing was meant to be revolutionary, made to incense a predictably conservative audience. The same conservative commentators who moaned that Lee’s climactic depiction of a race riot would lead to actual violence were, paradoxically and predictably, on board with George H.W. Bush’s hawkish foreign policy. In a moment when sequels were all the rage at the box office, the new president’s commitment to the same invasions, crusades, and vendettas he’d helped to oversee as Reagan’s second-in-command were nicely in sync with industry trends. The former VP’s victorious campaign had been a mesmerizing study in projection and rabble-rousing, casting Bush and his record as the thin blue line between order and chaos. And while the Democrats didn’t do themselves any favors by sticking a helmet on Michael Dukakis, Bush was mostly battling his own “wimp” factor—the suspicion that unlike his predecessor and former boss, he wasn’t a leading man.
“This will not stand,” drawled Bush in August 1990, squinting into the cameras in the manner of Chuck D’s not-so-beloved John Wayne. As the first war broadcast in prime time, Operation Desert Storm was staged as a blockbuster update of the Western, with the cavalry riding in over and over, flags waving. It’s telling, perhaps, that the biggest movie of 1990—and the winner of the Best Picture Oscar that Do the Right Thing had been denied the year previous—was Kevin Costner’s vanity project Dances With Wolves, which topped even Field of Dreams for sentimental, revisionist patriotism, substituting the Civil War for the Black Sox scandal as a site of original national sin, and casting its director-star as a faith healer. By forging a mutually respectful connection with the welcoming members of a Lakota tribe, Costner’s heroic Union soldier distances himself from his racist comrades and ascends to an avatar of (white) American decency, all while the magic-hour cinematography drapes the director-star’s self-aggrandizement in a thousand points of light.
On the left, Bush’s war was characterized as blood for oil without too much pushback from the electorate; as for his professed vision of a “kinder, gentler America,” that was known to be bogus even before the L.A. riots in the summer of 1992 fulfilled Do the Right Thing’s prophecy. If any work of art encapsulated the hypocrisy of a warlike administration trying to veil itself in benevolence, it was Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” a hard-rock corollary to “Fight the Power” that deployed the blunt-force metaphor of a “kinder, gentler / machine gun hand.” That image in turn can be applied to the biggest box office hit of Bush’s single term, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with its sentimentally Spielbergized version of a killer cyborg. Tasked with being on his best behavior by Edward Furlong’s GNR-loving John Connor (E.T.’s Elliott reimagined as a juvenile delinquent), Arnold Schwarzenegger merely shot rivals in the kneecaps, lowering the body count while arguably upping the cruelty (“He’ll live,” the Terminator deadpans as a security guard grabs his blasted-out kneecaps).
The most politically contentious movie of 1991—and the most controversial mainstream release since Do the Right Thing—was an epic by a filmmaker as attuned to the language of agitprop as Spike Lee. Oliver Stone’s brilliant, ludicrous, hallucinatory JFK played like the culmination of the counter-mythological view of the country the director had sketched in Oscar-winning dramas Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Whether or not the film, adapted from a book by New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison, convinced you that its namesake was the victim of an insidious, wide-ranging conspiracy (started, inevitably, by Joe Pesci), it effectively distilled the psychology of skepticism into phantasmagoric mass entertainment. Stone’s wild mix of formats, color stocks, and styles, including passages from and modeled on the Zapruder film, was the most virtuosic filmmaking around in 1991. And by inviting none other than Dances With Wolves himself to play Garrison in fully lanky, laconic, courtroom hero mode, Stone yoked box office power to his antiestablishment fantasy. If you cast Him, they will come.
JFK’s subtext—barely subtext in a movie that gleefully smashes the audience over the head with historical and cultural references and features even more alpha-male character actors than Goodfellas—was that Kennedy’s death precipitated an endless crisis of moral and political authority extending into the present tense. The “High Hopes” outlined in 1960’s Primary had yielded only horror, compromise, and malaise in the decades since. In its way, JFK may be the most perceptive—and revealing—movie ever made about the office of the presidency, with Stone showing that policy and politics are always subordinate to the cult of personality. The title character is a structuring absence whose flaws and humanity get posthumously disappeared in the transition to a symbol of lost innocence. JFK is an incoherent and historically insupportable movie, but on some deep, synaptic level, it’s phenomenally apt, and its blurring of fact and fiction on a molecular-technological level—not just in the script but in its endlessly manipulated images—made it one of the signal works of the decade, anticipating similar strategies used in Forrest Gump.
Stone would show up a couple of years later in 1993, parodying himself in Ivan Reitman’s deliberately Frank Capra–esque Dave, telling talk show hosts that Kevin Kline’s president is, in fact, an impostor—a wild conspiracy theory that, in the context of the movie, turns out to be true. Dave’s gentle rib at Stone’s status as America’s leading tinfoil-hat auteur is part and parcel with its overall polished craftiness and sitcom-y plot, a premise adapted from The Prince and the Pauper that imagines the commander in chief has an identical twin hanging out in heartland America—and also argues that if you were to substitute one for the other, you’d get a kinder, gentler America. Released in 1993 after Bill Clinton had handily defeated Bush and been inaugurated in the context of some newly humane, overwhelming empathy (“I feel your pain”), Dave is a perfect transitional film, with the two Klines—one fusty and dishonest, the other sexy and principled—embodying caricatured public perceptions of the outgoing and incoming presidents. (Not to mention the added bonus of seeing Sigourney Weaver promoted to first lady as a reward for enduring three tours of duty in the Alien franchise.)
The genial fantasy of Dave pairs nicely with the profane realism of The War Room, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s verite profile of Clinton’s brilliantly effective national campaign—a Primary for the ’90s cinching the imagistic link between the Arkansas governor and his Democratic Party predecessor JFK. No less than JFK, The War Room created a sort of stylistic template for politically minded cinema going forward, and not only documentaries. While Aaron Sorkin was already well established as a Hollywood blowhard by 1993 (“You can’t handle the truth” and “I am God” both becoming instant inductees into the movie-speech hall of fame), The War Room’s swift, verbose portrait of behind-the-scenes spin now looks like the primal scene of The West Wing’s walk-and-talk aesthetic. Its depiction of Clinton as a liberal folk hero would inform Sorkin’s script for 1995’s The American President—another White House sitcom in the Dave mold, casting Michael Douglas as a lovelorn leader romancing Annette Bening’s elegant environmentalist against the backdrop of Beltway intrigue.
It’s interesting to consider Douglas in contrast to Costner as the major American actors of their era (honorable mention to Denzel Washington, who was brilliant and commanding in Lee’s Malcolm X biopic). Where Costner exuded decency, Douglas’s performances came coated in sleaze, starting with the Oscar-winning (and not so subtly Trumpian) Wall Street and extending through Basic Instinct and 1993’s Falling Down, a version of Do the Right Thing in reverse about a white-collar white guy who’s Mad As Hell and taking it out on pre-millennial, multicultural Los Angeles. And yet in The American President, Douglas the sly dog gets domesticated into a harmless puppy, scripted by Sorkin as a decent, moderate Democrat who just wants to pass a decent, moderate crime control bill. Shades, of course, of Bill Clinton, except that the latter’s 1994 crime crackdown has retrospectively been criticized as the contemporary epicenter of America’s mass incarceration crisis.
Clinton has always been a uniquely polarizing figure, hated on both the hard left and the extreme right but overwhelmingly popular in the different strata and categories that make up the middle. The accounts of sexual misconduct that began during his career as governor and fully defined his presidency during its second term were inextricably linked to his abundant, emotionalist persona, and while it may be a case of “you had to be there,” the fact is that no American president inspired so many movie characters seemingly written in his image in real time. Not only The American President and Primary Colors—the fact-based adaptation of Joe Klein’s roman à clef about Clinton’s 1992 campaign starring John Travolta as Bill and Emma Thompson as Hillary—but also arguably Air Force One, a surpassingly absurd action movie that happily imagined the leader of the free world as a literal action hero, battling Kazakh terrorists in midair with the two-fisted aplomb of Indiana Jones or Han Solo. (It helped that he was actually played by Harrison Ford.)
Air Force One was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the German emigre who’d previously given Clint Eastwood one of his best roles in In the Line of Fire, another early-’90s political thriller that used the JFK assassination as shorthand for a shattered American psyche. (Promoting Dirty Harry to the Secret Service two decades past his physical prime was a brilliant, irresistible popcorn-movie conceit.) In fact, there were plenty of European smart-alecks playing fast and loose with U.S. iconography in the ’90s, including Paul Verhoeven—whose mighty showbiz satire Showgirls was pilloried by prudish critics before Starship Troopers’ genre-coded Gulf War mockery won them back—and his dopey doppelgänger Roland Emmerich, who hit upon an iconic image in 1996’s Independence Day and rode it to blockbuster glory: the White House in flames, obliterated by alien invaders.
ID4 is very clearly a Clinton movie, less because of Bill Pullman’s milquetoast president—who still ends up piloting a fighter plane in the climax because America, Fuck Yeah!—than its liberal subtext of collaborative solidarity, with the Fresh Prince and the nerd from Jurassic Park joining forces against a common enemy. What unites ID4 with Dave, The American President, and Air Force One is the need to believe that the president of the United States could also be, if called upon, the best person in the world; they’re remarkably uncynical films, and as a result, either haven’t aged well or are enjoyable strictly on their dated terms. In counterpoint, Verhoeven’s bleakly comic Clinton-era masterpieces hold up beautifully in the age of Trump; as David J. Roth recently observed in The New Yorker, the jingoistic idiocy of Starship Troopers has lent it documentary-level authenticity in retrospect.
Elsewhere, a few movies channeled the conservative pushback against Clinton, filtered through resistance to his politics as well as his extracurricular activities. In 1997, Barry Levinson and David Mamet collaborated on the clever, carefully targeted Wag the Dog, which hijacked the fast-talking dialogue style of Aaron Sorkin to deconstruct the Lewinsky affair as a by-product of and cautionary tale about the conflation of presidential authority and sexual conquest. Hoping to distract from a sex scandal, the film’s quasi-Clinton presides over a fake foreign war cooked up by his administration’s spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (a brilliant, Oscar-nominated Dustin Hoffman), who intuitively understands (like Oliver Stone) that melodrama trumps ideology. Leaning even further to the right in the same year was Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power (1997), with Gene Hackman as a literally murderous liberal president and Judy Davis as his distinctly Hillary-ish chief of staff—both toppled by Eastwood’s aged, Republican, master-of-disguise cat burglar, who ends up as the film’s principled hero.
In 1998, the Oscars famously came down to a battle between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan—a frilly pseudo-indie versus Spielberg in serious mythmaking mode—but the year’s best political movies were much further down the bill. The ever-slippery Coen brothers were seemingly mocking expired idealism via the title character of The Big Lebowski, whose arc from being “one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement” to working for Metallica to barely being able to pay his rent traces a serious decline. Set in 1991, the film opens with the ex-campus radical the Dude hitting rock bottom when he mouths a Bushian platitude, stuttering, “This aggression will not stand, man,” in response to the indignity of having his rug pissed on.
At the same time, Bridges’s beautiful, Nobel Prize–worthy performance grants the not-big-Lebowski principles and dignities lacking in his Dick Cheney–ish opposite number (three cheers for the late David Huddleston), and the film ultimately evokes the hedonistic spirit of the late ’60s as resistance to top-down, corporatized evil. (You could make the same argument, in a way, about Paul Thomas Anderson’s dazzling Boogie Nights, a movie about how pornographers treat “objects as women,” in the parlance of the Dude, that also imagines the Reagan ’80s as hell on earth.)
Even more daring than the Coens, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth remade Network with a truth-telling, possibly demented senator in place of a news anchor. Liberated from Washington decorum by his own death wish, Beatty’s middling Democratic lifer Jay Bulworth begins speaking his mind at fundraisers, bigging-up socialized health care and affirmative action while using the language of contemporary hip-hop—a leap of creative faith by Beatty, a well-preserved New Hollywood relic playing a dangerous game of appropriation in the script as well as within the narrative. Armed with arguably the best hip-hop soundtrack since Do the Right Thing, Bulworth adapted the theme of “fight the power” into an internal struggle while interrogating Toni Morrison’s infamous claim that Clinton was the “first Black president” via Bulworth’s outrageous transformation into a Ghetto Superstar. (That Bulworth came out one year before The Slim Shady LP is an amazing bit of coincidence; in a lot of ways, Beatty’s conceit prefigures Eminem.)
The Big Lebowski and Bulworth were ideologically sophisticated outliers in their moment. They were also both commercial failures. “Smart cinema” was more salable a year later in 1999, enshrined via a bumper crop including Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don’t Cry, Magnolia, and American Beauty—the latter a movie with a faint trace of Clinton-era morality in which an older man seduces (or is seduced by) an age-inappropriate partner, except that the movie hedges. In the end, all Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham does is act like a good dad, rendering his ultimate murder by a repressed, gay, Nazi memorabilia collector (LOL at this movie winning Best Picture) as an unironic tear-jerking moment.
Lester’s petulant, middle-aged “rebellion” against work, marriage, and Society™ in American Beauty was as tailored to boomer vanity as the Motown cuts in The Big Chill, banalizing the idea of “fighting the power” as a regression to adolescence. In the process, Sam Mendes’s Oscar winner said a lot less about lust, domesticity, infidelity, and status obsession than the year’s actual best picture, Eyes Wide Shut—like Showgirls, a weirdly unsexy movie about sex that doubled not so subtly as a comedy. At the end of a decade when politics were punctuated by Puritanism, Stanley Kubrick, reaching out from beyond the grave, got the last four-letter word.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.