The Next Big Thing: Obama and Romney at the Movies

A summer movie and a presidential campaign have at least one thing in common: it is the job of each to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Neither is trying to push the envelope or engage us in creative discussion; they are both trying to sell us on a narrative that reflects a set of mainstream values.  Because of this, each of them can tell us much about who we are – or at least who they think we are.

So it should be no surprise to find that, in an election year, there are movies that put forth eerily similar ideas to those that we find in the presidential campaigns. With that in mind, I have scoured the summer movies of 2012 to find those that align closely with the narratives put forth by the Obama and Romney teams. By examining these films and measuring their success – that is, how mainstream American audiences responded to them – we will have a window into the results of this election.

In considering which summer movie best represented the themes of the Obama campaign, I did not have to look for long. The obvious choice is “The Avengers,” and not just because writer/director Joss Whedon is a major donor to the Obama campaign. Let me explain: when Obama ran in 2008, he painstakingly evoked the positive values and language of the ‘60s counterculture as an appeal to liberal baby boomers. His background in community organizing reminded many middle-aged liberals of their days as activists and the principles – peace, love, and harmony – that they had fought for. He was so persuasive in fact that many did not notice he favored extending the War in Afghanistan and were shocked when he not only decided to increase the number of American troops there but also continued many of the counter-terrorism strategies devised by the neo-conservative Bush administration (drone strikes, rendition), even though he wisely disparaged them on the campaign trail. He has in fact proved to be a militaristic president who came wrapped in the guise of a peacenik, and he seems to have become less ashamed of this as his administration has progressed. The allure of beating Republicans on defense issues, on which they have claimed an advantage since the Reagan years, is far too great a political prize for Obama not to grab for it. On the campaign trail, he proudly touts the killing of Osama Bin Laden as one of the key achievements of his administration, and many pundits are suggesting that national security has now become a winning issue for Democrats.

Or as I wrote in May of this year:

[T]his does not mean that “The Avengers” is a liberal film. Rather, the fact that an Obama-supporting Democrat [note: writer/director Joss Whedon has maxed out to the Obama campaign] has made this kind of action movie shows just how mainstream once-conservative ideas have become. In this way, “The Avengers” may as well have been made by Obama himself, who has retained the imagery and words of the counter-culture and its values of teamwork, cooperation, and harmony – but has undermined it with a willingness to shoot first and ask questions later.

I also wrote:

[M]uch of “The Avengers” plays like a recruitment video for Special Operations. The filmmakers ask us, as audience members, to join an elite team of warriors who fight the battles no one else can against an enemy bent only on our destruction. And because there is no blood and our heroes can take a punch from a Norse God and just dust themselves off, it is very easy to root for their success and not give a thought to the consequences and meaning of their actions. The film’s final action sequence begins when Loki and his army from another world launch a full-scale attack on Manhattan. The images of Manhattan on fire cannot help but evoke 9/11, and as we watch this special force of heroes fight back an other-worldly army bent on destroying our freedom, the allusions to the War on Terror are unmistakable.

And so is its support for that war. The reason that Obama is so keen to promote his bona fides as commander-in-chief is because war is the most basic and mainstream narrative of all. It is easy to understand and easy to sell to the American people, especially when they are not asked to sacrifice to for it. The story of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was nothing if not cinematic – so much so that Kathryn Bigelow, the director of “The Hurt Locker,” will be releasing a film on that very subject this December, a film which the Obama administration consulted on – and it is clear that that Obama’s campaign team is hoping that the advantage that this simple narrative gives their candidate on foreign policy will save the day.

When it comes to Romney, the choice came down to two films. I was first leaning towards “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which tells the story of an evil Queen who had seduced a nation and, once in power, nearly brought about its ruin through inequality. But just like the Republican party, the filmmakers behind “Huntsman” might have looked a little harder for their star. The movie suffers from a major imbalance, casting the bland, unqualified Kristen Stewart as the princess-turned-warrior fighting the beautiful, charismatic Charlize Theron. But the message is the same: Queen Ravenna (Obama) gained power by fooling an entire kingdom (America) with her beauty (charisma, speaking ability, unique biography). With a selfish, greedy despot running the show, the kingdom has fallen into disrepair, and only the, ahem, whitest person on the planet can rectify the situation.

But as a metaphor for the Romney campaign, I far prefer “Total Recall,” the remake of the classic-ish 1990 Schwarzenegger sci-fi film. “Recall” places Colin Farrell in the Arnold role as Douglas Quaid, a bored husband who visits a company that can implant memories in his head. He chooses as his fantasy the life of a secret agent, but when something goes wrong in the implanting session, he goes on the run from faceless government bad guys, trying to figure out what’s real and what’s just a memory.

The implanting of memories is meant to represent a technology of the future, but it’s not so different from what the Romney campaign has been trying to do to voters. Romeny and his surrogates have tried to create for voters an alternate history of Obama’s first term, in which he was soft on national security, heavy on regulation, and lazy on the job. It seems pretty clear from recent polling that, just like in the movie, something went wrong in the implanting process.

Further, the societal values embedded in “Total Recall,” especially when compared to “The Avengers,” more closely resemble the man-against-the-world ethos of 1980s action films. Movies like “Die Hard,” “Rambo,” and “Robocop” promoted individualism over harmony and cooperation, and “Total Recall” hems closely to that form. Quaid must even break free from the shackles of his personal relationships, as both his wife and best friend prove to be working for the enemy.

While “The Avengers” portrayed a larger, more existential threat to mankind, “Total Recall” keeps the rules of the game simple: kill the president, and things will change. Bryan Cranston plays President Cohaagen, who runs the world now that chemical warfare has made most of Earth uninhabitable. The rich folk live in Europe; everyone else has been banished to Australia. Turns out that (SPOILER) Cohaagen has been staging terrorist attacks and blaming them on the Aussies in an effort to build public support for his secret plan to militarize and essentially enslave the people of the lower continent. The themes of income inequality and revolution were rampant in this year’s films, but while we understand those problems to be systemic in nature, “Total Recall” sees them as eminently solvable. It tells us that all we have to do is take down the corrupt leader, and fairness and equality will be restored (much like “Snow White and the Huntsman,” in fact). Or, as I wrote in my August review, the film dangerously “bludgeons the viewer into submission with action sequences while couching its violence in populist rhetoric.”


You can’t blame Romney for using this type of simplistic narrative in his campaign; it is rare to see a presidential challenger really suggest anything other than a change at the top. But the filmmakers behind “Total Recall” could have done better. This year, we saw a number of blockbusters address the issue of income inequality in fairly contemplative ways. “The Hunger Games” and “The Dark Knight Rises” were good examples. But, disappointingly, neither “Total Recall” nor the Romney campaign offer up any real solutions to these deeply-felt problems, only the hope that people are so desperate for a change that they will welcome into their homes and their hearts anyone who offers one.

So if we look at the movies of the summer of 2012 as a referendum on the choice voters have this November, what can they tell us about who voters will flock to in a race that many still believe will be extremely close? Well, “Total Recall” grossed only $58 million domestically, not even half of its $125 million budget. Much of that total came from its first weekend. It grossed $25 million upon its initial release then saw a huge drop, indicating extremely poor word-of-mouth. I don’t think it is unfair to say that the film did not connect with American audiences.

“The Avengers,” as you might have heard, was a bit of a success. The film has grossed $622 million domestically, over a billion worldwide, and is the third-highest grossing movie of all-time. No surprise there. Just like the Obama campaign, the film combines movie-star appeal with bloodless action sequences and an appealing together-we-can-do-anything message of harmony. So we can reasonably extrapolate that Obama is headed for an easy, record-shattering victory this November. Based on the campaign’s message alone – and not necessarily its deeds –  I can’t imagine why any American voter would look elsewhere.

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