Roving thoughts and provocations

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A New Obama Cinema?

A lone lean figure strides purposefully through a dark tunnel, maybe a highway underpass. There’s no fear. A familiar husky voice whispers that “it’s half time—both teams are in their locker rooms, discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.” One needn’t be a genius like Karl Rove to catch the drift of the two-minute Clint Eastwood-narrated Chrysler spot shown mid-Super Bowl last Sunday and everywhere else ever since. But get it Rove did.

First thing Monday morning, America’s preeminent propagandist was on Fox & Friends to whine that “the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.” What he meant was that a grateful automobile industry was engaging in some sneaky subliminal payback, hiring no less than Clint Eastwood as the mouthpiece for Barack Obama’s reelection bid. Well before the Giants edged out the Patriots, Obama adviser David Axelrod had wiped his boss’s fingerprints off the spot. “Powerful spot,” he slyly tweeted to his followers. “Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?”

By Monday evening, Eastwood—a life-long Republican—had given a statement to Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, “I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama.” (Note the use of “mister”—Eastwood may be a secret Ron Paul supporter but, as a good American, he’s bound to give the president props.) Eastwood was actually a critic of the automobile bailout, having told the Los Angeles Times last November that “we shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies.” By Wednesday, Chrysler executives were uniformly declaring that the ad had no political agenda: “It was designed to deliver emotions,” the company’s chief marketing officer was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “and I don’t think emotions have a party.” (He did not, however, complain about extra publicity generated by the controversy.)

In its casting, content and positioning (little more than an hour after Obama told a pre-Super Bowl interviewer that he deserved a second term because of his successful economic policies, in the midst of the most widely watched telecast in American history), “It’s Halftime in America” was a most effective bit of political theater—maybe the best of its kind since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America.” Like that ad, “Halftime” is a dense yet leisurely montage. All over America, in country hamlets and on Manhattan island, people are waking and up and going to work, thoughtfully, resolutely. An urban dweller rolls out of bed; a guy with a marked resemblance to Dennis Haysbert (the president in 24) ponders the bathroom mirror and knots his tie: “It’s halftime in America too. People are out of work and they’re hurting—wondering what they going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game.” Are these two guys going out to look for jobs?

The music is solemn, soothing, just short of uplifting, and Eastwood’s narrative is suddenly specific: “The people of Detroit know a little something about this—they almost lost everything.” Cue rusty factories. “But we all pulled together—now Motor City is fighting again.” Eastwood is back in the frame, walking towards the camera in kind of a purposeful, Bin Laden-is-dead strut. He’s reflecting on his long life as Rowdy Yates and The Man with No Name, Dirty Harry and Walt Kowalski, the protagonist of Gran Torino—a grumpy old auto worker stuck in a changing Detroit neighborhood. His is the voice of experience: “I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life.” There’s been “discord and blame” (quick cut to pro-union protestors outside the State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin) “but we all rallied around what was right” (black and white snapshot of uniformed firemen). “That’s what we do—we find a way through tough times.”

That’s what we do. The spot has a sense of gentle but firm forward motion, created by slow dolly shots and moving cars. “How do we come from behind—how do we come together?” Clint in close-up squints his eyes on some distant prize. “Detroit’s showing us how it can be done.” Obama bailed out Detroit when Romney (the son of an automobile industry executive) said it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done. Mega close-up on the star: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch!” [And neither can recession!] “We get right back up again and when we do, the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.” [Even in China!] Hint of trademark clenched-teeth snarl: “Yeah. It’s halftime in America—and our second half’s about to begin.” Cut to black but, instead of something like AMERICA IS COMING TOGETHER AND COMING BACK. RE-ELECT PRESIDENT OBAMA there’s Chrysler’s cute new slogan: IMPORTED FROM DETROIT. (No doubt, some clever mash-up auteur will add the president’s impressive a cappella rendition of “Let’s Stay Together.”)

Who is the auteur? The Hollywood Reporter revealed that two members of the spot’s Portland Oregon-based ad agency had been Obama volunteers in 2008 although it is unclear what input, in any, they had in the concept. The ad itself was directed by 36-year-old David Gordon Green, the earnest oddball regionalist (in films like All the Real Girls) turned maker of stoner action comedies (most recently Your Highness). The only personal touch would seem to be Green’s goofy sanctimoniousness and lyrical feel for derelict rural landscapes, although it’s a bit uncanny that his first movie, the 2000 indie production George Washington would have as its hero a silent, self-contained black kid with a justified sense of destiny, nicknamed for the first president of the United States. “Halftime in America” seems to be one of these presents that America gave to itself.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Wall-E, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk

I’ve been wondering for a while now when we were going to see an Obama-inflected Hollywood cinema. The longing for Obama (or an Obama) can be found in two prescient 2008 movies—WALL-E (the world saved by an endearing little dingbot, community organizer for an extinct community) and Milk (portrait of another creative community organizer—not to mention a precedent-shattering politician who, it’s very often reiterated, presented himself as a Messenger of Hope). Nothing comparable has appeared since Obama’s inauguration although there is a mildly Obama-iste aspect to any movie featuring an unconventional protagonist, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Haywire (both with very tough gals) or even The Social Network (celebration of world-historical nerd), as well as the not undeserved love showered on The Hurt Locker—a two-fisted, Howard Hawks-type war movie directed by a lady!

The political corollary is the parade of outlandish “front-runners”—Palin, Trump, Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich—who have entertained cable news watchers over the past months in the course of a largely predetermined Republican nomination contest. As Obama is an American president unlike any other, he naturally suggests the opportunity for comparably unlikely figures in otherwise standard scenarios. (The president’s own tastes are a bit edgier. His favorite TV show is said to be Homeland and he evidently had the cult-thriller indie Martha Marcy May Marlene screened at the White House.)

Recent films like the lost wagon-train Western Meek’s Cutoff or Eastwood’s own J. Edgar are still pondering the Bush years (poor leadership in the first and anti-terrorist panic in the second). Obama hasn’t really come up with a persuasive story beyond cleaning up Bush’s mess and that’s hardly great movie material—unless, of course, you figure out how to have a walking chunk of Mount Rushmore do your talking for you. Set to music and narrated by the nation’s last living cowboy, “Halftime” has considerably more rhetorical pow than the prosaic platitudes of Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech: “We’re the nation that puts cars in driveways.” Indeed, Eastwood’s manager couldn’t resist representing the spot as a personal statement from his client: “Chrysler just sponsored what he had to say.”

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