The Stubblefield Institute welcomes all opinions. Dr. Jason McKahan’s opinions of these films are his and his alone, and not those of the Institute. If you have an alternative view, please feel free to comment.
Streaming Politics and (Un)civil Discourse
Jason Grant McKahan
Living in an era of political and pandemic upheaval, there is no shortage of entertainment that strikes a political clef, while ironically providing the diversion that stay-at-home streaming can provide. What follows is neither an exhaustive, nor a representative sample, but more a shortlist of some of the politically themed TV and film favorites viewed in our home during the lockdown.
Long Shot (Lionsgate, 2019) Streaming on HBO GO and Hulu.
Long Shot takes a satirical look at the double standards and sexist scrutiny that women face when running for the highest office of the land (no subtle allusion to the 2016 presidential cycle). Its rom-com formula pairs quite the odd couple, when presidential candidate Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is informed by her advisors that she must cultivate her image as a funny lady (because, cynically, no one pays attention to policy anyway), and she brings on a left-leaning, foul-mouthed muckraker, Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), who has just quit his job after his publication is acquired by a far-right media conglomerate. As it happens, Charlotte was Fred’s babysitter, first crush, and the inspiration to take up political activism in his journalism. They soon fall in love. The key conflict centers on the alternatives of manufacturing a political veneer versus authenticity – as Charlotte navigates the thorny path of ideological compromise and the irksome optics of dating an uncouth Fred, while her entourage tries to pair her with a dashing Trudeau-esque Canadian Prime Minister James Steward (Alexander Skarsgård). Long Shot definitely harkens back to a pre-Trump political landscape, as it entertains, even makes possible, civility between conservatives and liberals. Added in for good measure are satirical depictions of a lowbrow TV president, Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), and a right-wing media mogul villain, Wembley (Andy Serkis) – à la Donald J. Trump and Rupert Murdoch.
Vice (Annapurna Pictures, 2018) Streaming on Hulu.
Vice is a particularly post-modern biopic of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) – a tragicomedy dripping with political satire. The narrative style has the frenetic pacing of a Baz Luhrmann film, as we scuttle across four decades of Cheney, from drunken ne’er-do-well, to Nixon intern, Ford Chief of Staff, Wyoming congressman, Halliburton CEO, and finally, architect of the Iraq debacle. There’s also a mid-story false ending complete with a title crawl, when it seems that Cheney might spare America by receding from politics into the private sector. The voice-over narration throughout the film comes from an everyman named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who shares only a tenuous relationship with the subject of this biography (one being the narrator’s tour in Iraq, compliments of Cheney’s hawkish foreign policy). Lynn Cheney (Amy Addams) is figured as a Lady Macbeth, replete with Shakespearean iambic pentameter in one bedroom scene. At the heart of Vice are three central inquiries: first, how did Cheney rise to become de facto the leader of the free world from the seat of Vice President? Second, how did Cheney lay the foundation of unmitigated presidential power via the obscure legal concept of “unitary executive power”? And third, how did the Bush presidency solidify the partisan phenomenon of alternative facts and fake news? The film takes a derisive tone in addressing these queries, which ultimately risks preaching to the choir, while feeding conservative talk with grist for the liberal-bias media speculation. The only humanizing aspect of Cheney is his dedication to family, but even that is cruelly dashed when Cheney takes sides with his daughter Liz’s (Lily Rabe) anti-gay platform when she runs for the Senate, betraying his other daughter Mary, who champions gay rights (Alison Pill).
Bombshell (Lionsgate, 2019) Streaming on Amazon Prime.
The docudrama Bombshell takes as its subject the sexual harassment scandal that consumed Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), CEO of Fox News in the summer of 2016. Watching Bombshell, the hardest sell is to get the audience to empathize with the invidious women of Fox News, who have done so much to propel the fringe lunacy and fake outrage that is the “culture war.” This marvel of a feat is accomplished by creating a fictional novice newscaster, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a protagonist composited from over a dozen of Ailes’s real-life sexual harassment complainants; by humanizing Megyn Kelly though Charlize Theron’s impeccable performance – established early in the film when at a Republican Presidential debate she dares to spar with Donald Trump over his comments about women; and by presenting Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) as an older female TV personality, who is subjected to both ageist and sexist discrimination, and unable to directly sue Fox, successfully sues Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. To be sure, Bombshell is narrated from the women’s point of view. As new girls one by one are called up to Ailes’s office and ordered to hike their skirts and “twirl” with creepy Ailes leering and touching, one cannot help but experience the anxiety and loathing of a horror film. Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live fame, no stranger to satirizing Fox News, stands out as Jess Carr, a closeted lesbian and liberal staffer at Fox, who refuses to speak out because she is afraid to lose her job. However, Kelly, Carlson, and other women, eventually step forward en masse to force Ailes from his leadership at Fox. Whether or not we like the women of Fox News, we cannot help celebrate their bravery in challenging the overt misogynistic and predatory culture of Ailes’s newsroom.
The Loudest Voice (Showtime, 2019) Streaming on Showtime and Hulu
Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, based on Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 biography, covers similar ground to Bombshell, but as a miniseries, has more space to survey the bizarro career of Roger Ailes (Russell Crow) and his brainchild, Fox News. In many ways, The Loudest Voice dramatizes many aspects of Fox News laid bare by such 2000s documentaries as Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed (2004). The series begins with the downfall and death of Ailes, and then flashes back to 1995 when Ailes, as Republican media consultant and recently fired CNBC producer, joins forces with Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) to found a media outlet with a conservative lens. Although The Loudest Voice exposes Ailes’s exploitation of women through the portrayal of his harassment of Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis) and his grooming of her to procure more women, the main thrust of the miniseries is how Fox News departed from journalistic ethics to become essentially a flagship network of and for the Republican Party. Each episode touches on a pivotal moment in the network’s history, including when Fox aired people jumping from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and amplified the drumbeat for the Iraq invasion, their partisan and birtherist coverage of Obama, Fox’s grooming of Trumpism, and Ailes’s scandalous fall from grace. The Loudest Voice reveals the tensions between the Murdoch family and Ailes, Ailes’s growing paranoia and obsession with security and surveillance, as well as his creepy mentorship of young editor Joe Lindsley (Emory Cohen) after purchasing the Putnam County News and Recorder newspaper, and the reaction of residents as they perceive a once impartial town paper now begin to sow discord in their community, like a miniature version of Fox News. The Loudest Voice reveals the pathology of made-up news, followed by debates on its veracity in trustworthy outlets, and shifting the national conversion to unfounded and dubious belief. Troy Patterson of the New Yorker has compared watching The Loudest Voice to, “rooting for the timely completion of the Death Star.”
Mrs. America (FX 2020) Streaming on Hulu
Mrs. America is a limited historical drama series that traces the struggle for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, the activities of second-wave feminists and the National Organization for Women, as well as conservative Phyllis Schlafly’s (Cate Blanchett) formation of the Eagle Forum and her fight to stop the E.R.A. Some key moments in the series include the debates between Schlafly and Betty Freidan (Tracey Ullman), the trailblazing presidential run of African American woman, Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba), as well as Schlafly’s dangerous flirtation with white supremacist allies. Schlafly’s protégé, a fictional composite character, Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson) is a real standout from the Schlafly group, namely because of her integrity. In one episode, Schlafly distributes “mixtapes,” taking audio recordings of feminists out of context, and Alice calls into question the manipulative tactic (a prescient forerunner of right-wing activist group Project Veritas, which beginning in 2008 deceptively manipulated audiovisual media to discredit Planned Parenthood and other progressive groups); in the eighth episode (“Houston”), Alice attends a women’s conference in Texas, and after being put on the spot by journalists for Eagle Forum’s “alternative facts”, gets inebriated and ends out spending the night with liberals. Seeing common ground, Alice calls out the Eagle Forum members for their disingenuous and negative machinations. Mrs. America is most deft at identifying not only the fundamental divisions between liberal and conservative women, but also their shaky coalitions, especially in the portrayal of Republican ally to the E.R.A. Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and the internal strife between straight and lesbian feminists.
These films and television series mull over the cumulative deterioration of civil communication over the past 50 years. Opposition to the women’s and Civil Rights movements, as well as reproductive freedom and the welfare state in the 1970s have often been identified as key catalysts of extreme factionalism in the public sphere. The rollback of media regulation in the 1980s also opened the door to the lucrative monetization of partisan viewership in the guise of niche one-sided, editorial news, “entertainment.” The alchemy of politicized media and the vast expansion of presidential power and privilege through the 2000s has put democracy and civil discourse in a precarious position, with a certain lack of accountability in both ideas and power, thus upsetting the checks and balances and potential of an information-rich citizenry that a thriving representative democracy requires. The reviewed films and TV shows implore viewers to reflect on this series of historical events leading to the current crisis of Trumpism – and while some give into calumny, others provide hints of reconciliation, compromise, and common ground.
About the Author
Jason Grant McKahan has taught at Shepherd University since 2007. He has a Ph.D. from Florida State University in Mass Communications. He teaches across the curriculum in digital film production, media studies, and communication history.