by Niles Schwartz
There’s a lot to like in a raucous and unfiltered satire like The Campaign, released as the election year begins to hit its final laps around the track. Will Farrell and Zack Galifianikis portray North Carolina politicians dueling for a congressional seat, both performers on target with their trademark improvisational talents on fire. Incumbent Democrat Cam Brady (Farrell) has a dropping approval rating after leaving a dirty phone message for a would-be mistress, and is challenged by an effeminate Republican, Marty Huggins (Galifianikis). Cordial competition gives way to hard-ball shenanigans as The Campaign tries to convey how politics changes individuals into stuffed shirts. Hilarity ensues.
The intention is cathartic. The audience goes to the movies, hoping to laugh at two of their favorite comic actors who are overtly working at the notion of how we (normal people) are different from them (politicians and Washington insiders). We revel in the stupidity of two desperate men for whom the “art” of dirty campaigning becomes very personal indeed, eventually stooping as low to sleep with an opponent’s spouse or shooting the other in the leg, punching babies and dogs instead of kissing or petting them. But the resolution keeps us safe from any personal or ideological interrogation. In Trading Places fashion, the opposing candidates join forces and take down the moneyed Koch-like Motch Brothers (John Lithgow, and Trading Places’s own Dan Aykroyd), holder of the strings who’ve engineered the political process. Meanwhile, we’re off the hook and life goes on.
I dislike how a movie’s potency evaporates seconds after I leave the theater, and I wonder if this fundamentally has to do with how a film like The Campaign resolves itself. The outcome proposes how exactly filmmakers and studios should go about constructing political movies, particularly satires, in the present moment. Farrell and Galifianikis’ yuk-fest concludes with political fantasy, both ends of the political spectrum meeting as the real bad guy, “moneyed interests,” are put on trial. In divided times, it’s something that everyone can agree on, coasting on a moderate’s understanding of the world where both political parties are equivalent, different in name only. What we believe, or what our representatives believe, scarcely matters.
This divide of power between “us and them” isn’t without merit, while a silent class war currently envelops the country. But it’s still too simple, and with something that concludes as tidily as The Campaign, any hope for political discourse the scenario may have invited is muted. Maybe, for political satire to work, the conclusion must be deliberately unfulfilling, frustrating an audience to act instead of placating the viewer and making us static. We must be enraged, not encouraged.
Right now, fictional representations of politics are at a gross disadvantage, satirically speaking. The brilliant comic songwriter Tom Lehrer joked that he retired because satire became impossible when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years ago, when Sarah Palin came dangerously close to being Vice President, the scripted jokes for Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live parody were not nearly as outlandishly goofy as what the real Palin was doing day by day. The Tea Party, with your crazy uncle dressed up like Tom Paine at huge rallies, transcends comedy, and how can one not have a Swiftian sense of the world when, following the 2008 economic collapse which exhibited how an unregulated economy of self-interest was cancerous, Atlas Shrugged became a bestseller once more? The audience has only become increasingly complicit in the vaudeville act of politicking, and instead of laughing at “them” while we remain innocent on the sidelines, maybe we should be asking ourselves if we have the leaders we in fact deserve. Didn’t we make Donald Trump a Reality TV star by being glued to his show? The seriousness given to the Republican candidates – Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum – points to a public’s fickleness, while we ultimately select the guy who stands in front of hundreds of people and says, “I like trees.”
In contrast to fictional creations, we have The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report using real fodder to capture abundances of the absurd on a daily basis. This is not news but the entertainment industry, though its pretense as entertainment allows this satire to undress reality in a way that the spineless daily news will not approach. The state of things as they are, perhaps, does not demand restraint or something “fair and balanced,” but the appropriate sardonic disposition. Though I loved the performances of Farrell and Galifianikis in The Campaign, I wonder if anything they do is remotely as funny – or scary – as an interview with Herman Cain, or a proclamation made by Trump or Michele Bachmann, or the frenzied debates regarding a fast-food restaurant. In the mock news spectacles, the paradox of hopelessness leading to action is surprisingly effective. The happy ending of a movie like The Campaign leaves us static with a dopey smile; the end-times-are-near hopelessness of The Onion, Jon Stewart, and Colbert, I think, actually provokes the viewer to action and discussion. And even if the influences for the performed comedy of SNL are real (Farrell’s shameless, quaff-haired congressman is certainly based in part on John Edwards), the collage of impersonations that mimic speech patterns and the broadest of beliefs (Farrell’s George W. Bush; Fey’s Palin) only scratch the surface of an American political tempest, which, connected to the media and an imbibing audience/electorate, reveals how ideas do matter.
The proof radiates through The Campaign, wherein the funniest moments are removed from ideology: Brady accidentally punching a baby (I admit, I am a sucker for baby-punching) and then later the dog from The Artist (I’m even more of a sucker of dog-punching); the latent homoerotic connection between Huggins’ repressed candidate and a campaign consultant played with charming malevolence by Dylan McDermott; Brady stooping to get votes from the local snake-handling evangelicals; Huggins’ children disclosing some embarrassing stories involving animals licking their private parts; Brady seducing Huggins’ plump and unsatisfied wife; some cute jokes at the expense of pugs, etc. What the filmmakers (including Anchorman helmer Adam McKay, acting as producer, and director Jay Roach of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents) are aiming for is an escape from politics, not a discussion. This makes for some amusement, particularly when we consider that the “Liberal Hollywood” establishment is deliberately setting forth a scenario where we are meant to cheer for the underdog Republican Huggins against the smug and remorseless Democrat Brady. But it also suggests a thin-skinned lack of nerve, where the method is driven by satisfying as many people as possible, red and blue states both, and making a butt-load of money. In that sense The Campaign is equal to its theme of money controlling everything, and just as hollow.
The “escape” from politics probably worked best on television, with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the perfect president and staff in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. But television, to repeat something I’ve said often, functions as escapism, week to week, in a way that movies do not have to (and in a way political movies probably shouldn’t). Sorkin’s formula of the perfect liberal cabinet therefore worked better on the small screen than in his 1995 feature screenplay of Rob Reiner’s The American President, or Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s adaptation of Primary Colors, which although treating its Clintonian candidate (well played by JohnTravolta) with some ambiguity regarding his infidelity, nevertheless felt like self-congratulation and a facile tribute to 1992’s left-wing victory.
In contrast, the stinging ironies of Alexander Payne’s Election, in which electioneering (set in the platform of high school elections) is a hate-fuck fantasy of resentment and self-evasion, leaves its central character (Matthew Broderick) in a precarious position, far worse than from where he began, his antagonist (Reese Witherspoon) going from student president to untouchable plaything for the Washington elite. Warren Beatty’s flawed but tremendously effective Bulworth suggests that it takes the politician’s will to self-annihilation to wake up and be energized. Barry Levinson and David Mamet’s Wag the Dog reduces political policy to a Hollywood production, where a war (“pageant”) is “produced” to keep voters with their horse (the incumbent president with fidelity issues), mid-race. All three films, tellingly, were released as Bill Clinton’s tenure was ending, and the ‘60s promise of New Left ideas growing up proved to be pretty saccharine while the opposite wing was fixated on oval office blow jobs. To capture the incessant victory of the Right during Bush II years, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop, probably the most effective political satire in recent years, has its bad guys triumphing with a nonsensical war, the audacity of hope losing out to the manufacturing of language (itself obscured by whirlwinds of hilarious profanity). In the atomic age, when destruction and statesmanship are lovingly walking down the aisle, to feel the immediacy of political conflict and its ramifications we probably require the nihilism of Dr. Strangelove, the better angels of our nature being trampled. We laugh – at ourselves and at our defeats (indeed, the destruction of our planet) – but I think that leaves us with an internal dissonance, the images and ideas invited to linger with us much longer. Strangely, like scrambling innocents in a traffic jam running from their cars as an inescapable tidal wave consumes everything, maybe nothing activates us more than the realization of “We’re So Fucked.”
Elsewhere, Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Payne’s Citizen Ruth, Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts, the Swiftian fancies of South Park, Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking, and Robert Altman and Gary Trudeau’s Tanner ’88 leave us with a hopelessness that is strangely exuberant (Kubrick’s “strange love” – a fascination with destruction). In recent years, the health care debate begs to be the stuff of the present time’s definitive movie satire, though only David O. Russell seems to have gotten close to cinematically approaching the topic with his abandoned opus Nailed (which will apparently never be completed). The realities of climate change are similarly ignored. The interconnectedness of policy, media and communication, economics, biology, and geology was never more transparent and rich.
The Campaign probably never intended to assume so ambitious a pose, standing in company with Altman, Tim Robbins, or Alexander Payne, as a defining marker of “the times.” Which is not to say that dick jokes can’t be effectively political (taking into consideration Team America’s final rumination of dicks, pussies, and assholes). But extreme times of high-gauge absurdity starring players like Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Herman Cain using loudspeakers on the Right, while the Left seems afflicted with a case of impotence (a lack of speech to match the inanity of their foes), demand a Rufus T. Firefly, the nihilistic Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, mocking the airs of performed rhetoric and willful ignorance. For all of its short-lived delights, The Campaign is a flimsy projection of the national conversation when set against the hilarity of the last five minutes of a far more grave affair, Oliver Stone’s Savages, which points a middle-finger at the system and us with our safely guarded expectations. Maybe Tom Lehrer was right, and satire truly is impossible anymore. Or rather, this is an era of active satirical interpretation on the audience’s part, as we watch the recapitulation of the day’s events on the nightly news.
“I realized…that I had emerged not through the doors of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity. And that I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life, and the stench of it, the stain of it would take the rest of my life to undo.” -Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007)
The Body Politic is also of great interest to Tony Gilroy, director of the new Bourne Legacy, and co-author of the three previous Jason Bourne screenplays. The metaphor of the “body politic,” the corporeality of the corporation, is not of passing interest, but the subtextual juice of his stories of espionage and corruption. His previous directorial effort, the romantic corporate caper Duplicity, explicitly linked the goings-on of a military/government industrial complex to big business, as agents of the CIA (Julia Roberts) and MI5 (Clive Owen) were now being outsourced to gigantic corporations at war. The products of those corporations – in Duplicity‘s case a hair-growing lotion/gel (there’s a difference, we learn) – are related to the human body’s maitenance and adaptation , but the twist reveals that the only thing that matters is the manufacturing of the information, which transforms into capital as the corporate body grows and workers – in this case aging sex symbols Roberts and Owen – just grow old and finally obsolete. Tom Wilkinson’s corporate head trims a bonsai tree and calmly proclaims in the office, photographed in widescreen with loads of negative space, that corporate development is the new stage of evolution, and it’s uncontainable.
Gilroy’s sensibilities logically align then with Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels, the espionage yarns from the 1970s and 80s mirroring current sci-fi cyberage ideas in the metaphor of human beings (workers) being reprogrammed as robots. The global grid wraps itself around the world as surveillance data and technological control, and Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon in the trilogy) struggles to hold onto the organic core of his humanity, infiltrating and exposing the machine before disappearing into the ocean.
The allegory is that we’re all Jason Bournes, exploited by our respective employers and power keepers who, as George Carlin says, want nothing more than obedient workers. A Jason Bourne or whistleblower is, in Gilroy’s parlance, verbally described as a “cancer” (throughout Michael Clayton) and “infection” (which we hear repeatedly in The Bourne Legacy). The “fixers,” such as a malleable lawyer (George Clooney’s appropriately-named Clayton) or any number of Bourne‘s button-men, are brought in to handle the cancerous intruders, whose sense of conscience is antithetical to the system’s power flux. Like Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh, Gilroy is a filmmaker committed to examining this worker alienation. In Michael Clayton (one of the best films of the last 10 years), Clayton’s mentor Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) stops taking his meds and is stricken by the reality of who he is, his madness (“I am Shiva, god of death”) holding wisdom up to the contradictions of his employment as a fixer for corrupt organizations. He says that he’s been absorbed in the poison of his work, and is the “keeper of the hidden sins,” using lawyerspeak to maneuver his clients out of multi-billion dollar lawsuits while ordinary citizens die (of cancer) because of an unregulated product. Edens’ opening monologue in Michael Clayton is connected to the deforming evolution at play in Duplicity, where the “asshole” of the powerful institution keeps on producing carcinogenic poisons (like Arthur or Clayton) to wipe out “the miracle of humanity.” Nothing is real anymore, and everything, even human bodies (and so murder, by latent poison in the water or by contract hit-men), are abstracted.
It’s because of Gilroy’s talents and insight as an Information Age filmmaker that I cannot be cynical of his Bourne reboot, which loses director Paul Greengrass and star Damon, but doesn’t present itself as a separate franchise (like The Amazing Spider-Man), but as a complementary narrative, with much of the story set alongside the happenings of the last chapter, The Bourne Ultimatum. I felt that Greengrass and Damon has sufficiently exhausted the series, and that if it must continue, a fresh pair of eyes like Gilroy’s behind the camera (along with his great cinematographer Robert Elswit) and an original scenario (not based on a Ludlum novel) might take the idea of alienated super-agent government workers to fascinating territory: like Michael Clayton was a laywer movie removed from courtrooms, could The Bourne Legacy be a new kind of espionage action picture?
Instead of Bourne, we live in his shadow with Matt Damon’s face haunting the data screens of greying amoral administrators (Edward Norton and Stacy Keach are the newbies for us, joined by familiar visages from the last trilogy, David Straithern, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Brian Cox). The plot follows a wounded Iraq War veteran, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), part of an experimental ops team, Project Outcome, whose participants have been subjected to chemical treatments to reformat their biology, “infecting” them so as to be perfect killing machines, healing quickly and lacking empathy. As with Arthur Edens’ “keepers of the hidden sins,” Norton’s retired colonel tells Aaron, “We are sin-eaters. Morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” For maximum efficiency, “the miracle of humanity” must be erased for this new evolutionary design. In the wilds of Alaska, Aaron is chased by wolves. “They aren’t like that with humans,” he says, but a fellow Outcome subject, “Number 3″ (Oscar Isaac), tells him, “Maybe they don’t think you’re human,” while also telling Aaron that he “thinks too much” and “asks too many questions.”
We see drone plane attacks, a clever and resonant idea on Gilroy’s part that reminds us of the transference happening here: the un-manned machines and remorseless Outcome agents are equals, passively taking instruction from mission control. This is Gilroy’s enhancement on the original series: Jason Bourne was a meticulously trained killing machine without a memory, but Aaron Cross needs his “chems” and meds, which finally alter his body permenantly through sickness. He is evolution in action, the corporation, government, science lab, and manufactured product in one package, a true cyborg. He desperately searches for clues to his past, finding a lab scientist (Rachel Weisz) who examined him on several occasions. She’s now a target because of her exclusive Outcome knowledge – guilty by association (another Clayton theme). “I design, I study, I don’t make policy!” she cries, trying to separate the contents of her work from the product. And much like Aaron Cross, life would be easier for her if she could, as she says, “stop thinking” while people just try to do their jobs (scientists, administrators, trained killers all alike).
Renner’s an adequate substitute for Damon, but Weisz still feels wasted as the token lady on his arm. This is the film’s key problem and my chief fear: Gilroy is a maverick who’s buckled under the weight of his assignment, making something a little too familiar. And in spite of some spectacular set-pieces, Gilroy’s too-familiar Bourne is also too unresolved at its own, um, outcome. The chases that take over the final act of the picture succeed in granting Weisz’ wish of obliterating any sense of thinking in lieu of visceral impact (an oomph which is still effective with the series’ trademark real-space stunts). And though it’s interesting to have most of our villains stuck together in an enclosed screen-drenched room, hounding out orders and following two rogue quarries (remember, they’re still looking for Jason Bourne) while arguing with each other, the potential of Gilroy’s set-up runs on fumes, the world refusing to open up in its 135-minute running time. What we’re left with are promises of a sequel.
Moby’s “Extreme Ways” once more heralds in the end credits, but I’m left scratching my head and frustrated with the new big budget release mandate, which is frankly almost more aggravating than the surge of 3-D: does everything have to be a trilogy these days? In the past two weeks, Peter Jackson suddenly decided to make his two-film Hobbit adaptation three films; the dull Spider-Man reboot has been greenlit for two more chapters; assuming R-Patt’s okay with it, Kristen Stewart will make another Snow White; The Avengers is like a great party where the audience flirts with a lot of beautiful people and has some fun, but won’t get laid until the next Marvel sequel; Prometheus artfully asks questions while refusing to give answers, a Part II now in the planning stages. Even The Dark Knight Rises, advertised as the finale, gives ammunition for a future Batman adventure, though unlike its peers, I believe Christopher Nolan’s open-ends play well into the trilogy’s near-perfect closure.
Part of this trilogy-fever might be the strained relationship between television and film happening right now, as TV is luxuriating in serial never-ending story-lines (Twin Peaks and Crime Story should have been so lucky in the days before the Internet!) But it also curiously relates to the very theme of Gilroy’s other movies of interconnected patterns, from chemical virus to corrupt head of state or CEO. The flux repeats itself, a machine churning out more products, more cancers, more whistleblowers, more black operations. Maybe that’s interesting, as it reflects reality regarding systems. But here the anxiety isn’t earned. It’s unfortunate to think that Gilroy, who previously directed two mainstream but marvelous original screenplays, is forced to work in the franchise machinery of the contaminent and controlling organism of what now constitutes a Hollywood studio and its directives, so much like the gross body described by Arthur Edens in his Michael Clayton monologue. If he intended to do what Jason Bourne does, subverting the system by infiltrating it, The Bourne Legacy probably comes up short, proving a disappointment for me. But if this failure has any positive outcome, I hope Gilroy will be inspired to use the experience as another stellar examination of the individual working in the heart of the beast.