Bulworth Review: Political Satire in the Age of Trump
In the dark shadow of Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election, we turn to Senator Bulworth and the virtues and vices of being "candid" with the American public.
Third-Party-Type Spoilers For Bulworth
** UPDATED: October 18, 2016.
This piece was originally published in the summer of 2015. Since this piece has been written, it has become exceedingly clear that Donald Trump is a dangerous demagogue who has hijacked the Republican party and made a mockery of the American electoral process. With some reflection, I won't edit or delete the original "castigating, but amused" tone of this piece. With some reflection, I decided to preserve how vulnerable I was to a neo-fascist in a reality show clown suit. It's clear though that this piece does not take Trump as seriously as was warranted.
In 1996, incumbent senator from California, Jay Billington Bulworth threw his stump speech out the window. Having sold his principles to lobbyists who ensured his re-election, Bulworth is wracked with guilt. A committed liberal senator, Bulworth has been bought by the insurance lobby to kill a bill that will help the uninsured. Worst of all, he knows this. He recognizes this is the final phase of his metamorphosis into political hack. His bribe includes a life insurance deal that would leave his beneficiary (daughter) very comfortable, so Bulworth does what any reasonable man haunted by his conscience would do - he puts a hit out on himself.
Liberated from any obligation to his re-election campaign, Bulworth goes rogue. He admits to the Black community that he only uses them for photo ops. He tells his Hollywood donors that their products are garbage and he only uses them for fundraising. He tops of his denunciations by issuing a jeremiad against his true constituency: the insurance lobbyists who have paid him off.
Inexplicably, Bulworth’s candidness leads to a reinvigoration of his campaign. His candor is incendiary, but the public is transfixed. Over the course of the film, Bulworth not only locks up his Senate seat, but receives a stunning 23% write-in campaign for the presidency. There’s an important distinction to be made in the first sentence of my paragraph: I said Bulworth’s CANDIDNESS and not Bulworth’s TRUTH. Bulworth’s “shocking” statements parallel a real life candidate that is (as of this writing) profiting from a burlesque, Bulworth-esque strategy where candor is richly rewarded. But candor is NOT truth.
Hail to the Chief Executive Officer
Donald Trump has aroused the political media with his bullish, take-no-prisoners approach to campaigning. He stakes clear un-nuanced positions and baits controversy the way no typical politician does. Trump is seemingly impervious to the consequences of his abrasiveness. His real-life, reality roadshow is boosted by true believers, opportunists, "strategic" pols, and low information voters who have come to relish tuning in to Trump taking the same wrecking ball he had taken to real estate to politics.
Whatever you may think of his positions, I begrudgingly admit the unintended benefit of his primary campaign: he has exposed people by their reactions to his bellicose run and shamed an establishment that has delivered nothing for its working class constituency. Not only has he coaxed a disgusting nativist strain within the GOP out of the closet, he has also put the magnifying glass on a feckless Jeb Bush (whose moral cowardice prevents him from even standing up against the anti-immigrant rhetoric directed towards his own wife) or the corporate “too-big-too-fail” Hillary Clinton Machine. His disregard for political hairsplitting admittedly made him "refreshing" as he forced the ruling political oligarchy to acclimate to his tempestuous and unpredictable force of nature.
In between hors d’ouerves, Bulworth wreaks similar havoc at a debate, torpedoes his carefully programmed opponent and flippantly dismisses the media. Having come to terms with his suicide by homicide, Bulworth forces his opponent to react to the only true experience a leader will have to confront - the unexpected. When the American public sits ringside, it wants to see Trump blow through the carefully orchestrated political theater of the establishment candidate. While familiar names like Jeb and Hillary perform Kabuki theater, Trump pounds his chest in pro-wrestling fashion.
But Trump misses THE crucial part of the equation - for all of the potential virtue that bluntness brings, it is nothing without empathy. Empathy is what Bulworth discovers as he hides from his own assassin in South Central. He witnesses how society treats those in the lowest-tax bracket and the working class people of color. Bulworth’s final televised interview is not just reckless bomb-throwing or platitudes without solutions. His final plea is when candor is combined with empathy. Only then does Bulworth realize his wasted influence as an agent of change. He mourns for those lost years where he treated his position as a public privilege and not as what a politician really is: a public servant.
We are mesmerized when Trump swings upward or wildly at either side. We wince and cringe when he makes contact. He's an industrialist CEO and a privileged scion. But he is not - and will be the first to tell you - and he will never be a servant. What Donald Trump lacks is the experience of being middle-class, working-class, or impoverished, that you would do anything to build your station in life. For all the “straight-talk,” this lack of experience is the ultimate disqualification.
Bulworth, the film, is much like Bulworth the candidate. It's not a perfect, but it comes out of a stringent system (the studio system) and dares to be bold. It may be apocryphal, but it's said that Warren Beatty was able to get full creative control due to a threat to sue FOX when they backed out of distributing his film Dick Tracy. The movie's premise even in 1998 was not thought to be marketable (with even fewer of these kinds of movies being made now). It really is one of these films that grows into itself and - like most great satires - has accurately projected the future and foretold a depressing reality.
All the Wildcard's Men
While many seem to write off the Trump candidacy and anticipate the “inevitable” burn out, I’m not so sure. Follicularly fashioned political figures are often funny until they’re not. Standing in the way of the whims of a man who is accustomed to getting everything can inflict major collateral damage to the calculating candidate; unintended consequences exploding from political flukes. It would be easy to point to Trump as the heel, but he is just a distraction. The real culprit is a system that rewards obfuscation, penalizes sincerity, and relegates directness only to those candidates with nothing to lose.
Bulworth is oddly prescient in forecasting the advantages of bucking the system. But there’s another film with less overt satire that more truly paints a nightmare scenario: Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972). Robert Redford plays Bill McKay, a Democratic candidate who has no chance of winning a Senate seat held by a deeply-entrenched incumbent. McKay runs on his principles until the race tightens just enough to be choked by reality and he moderates his views at the prospect of actually winning. This leads to a crisis of conscience and McKay reverts back to his maverick ways. When the film ends with his surprise victory, McKay gazes blankly at his campaign manager (and us) and asks:
“What do we do now?”
In the longest of shots that President-elect Trump accepts victory on November 8, 2016, who will be asking that question - him or us?
- Director: Warren Beatty
- Writer: Warren Beatty & Jeremy Pikser
- Starring: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Jack Warden, Oliver Platt, Don Cheadle
- Producer: Warren Beatty, Pieter Jan Brugge, Frank Capra III, Lauren Shuler Donner, Victoria Thomas
- Music by: Ennio Morricone
- Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro