This may be the first year in memory when the movies seem more serious about politics than the politicians. Of course, the flippancy began about three years ago when Donald Trump ascended to the highest elected position in the land.
What quickly followed was The Resistance Movement that refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a presidency that blithely and vigorously refuted virtually all the norms and the traditional decorum of the office.
Undaunted by disruption, Hollywood has aimed its sights on politics as unusual. This year’s films attack the state of disunion with a vigor not seen in decades.
Maybe it’s a response to Trumpism, but it also may be cultural proof that just as nature abhors a vacuum, the demise of cable news as journalism and its rise as partisan pom-pom shaking has given filmmakers a renewed hunger for social themes and a fresh focus on truth-telling.
Here’s a quick recap of how some key films of 2019 reflected and commented on the sociopolitical moment and who came out as winners and losers in a number of politically savvy movies this year:
Popular on Variety
Winners: The Mafia, the 1%
Losers: The Kennedys, the unions, Richard Nixon, John and Mo Dean
In a world where no one respects authority and the rules of behavior are buried deeper than Jimmy Hoffa’s cuff links, “The Irishman” argues that while America’s mobsters may not be perfect, at least they’re rewarding hard work and punishing disloyalty.
It follows that making enemies of the mob and/or America’s intelligence agencies, as the Kennedys did with the former and Nixon the latter, is bad for your health. Especially so, “Irishman” posits, when they’re working together as it suggests they were in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
“Irishman” also makes it clear that the American class system and Wall Street are both stacked against working stiffs, and the decline in the clout of the American union movement would provide ample proof to support the accuracy of that thesis.
As for Mr. and Mrs. Dean, “Irishman” argues no one likes a rat, even a “smart” one.
Winners: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Daniel J. Jones
Losers: John Brennan, Gina Haspel, Donald Trump
Scott Z. Burns’ account of Daniel J. Jones’ crusade to expose the abuses of the Bush-era CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques sets up the fight between Feinstein and CIA chief-to-be John Brennan as a David-and-Goliath tussle, with the CIA as a lumbering lethal giant resistant to taming and the clear underdog in this case being the American people and our civil liberties.
But the combo of Feinstein’s shrewd, steady political chops and Jones’ dog-on-a-torture-bone tenacity, whips Brennan’s butt and reminds viewers that Trump’s biggest intelligence critic was once publicly thumped for spying on the Senate.
That would be a great boost for Trump except the entire film exists as a condemnation of his patented brand of D.C. prevarication and a warning about abuses of power. It’s also hard to miss the sharp point that Gina Haspel, one of the key leaders of the torture program, was later appointed to head the CIA by … Donald Trump.
Winners: Hollywood Conservatives
Losers: Hippies, Asians
The film’s finely tuned focus on period detail, visible in nearly every frame of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” apparently doesn’t extend to the political context of the tumultuous late-’60s setting.
Even more than today, in 1969 you could drive a Chevy van through the schism in the American political landscape without scraping the fenders. But that’s never directly addressed in “OUATIH.”
Upon closer inspection, however, the politics of the picture are ironically hiding in plain sight.
The two leads, Rick and Cliff, are walking, talking, ass-kicking Red State Nixonites. Cliff cheerfully tosses Asian action icon Bruce Lee into the side of a car in a scene that would have drawn cheers on the Southern drive-in circuit of the time. And the film wraps with the duo making short order of the Mansons, aka the Hippies from Hell.
In a year that started with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s warning of a “Bad Moon Rising” and ended with Merle Haggard’s reactionary anthem of the Silent Majority, “Okie From Muskogee,” “OUATIH” sits comfortably in the middle of the year, in the lap of the Moral Majority and as far from today’s Hollywoke as is comically possible.
Winners: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, the 99%
Losers: Trump tax cut beneficiaries, Bahamian bank account holders
The biblical aphorism that “the first shall be last and the last first” doesn’t include the postscript, “though everybody dies,” but “Parasite” makes sure no one misses its view that the elites’ day of reckoning won’t be a picnic for anyone on the planet.
The ingenuity and fearlessness of the disenfranchised is clearly valued over the fairly benign, blase consumerism of their posh foils. But while “Parasite” delights in taking down a house of privilege brick by custom-home-design brick, it never loses sight of how quickly the nobility of the underclass can be co-opted by all things cush and cozy.
Winners: Non-union performers, single mothers, bricks-and-mortar fashion retailers
Losers: Wall Street brokers, credit card companies, the pharmaceuticals industry
Industryites shocked by the $100 million-plus “Hustlers” B.O. haul must have missed the loud complaints of working-class Americans pissed off by the increasingly tall odds against economic justice.
So when the dazzling dancers of “Hustlers” turn the stripper’s pole into a spear of destiny, and shove it right up the backsides of the most hopelessly clueless males outside of a Peloton ad, the resulting raining down of cineplex dollars should not have come as a surprise to anyone.
Just as in “The Irishman,” the America on display in “Hustlers” is a place where everybody knows the difference between good and bad, but they also know the game is rigged. And no one in 2019 mired in student debt, struggling to raise a family or suffering the indignities of the gig economy is likely to get too judgmental about mobsters settling scores or strippers spiking drinks.
“It’s what it is.”