Escaping Escapism, Or How Political Movies Helped Me Find Hope Again

The Seattle-based writer-director fights her post-election malaise by watching everything from A Face in the Crowd to Falling Down.

On Election Day last year, I sat down with my boyfriend, Ben, to watch the returns. Ben had purchased a bottle of celebratory champagne; I’d stocked up on themed red, white and blue snacks. We’d watched all the debates, devoured the news, and come to the logical conclusion that our country wouldn’t be so nihilistic as to choose a racist, entitled reality TV star over a woman with such clearly superior credentials and intelligence.

Watching the map turn increasingly red, I lost hope before Ben. Ultimately, though, I was the one who watched longer. I thought seeing the acceptance speech would help me adapt to this insane new reality. It didn’t. I fell asleep crying, woke up crying, and remained numb for months. Nothing felt like the right thing to do. Nothing felt like an appropriate thing to watch. I couldn’t flip on some random, vapid thing. In fact, thoughtless, apolitical movies and TV shows felt somehow to blame. There was no escapist cinema that would allow me to escape this.

So our home became host to an ongoing political film festival that was driven not so much by a series of conscious choices, but more a desperate search for answers. We were fiends seeking some comprehensible context for this political nightmare.

We thought satire might provide a pleasant diversion, but in light of our current reality, Mike Judge suddenly seemed clairvoyant and Idiocracy a bleak foretelling of our country’s inevitable course: inept leadership, devalued intellectualism and a complete lack of infrastructure. Nicholas Kristof recently compared government and regulations to oxygen: “You don’t appreciate them until they’re not there.” The problem within the world of Idiocracy is that the populace depicted is too far gone to realize what they’ve lost, and way too dumb to fix it. And, scarily, the sports drink-guzzling, nut punch-obsessed denizens of that world just don’t feel quite as exaggerated as they used to.

The Manchurian Candidate, Wag the Dog and Bulworth deal similarly in a world of heightened reality — an American soldier brainwashed to kill his own leaders, a war constructed by film producers and sold as a product to an unquestioning public, and a politician incited to honesty for the first time in his career by the knowledge of his own impending murder. Each of the three films play into our distrust of those who purport to lead us, and all push worst-case scenarios to their inevitable conclusions. They are inflated by design, and yet none felt as far-fetched as the reality show that premiered on every channel on election night. In a world where POTUS is shit-talking Schwarzenegger’s ratings on Twitter while simultaneously dismantling our democracy piece by piece, maybe our collective imagination just has nowhere to go anymore. Demoralized but still not satiated, Ben and I continued on our quest for illumination.

In a few of the films we watched, we found parallels of the Trump phenomenon — the charismatic shyster who builds a following based on his willingness to “tell it like it is.” In Bob Roberts, the title character appears on stage with a guitar at his rallies, and uses everything that gave folk music its power — the rebuttal of injustice, the confidence in what is right — but repurposes that energy into a right-wing attack tool. That warped ricochet, when that which is used against someone becomes his strongest ammunition, feels ominously relevant in the era of fake news. Also very resonant was A Face in the Crowd, which sees its main character, “Lonesome” Rhodes, experience a meteoric rise after he’s given a platform on the radio and his folksy charm speaks to the nation at large. Charisma is highly sought after by the rich and powerful, who almost invariably lack it. In the film, the rich and powerful discover Rhodes and hijack his popularity to push their own agenda. One might speculate that more than a few people in today’s West Wing had the same idea.

Though Falling Down is not a “political” film, this movie from 1993 says more about the times we live in than many of the others I watched. It stars Michael Douglas as a disenchanted white male who’s one red #MAGA hat away from a Trump rally. He’s a former soldier recently let go from his defense industry job who has terrified his ex-wife to the point that she won’t allow him to visit his daughter on her birthday. After one traffic jam too many, he embarks on a walk across Los Angeles with a growing arsenal of weaponry that begins with a baseball bat and ends with a rocket launcher, as he seeks justice for all the various indignities of his life. The world he sees is full of people he doesn’t want to co-exist with and poverty he’d much rather ignore. When the police finally catch up with him and their guns are trained on him, his genuinely shocked reply feels like it could come out of the mouths of countless red-state Americans today: “Wait, I’m the bad guy? When did that happen?”

Ben and I also watched a handful of historical narratives, which served as an effective reminder that our country has seen some straight-up crazy shit, and not that long ago either. Jackie views the assassination of a sitting president at close range, and shows the intense potency of political myth making. I was someone who grew up in an era when the word “Watergate” was just part of my government class curriculum, so All the President’s Men brought home the decidedly unglamorous shoe leather than went into breaking that history-changing story. In light of the allegations regarding the Trump campaign and Russia, this film provided the most optimistic moment of the lot — a reminder of the power of the press. The Washington Post editor stonewalled portions of the Watergate story dozens of times in order to be sure that what was printed was rock-solid. In 2017, we are experiencing a similar tick-tock of justice that will be hopefully no less effective because of its slow but steady pace. All the President’s Men shows us the dogged nature of victory — it never looks like the puzzle is solved until it actually is.

All these films provided perspective, some provided embittered laughs, but ultimately none provided answers. It’s not a film and is ostensibly not even about politics, but The People v. O.J. Simpson led me to my biggest epiphany on what the actual fuck had happened on election night. In this miniseries, an intensely smart, style-challenged and not particularly likeable female prosecutor goes to battle against a team of all-stars representing a celebrity. It ultimately becomes a battle between the lecturer and the raconteur, the nerd and the popular kid, the woman with the data and the men with the catchphrases. Marcia Clark trusts in the power of evidence, and has faith that the jury will share that trust. Meanwhile, Johnnie Cochran understands something Marcia does not: the power of a well-told story.

On November 9, Dan Schoenbrun wrote an article for Filmmaker magazine entitled, All Movies are Political Movies. We Need to Do Better. I read it then and I’ve read it several times since, and each time I finish reading it I say, “Amen!” Film is a cultural bellwether and a powerful force for change — sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. At its best, it is an empathy-building, divide-spanning, wall-tumbling tool, and we can choose to wield it responsibly. Trump was elected. That happened. Now what can we do from behind the camera to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Megan Griffiths is an independent director, writer and producer. Her most recent film, Lucky Them (starring Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp), premiered at Toronto in 2013 and was released by IFC. Her previous film, Eden, premiered at SXSW 2012, where it won the Audience and Emergent Female Director awards and was picked up by Phase 4. Prior to that, Megan’s film The Off Hours, premiered at Sundance in 2011, received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for cinematography, and secured distribution through Film Movement.