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States of the Union, Part 7: Mission Accomplished?

Filmmakers from Michael Moore to Brian De Palma took direct aim at George W. Bush’s post-9/11 policies, yet the most pointed commentary on the commander in chief came in the form of a ’70s-era newscaster from San Diego

Ringer illustration

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 introducing 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 fun house mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions.

2000-2008: America, F**k Yeah!

A lot has already been written—by The Ringer alone—about the films of 1999, a historically stacked class of movies perched collectively on the edge of the century. If there’s a common thread weaving through the year’s keynote titles, it’s a sense of anticipation tinged with dread, whether via the impending, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it setups of Magnolia and Fight Club—two distinctly masculine melodramas with A-list movie stars cast as seductive cult leaders—or the miniaturized morbidity of The Blair Witch Project, which skewered millennial narcissism by having its camera-wielding protagonists picked off by a backwoods avatar of the “Old, Weird America.”

The idea of Y2K anxieties forcing a reckoning with history was embedded across the strata of popular culture. Take, for instance, the series finale of Melrose Place, which deployed Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as its theme song to illustrate the ineffable, Zen-like concept that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” In terms of America’s political landscape, 1999 represented the Clinton administration’s version of running out the clock. Its architects borrowed operationally—if not ideologically—from the Reagan playbook to try to ensure a smooth transition between Bill’s polarizing, impeachment-dodging incarnation of Batman and Al Gore’s policy-wonk version of Robin.

The plan was to turn Gore into the 2000s version of George H.W. Bush, a sidekick promoted to head honcho, ensuring continuity with a two-term regime. But by November, the vice president was locked in a tight contest against—to quote Public Enemy, still hell-raising a decade after Do The Right Thing—a “Son of a Bush.” Bush II was packaged as a “compassionate conservative” despite his reactionary record as the governor of Texas, and his practiced folksiness and dynastic affiliations outstripped his perceived intellectual limitations just enough to stay in the race. His hugely controversial, hotly contested, and ultimate electoral victory was, if nothing else, a “new beginning,” although liberal skeptics may have been more moved to invoke The Who than Semisonic: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

The first year of Bush II’s presidency seemed to some observers like a false start marked by the aimless flailing of a frat boy turned poster boy for political nepotism. But the events of September 11, 2001 raised the stakes and reconfigured his role in real time. No longer best known for backdooring into the highest office in the land, Dubya was now “the Decider,” the smiling (some would say smirking) face of a “War on Terror” that would, in time, shed its abstract mandate to become a war on regions of the Middle East and Saddam Hussein, the dictator who had clashed with his “daddy.”

As in the late 1960s, television proved much speedier than the movies in satirizing (and vilifying) the occupant of the Oval Office and a military campaign whose organizing principles didn’t seem to add up. Beginning with his ingenious, incredulous “Indecision 2000” coverage, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart styled himself and his army of smarmy correspondents (including Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert) as the loyal, liberal opposition to Bush and his cronies—a movement that also enlisted Saturday Night Live’s acerbic Weekend Update host and breakout star Tina Fey. In contrast to the prophecy of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who said 9/11 could be “the death of irony,” irony instead became the comic currency of the land. Fey’s laser-guided one-liners, like Stewart’s bug-eyed double takes, were delivered to thunderous applause from studio audiences even as they symbolized snarky, seditious smugness to anybody outside of their constituency.

Whether or not the American cinema of the early 2000s was explicitly about 9/11 and the red-state and blue-state divide that deepened in its aftermath, critics and commentators did their best to turn every other release into a zeitgeist statement. Sometimes, the movies did their part to lean into these readings, as with the wildly emotional New York romanticism of Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour and Spider-Man, which climaxes with Peter Parker being saved by locals who tell Willem Dafoe’s villainous Green Goblin, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”

A heartfelt, exhilarating example of blockbuster moviemaking orchestrated by Sam Raimi at his crowd-pleasing peak, Spider-Man anticipated the superhero deluge to come later in the 2000s via Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The biggest franchise of Bush’s first term, though, was The Lord of the Rings, whose ancient, all-purpose allegorical saga of good versus evil—and of a diverse, united “fellowship” akin to an enchanted, dwarf-and-elf-inclusive “coalition of the willing”—was either a shade too simplistic or just simple enough to channel certain heroic fantasies during the run-up to the Iraq War. Not that lovable hobbit Peter Jackson was repping a conservative agenda, of course: In trying (and succeeding) to court a mass audience, The Lord of the Rings didn’t risk any kind of direct political point-scoring. Which is why it was strange (and sort of inspiring) to see George Lucas, of all people, imbuing the Star Wars prequels with more subversive subtext than their Reagan-era predecessors. “So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause,” sighs Natalie Portman in Revenge of the Sith, observing an intergalactic State of the Union that’s barely a pretense for the Empire Striking First. [Extreme Twitter voice] Padme Amidala … welcome to the Resistance.

As with Vietnam four decades earlier, the invasion of Iraq and its myriad failures (and ballooning list of casualties) occasioned a slate of despair-drenched war movies, many informed and inflected by the earlier cycle of classics. In Sam Mendes’s Jarhead, a roomful of Marines stationed in Iraq are shown watching the helicopter raid from Apocalypse Now as a way of psyching themselves up for combat. If these “films of the forever war” were either inferior or less impactful than the likes of Coppola’s all-timer, it may have been because they lacked even a modest sense of distance. One key to the greatness of The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket was how they used the benefit of hindsight to shape (and demythologize) their subject matter.

Iraq war movies tanked at the box office. The one exception to this rule was Michael Moore’s smash hit Fahrenheit 9/11, which was deliberately designed as a sequel-slash-update of Peter Davis’s muckraking Hearts and Minds. Viewing Fahrenheit 9/11 16 years later, it stands—for better, for worse, and for posterity—as the most overtly weaponized American movie of the Bush era, encasing its journalistic imperatives in a full metal jacket of armor-piercing agitprop tactics aimed at Bush, including the real-time footage of the president reading “My Pet Goat” to a group of children as news of the World Trade Center collapse is relayed into his ear by his aides.

Fahrenheit 9/11 won a Palme d’Or (courtesy of Quentin Tarantino) and the hearts and minds of film critics. As usual with Moore, the movie is a mixed bag, trafficking in grand unified theories that don’t always hold up upon factual examination. Moore implied that his goal by releasing his movie in the summer of 2004 was to aid in Bush’s defeat at the polls, a vainglorious posture punctured by the creators of the year’s other keynote American political satire: In portraying Moore as a (literal) puppet of Osama Bin Laden in their string-pulling, marionette showcase Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone got revenge for the filmmaker ripping off their animation style in part of Bowling For Columbine, while also casting their own ideological lot towards the political center.

“See there’s three types of people: dicks, pussies, and assholes,” explains a barroom sage to an impressionable, Ethan Hunt–style special ops superstar in Team America’s pitch-perfect parody of an inspirational philosophical speech. The movie’s point is that while the alpha male, Mission Accomplished wing of the country’s political and cultural establishment may act like dicks, at least they aren’t pussies—like, say, the celebrity antiwar activists of the “Film Actor’s Guild.” Compared to George Clooney and Susan Sarandon, the argument goes, the heavily armed emissaries of Team America are a necessary evil in order to protect said pussies from assholes and “9/11 times one hundred.”

In his book South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias, Brian C. Anderson diagnoses how Parker and Stone’s work uses tools typically associated with antiestablishment (and thus, implicitly liberal) satire to attack a more varied set of institutions. In this, Team America was ahead of the curve, and if its mockery of Moore and various crusading celebrities felt at odds with its contempt for the jingoistic idiocy peddled by Hollywood Republicans like Michael Bay, its “equal opportunity” comedy was staking out terrain distinct (if still ironic) from Stewart, Fey, and others.

2004’s trilogy of white-hot cultural flash points was completed by The Passion of the Christ, a movie that united Moore and the South Park guys in contemptuous opposition even as it struck a chord with a viewership alienated by contemporary pop culture’s incessant displays of irreverence. Mel Gibson leveraged his mainstream superstardom into a subtitled, stylistically extreme art-film blockbuster, and effectively aligned himself and his film with Bush’s born-again rhetoric while using gratuitous violence as a spectacle even more shamelessly than Michael Bay. During The Passion, Jim Caviezel’s Son of Man is scourged, punctured, and broken in such excruciating detail that even a world-class sadist like Lars Von Trier was taking notes.

Besides being an election year and a host for the three-way culture war between Moore, Gibson, and Team America, 2004 was also a pivotal year for Hollywood comedy. A major breakthrough in the field of so-smart-it’s-dumb humor came (not a moment too late) in the form of Adam McKay’s mighty Anchorman—a period piece positing patriarchal idiocy as adjacent to both damnation and grace. Its characters were all morons, with the idiot in chief played by Will Ferrell as a winking riff on his SNL incarnation of Bush. While The Lord of the Rings provided big-budget, escapist fantasy, McKay and Ferrell’s unofficial (and superior) conceptual trilogy of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers chronicled Dubya’s second term through a lens of dumbass American exceptionalism that, while ultimately forgiving of dudes-will-be-dudes excess, landed its share of antiestablishment jabs. Exhibit A: Step Brothers’ opening title card, which took inspiration from Michael Moore’s habit of using Bush’s own garbled pronouncements against him, framed a story of fraternal rivalry and devotion with a quote from the president that read, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

The case can be made that Ferrell was the individual MVP of Bush-era comedy—but in a weird way, he was also an outlier. Whereas in the ’90s filmmakers were all too happy to build movies of various genres around Clinton surrogates—Dave, The American President, Air Force One—the 2000s were short on direct Dubya stand-ins. Call it liberal bias, but Hollywood wasn’t exploring the potential of cuddly commanders in chief. The cleverest filmmakers instead played with the president’s iconography: In Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee framed strapping cowboy Heath Ledger against a dazzling Fourth of July fireworks display to boldly deconstruct frontier archetypes in the story of two hard-edged ranch hands in love (“no comment,” was Bush’s response when asked if he’d screened the Oscar winner at the White House); Canadian director David Cronenberg made the decade’s great comic book adaptation with A History of Violence, about an aw-shucks, small-town hero (Viggo Mortensen) harboring a dark secret; Alfonso Cuarón repurposed outrageous images of torture in Guantanamo for his dystopian thriller Children of Men; and the aforementioned Lars Von Trier unleashed Dogville, in which Nicole Kidman’s Grace is so disgusted by the residents of the title mountain town that she decides to burn it all to the ground.

In 2006, British director Gabriel Range made a bid for outright infamy with Death of a President, a deliberately audacious docudrama set in a near future when Bush’s assassination—depicted through the use of screwed-and-chopped archival footage—destabilizes the geopolitical establishment while bringing the chickens home to roost. The movie was denounced by conservative commentators and politicians from both major American parties following its premiere at TIFF. There were accusations that it glorified (or condoned) Bush’s death and a number of theater chains declined to show it upon release. Yet the bigger impact that year was made by a different experimental venture that similarly blurred the line between fact and fiction while using Bush as its villain: Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a vérité picaresque that unleashed Cohen’s heavily accented, gleefully vulgar alter ego on an adoptive homeland, effectively boomeranging an era’s xenophobia back on itself.

While basically simpatico with the sarcastic sensibilities of Moore, Stewart, Fey, and the last of the late-night brigade, Cohen’s approach excelled primarily in its South Park–style grotesquerie—by using gross-out as a form of sociological commentary. Borat’s greatest scene is surely the nude wrestling match between Cohen and Ken Davitian’s corpulent Azamat, which took the homoeroticism of Jackass—another series with more of a finger on the national pulse than Lord of the Rings—to new levels of sweaty, phallocentric grandeur. Meanwhile, Borat’s most viciously politicized moment comes during a rodeo when its namesake invokes America’s “War of Terror”—what a difference a single consonant makes. A year later, in 2007, Adam Sandler threw his hat (and sandals) in the ring with the wonderful, underrated You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a zany cousin to The 25th Hour testifying to New York’s clamorous sense of solidarity—including Jews and Palestinians united against a white supremacist asshole played by [checks notes] Dave Matthews. Surprising, Sandler’s movie demonstrated at least as much sociopolitical acumen as Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which blasted its 9/11 subtext across by including a vintage image of the Twin Towers in its final shot.

Spielberg was one of several reigning elder statesmen to weigh in during the Bush era, most powerfully in his heavy-artillery remake of War of the Worlds, which envisioned America under attack before reversing the terms of the metaphor to suggest that the Martians and their machines had a distinctly imperialist appearance. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was gestating for a decade before its completion in 2002, at which point its NYC creation myth had extra resonance (and its own subtle World Trade Center cameo). In The Departed, Scorsese had Alec Baldwin’s shady Boston cop Captain Ellerby invoke the Patriot Act (“I love it! I love it!”) as a symbol of ostensibly good guys doing very bad things.

Unsurprisingly, the ’70s survivor who confronted Iraq head-on was the indomitable Brian De Palma, whose Redacted adopted the same polemical hybrid of style as Moore, Cohen, and Range. The film is loosely based on a true account of U.S. military personnel raping a civilian girl, and unfolds as a series of video diaries, surveillance tapes, and YouTube clips that replicates an entire online multimedia landscape around recreations of the horrific event at the story’s center. By returning to the incendiary approach of his sardonic anti-Vietnam films Greetings and Hi, Mom!, De Palma transformed the recency of an ongoing catastrophe into an artistic strategy. Redacted proved so controversial that its producers insisted on recutting it for its New York Film Festival premiere, leading to a war of words with a filmmaker unafraid of biting the hand that feeds him. At one point, De Palma volunteered to buy the movie back and release it un-redacted, at once savoring and savaging the irony of the situation.

As images of distress go, Redacted’s photo-realistic final tableau of a broken, bloodied casualty of war was true nightmare fuel, while Paul Haggis’s money shot in 2007’s other major Iraq War movie, In the Valley of Elah, was constituted of simplistic semiotics: an American flag turned upside down. The film’s tale of a father learning the hard truth about his son’s activities while overseas earned Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, although he was better that year in a different role—as the reactionary, benevolent, and finally ineffectual sheriff in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men. The film’s long, clean narrative lines, biblical severity, and setting in Bush’s old gubernatorial stomping grounds begged the questions of whether or not the Coens had instrumentalized Cormac McCarthy’s drug-runner thriller into a State of the Union address; critic Jonathan Rosenbaum interpreted the movie’s “gorgeous carnage” as an indirect mediation on the violence of the Iraq War.

No Country was a hit, but the Coens’ more incisive Bush-era commentary was their follow-up Burn After Reading, a delirious mashup of screwball stupidity and cloak-and-dagger paranoia featuring John Malkovich as a past-his-prime spy struggling to adapt after the thaw of the Cold War. It’s a funny movie set in a cruel universe: Its best scenes feature J.K. Simmons and David Rasche as CIA operatives performing a heartless, hilarious audit of the story’s ever-escalating body count—a callback to Dr. Strangelove minus the apocalyptic ending. Even as the film’s seemingly anachronistic analysis of tetchy (if hypothetical) U.S.-Russia collusion proved eerily prescient a decade after the fact, the dismissive dialogue in the movie’s ruthless coda couldn’t help but connect to cycles of foreign-policy fuckups and the political buck-passing that went with them.

“What’d we learn, Palmer?” queries Simmons’s high-ranking intelligence agent to his underling.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“I don’t fucking know either … I guess we learned not to do it again.”

By 2008, Bush’s reputation was at an all-time low, a diminished status that did not bode well for his potential Republican successor John McCain. Oliver Stone’s rush to release his bizarre presidential biopic W. into theaters ahead of an election suggested a director with an agenda, but darned if anybody watching the movie itself could figure out what it was. The best that the ex-agitprop master could muster in W. (which featured an admittedly excellent Josh Brolin in the lead) was an abstract sequence of Bush as a ballplayer losing a pop fly in the stadium lights—a lame metaphor for a leader taking his eye off the ball.

It wasn’t so much that W.’s muddled, unfocused character study was a missed opportunity as a failure of imagination. While Stone had carved out a contentious, ideologically charged thesis in JFK, with W. he seemed to rush into the breach without a clear idea of why.

Then again, confusion could be compelling, as in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful follow-up to Batman Begins, which mirrored No Country For Old Men by featuring a coin-flipping villain symbolizing the damned-if-you-damned-if-you-don’t ethos of an indifferent universe. The film also evoked the Patriot Act by having Batman defeat the Joker through the use of clandestine, all-encompassing cell phone surveillance technology that Nolan’s script implied was Very Bad unless used by the right people—hardly a revolutionary sentiment.

The Dark Knight’s MVP was Heath Ledger’s agent-of-chaos Joker, a timeless archetype offering a fun-house mirror reflection of anarchist insurrection past and present. But Nolan’s most suggestive creation heading into fall 2008 was Aaron Eckhart’s pre–Two Face version of Harvey Dent, the un-caped crusader billed as “Gotham’s White Knight.” In lieu of Lord of the Ring style absolutes, The Dark Knight cast its action in shades of gray; for an ending, Nolan reached all the way back to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and its cynical, preservationist mantra of “print the legend.” Here, Gary Oldman’s compromised commissioner Gordon bends the truth to protect Gotham from a deeper truth about its heroes and villains—the idea that in some cases they were one and the same. Dent is The Dark Knight’s fallen angel, but his symbolic function as an agent of change was in sync with the idealism of an election campaign hinging on “the audacity of hope,” a phrase attached to a candidate selling himself as the hero Bush’s America needed—whether it deserved one or not.