Observing cable news and Twitter over the last few weeks — through half-closed eyes, like a squeamish child at his brother’s bris — we’ve watched the unlikely specter of a Donald Trump presidency take shape. The left-field Cabinet picks. The potential business conflicts of interest. Even, as of last weekend, neo-Nazis saluting the incoming leader. This month's news landscape bears as much resemblance to a normal cycle as a sand dune does to an ice cream cone.
But current events are where we’d expect things to look different. More surprising is that entertainment has begun assuming new forms too.
The Trump victory is so seismic that it falls onto a very short list of events that change the way we perceive almost everything else. That includes — and maybe especially applies to — our cinematic escapism.
As this busy fall film season picks up, many of us, seeking either context for our modern world or a respite from it, are heading to movie theaters. We’ll choose from a wide range of movies: Among them are the science-fiction piece “Arrival;” the fact-based histories “Jackie,” “The Founder” and “Patriots Day”; the animated adventure “Moana”; and the social dramas “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “Fences.”
All these films, which either have just opened or will come out by Christmas, are exactly the same as had Trump not won. No release plans have been shifted; no shots or scenes edited. And yet all of them feel different. With the election, innocuous entertainment has become freighted with unintentional meaning. For the more than half the country that didn’t vote for Trump, or for those concerned with the country’s direction after they did, movies now come with added baggage, with new powers to induce chagrin and (in rarer cases) bursts of hope.
Before his post-JFK assassination film played AFI Fest last week, “Jackie” director Pablo Larrain stood up and, noting he was a South American outsider, said, “This is an invitation to [you Americans] think about where you were, and where you are now, and who will soon be in the White House.” Only the most politically oblivious wouldn’t free-associate to the headlines while watching the film. When Jackie Kennedy bemoans some of the gauche types her late husband hung out with, for instance, I found myself unable to tune out inner chatter about the new Oval Office occupant.
Like so many of the other movies, the “Jackie” storyline opens up an unusual two-way street. The world influences how we see films, and the films in turn inform how we go back outside and see the world.
Such touchstones, of course, don’t need to come so literally. What the Trump election has done is taken more separate stories of race — the kind that might have seemed likely merely (“merely”) an important social statement in the now suddenly distant #OscarsSoWhite moment of early 2016 — and given them a third-rail charge.
In “Fences,” Denzel Washington’s film based on August Wilson’s 1950’s-set Pulitzer Prize winner, the people of color left behind practically become poster children for the challenges of many modern Americans. If the division-minded metaphor of the title didn’t already bring home the message, its monologues do.
“Some people build fences to keep people out,” says lead character Troy (Washington) during one of the work’s more powerful moments, “and other people build fences to keep people in.” Before the Trump victory, with its fears of Muslim registries and Mexican deportations, we might have more safely looked at such talk as the stuff of period drama. But whatever distancing occurred before Nov. 8 is gone. Trump’s election has, like a kind of in-multiplex time machine, suddenly made the past present
Since he’s been elected, Trump has taken to Twitter to chastise television (“SNL”) and live musicals (“Hamilton”). Films, with their long gestation periods, have escaped his gaze. But if he got himself to a movie theater he might change his tune. At least to a movie theater playing a certain film.
“The Founder” tells of Ray Kroc’s mid-century maneuvering to steal the locally owned McDonald’s out from under the sweet San Bernardino brothers who founded it. Directed by “The Blind Side” director John Lee Hancock, it’s a modest if intriguing piece of period Americana. At an earlier time it might have been seen as the relatively benign story of a battle between business interests. Trump is never mentioned, needless to say; most of the story takes place 60 years ago.
Watching it this late November, though, I couldn’t help seeing the president-elect’s name blazing across it.
Michael Keaton plays Kroc as a hustler with little knack for creativity, just a ruthless sense of competition. “Business is war. It’s dog-eat-dog, rat-eat-rat. If my rival was drowning I’d bring over a hose and put it in his mouth. Would you?”
Kroc’s main advantage is his innate understanding of the power of branding. His only real addition to a business that has been built with the sweat of others are those eye-catching golden arches, a piece of iconography that so loudly echoes the golden lettering atop Trump hotels one could practically go deaf thinking about it. Kroc understood that savvy marketing (and heavy real-estate expansion) can make up for a lack of a good product, or any substance at all.
Oh, and he’s come up with what he calls “a concept: winning.”
That the world can’t be left at the movie theater door anymore is a notion that of course transcends the president-elect himself. Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn” explores the divide between the soldiers who fight wars and the people back home who cheer them on — as crucial a class division as the proletariat-elite gulf that roiled this election. Witnessing this gap, I briefly felt invigorated by the importance of bridging these divisions. But it also left me more depressed about the doomed nature of the effort.
Indeed, the feelings we’ll be left with coming out of these movies are complex. Many, after all, do end on hopeful notes. Can these movies be a kind of crutch, a floating raft in churning waters? Or will they drive home painful realities even harder?
The truth is, I’m not sure. “Arrival” may be one of the most telling examples. Its underlying message is one of unity across ethnic, gender, national and linguistic barriers. Such trans-minded politics would seem like a necessary tonic at this moment. It should make us feel good. But that notion can also can seem naively out of step with where we find ourselves. The idea of a feelgood movie of unity at a time of protests and hectoring Tweets from the president-elect seems discordant; far from healing our wounds, it reminds us that they’re there.
“Moana,” with its hard-fought triumph by a young woman of color, follows a similar psycho-cultural trajectory. It seems to be in part a tale of comeuppance and redemption for a bullish braggart — just the movie we many of us need right now, as composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has been saying on his press tour. But it’s also a sad reminder of how far away we are from our ideals.
Experiencing movies in this way isn’t new, of course. It’s just rare. The closest analogue to this complex method of viewing might be the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, every on-screen gesture, shot or plot point suddenly landed differently. Images of the World Trade Center caused gasps; movies with urban terrorism or in-flight violence engaged our minds differently. Most of us tend to watch movies with just a few mental tracks playing — the plot, the real-life actors maybe a distraction or two from our personal lives. Yet 9/11 added another layer of noise. Vigilante-action movies suddenly seemed either urgently needed or desperately problematic. Political thrillers became reminders of the importance of government, or evidence of its futility.
Trump’s victory also gives us that track. It changes so many film moments, so many overtones. And it does so in sometimes contradictory ways. Take “The Founder.” Yes, it makes a Trump-like figure a villain. But it’s also about how the working-class person has been beaten by a rigged system — a red-state rallying cry that feeds off the same frustrations that elected Trump in the first place.
Lest these Trumpian readings seem like just the over-active imaginings of people whose nerves have been fried by cable news (I’ll admit to being one), know that filmmakers have been thinking about them too. Directors are worried about how to treat these open wounds or, in some cases, if they’re wielding a hammer when they should be using a feather.
Speaking at a screening of his new movie, “Live by Night” — a gangster story about people inside and outside a white Protestant power structure — director-star Ben Affleck said, “I didn’t think it would turn out to feel so current. But now all of the sudden it sort of does, with the notions of immigration and race, and you have the Klan and the ideas of inclusion.
“I thought it would feel distant,” he continued, “and now all of the sudden it feels so current that I almost wish I could dial it back.”
Even the more removed world of Hollywood development is being filtered through Trumpian glass. Speaking of a new planned adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s fascism-as-patriotism-tinged novel “Starship Troopers,” the original’s director, Paul Verhoeven, lamented how it would play: “You feel that going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.”
But then, such sentiments ignore the fact that nearly half the country voted for the real-estate mogul; what makes me and many others uncomfortable might make them enlivened. That’s a lesson I kept reminding myself as I watched this crop of fall movies — and one in particular, “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon bombing.
Ostensibly wrapping itself in the cloak of Boston Strong, Peter Berg’s movie is underneath it all a fetishization of police officers. I stirred uncomfortably through parts of the film at its AFI premiere last week, watching a movie that should have been primarily about victims (and was at its most powerful when it was) too often become a kind of cinematic embodiment of Trump’s “law-and-order candidate” campaign pitch. After it ended, some of the real-life officers it was based on faced the audience and spoke. Watertown Police Sgt. Jeff Pugliese said that “we can beat these people.” Another officer said the message was “if you hit us, we’re going to hit you back.”
Will the movie catch on in Trump’s America? I suspect it will. Could it also make some people — who, like me, worry about the erosion of civil rights and the ascendancy of a militarized police force — more convinced that dark days lie ahead? I suspect it will do that too. One of the film’s most potent moments came during the interrogation of Katherine Russell, the widow of bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and a person who, to this day, has never been charged. “I have rights,” Russell, clad in a hijab and openly proclaiming her Muslim affiliation, said to her interrogator. “You ain’t got ...” the interrogator growled back to a huge roar of cheers in the theater. It’s rare that a line about the trampling of an American citizen’s constitutional protections garners enthusiastic applause. But these are rare times.
One day, this will all be processed. And art — as it always does, as it certainly must — will emerge and even flourish. When the fear and ambiguity of that post-9/11 moment subsided, when it all was put through the national psyche and Hollywood machine, we ended up with “The Dark Knight” and “Homeland” and countless other powerful works. The unrest and uncertainty of the 1960s, it’s worth remembering, yielded the great anti-establishment cinema of the 1970s.
One day. For now, we watch movies through a Trumpian lens. We see a worrying future, clouded by the uncertain present, perceiving in films as much our own fears as the entertainment that’s on the screen.
Times staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this story.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT