What We Learned about the Election in This Summer's Movies

From the multiplex to the stump: It's caped crusader versus community organizer, and the end is nigh

A week after Rich proposed Wall-E for president, candidate Obama got the message and took his daughters to see the movie as part of Malia's 10th birthday celebration. "I really enjoyed it," he told reporters. "And the girls had a great time." A month later in Minnesota, Obama spontaneously plugged Wall-E as "a great flick." Did he identify with the weird little Waste Allocation Load Lifter—community organizer for an extinct community?

Forty-odd years ago, Obama's coming was imagined by Frank Capra in an unproduced script for The Best Man, not as Mr. Smith gone to Washington but as the young multiracial governor of Hawaii who seizes the nomination in a deadlocked convention by appearing dressed as Abraham Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg Address. But Obama's otherness is not simply racial. He is a singular being: Wall-E, E.T., or, as the McCain campaign jealously characterized him, the World's Biggest Celebrity.

McCain's acceptance speech aside, the big combat movie this summer—displacing The Dark Knight atop the box-office chart and reigning for the three weeks preceding and following the DNC—was a comedy. Tropic Thunder's parody Rambo had something to offend everyone, including one actor who uses blackface and another who played mentally challenged in pursuit of an Oscar. Inducing audiences to laugh at the spectacle of American-Indochinese combat as self-serving fraud (and perhaps even consign it to the dust bin of history), its success would seem to bode well for Obama. But would it also prompt audiences to reflect upon the degree to which show business permeates every aspect of our public life?

Apparently not. Now, of course, the Republicans have their own (American) idol: Sarah Palin has burst forth from the dream life. The uncanny popularity enjoyed by last year's Juno—in which a feisty 16-year-old decides to keep her baby—predicted the political plus inherent in daughter Bristol's teenage pregnancy. Maureen Dowd immediately spotted Palin as a chick-flick action diva—Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality—but she's also Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, a sassy combination of Shelly Marie and Sgt. Semanski in Northern Exposure.

America's got talent! Palin, however, has no particular summer movie unless it's Mamma Mia!—as in, "Mamma mia, didja see that hair, that speech, that baby?" But then, Palin is not a summer blockbuster. She's a September surprise.

As the 1952 election was the first to use television to privilege a candidate's image over his positions, Ike would be the first national leader sold as a product. His handlers blitzed TV nation with 20-second spots projecting him as a friendly, folksy, God-fearin' warrior. Television proved even more useful when the campaign hit its only speed bump. Six weeks before Election Day, the New York Post broke the story that running mate Nixon was the beneficiary of a political slush fund. Nixon went on TV and successfully defended himself by showing his wife's "Republican" cloth coat and invoking his daughters' pet dog, Checkers. "Video-wise, it was a brilliant feat of political journalism," Variety wrote. "Translated into a commercial suds saga, it would have been a cinch to garner a renewal for at least another 52-week cycle."

Although the 1952 election was ultimately a referendum on Korea, Americans enjoyed no consensus on what they wanted to do about the war. They only knew that Ike was the man to do it. Adlai Stevenson, who campaigned under the poignantly inappropriate slogan "Let's talk sense to the American people," was perceived as an egghead elitist sissy. Senator Joe McCarthy boasted: "If somebody would only smuggle me aboard the Democratic campaign special with a baseball bat in my hand, I'd teach patriotism to little Ad-lie." So much for rational discourse.

The key movie during the summer of 1952 would be America's leadership film for the next half-century. High Noon opened in New York on the same day Stevenson decided to become a candidate, a day before his third-ballot nomination in Chicago. No less than Gary Cooper's marshal, who eschews retirement and even resists demands that he get out of town in order to protect a cowardly, ungrateful constituency from a vengeful criminal gang, Eisenhower and Stevenson were initially unwilling to shoulder their respective burdens. But, reluctant or not, Eisenhower was far easier to imagine as the marshal who, pusillanimous allies notwithstanding, went back to war, and thus embodied the template for the post-televisual presidency.

The weary loner's brave posture of prescient and courageous certainty in the face of public (or foreign) cowardice is the American politician's ego ideal—or so the viewing preferences of American presidents would suggest. Eisenhower screened High Noon three times at the White House. According to White House logs, High Noon ranks as the movie subsequent presidents would most request—none more than Bill Clinton, who watched his favorite film some 20 times and told Dan Rather that he'd recommend the western to his successor as a text. Unfortunately.

John McCain would dearly love to cast himself as Gary Cooper, the lone marshal who created the surge and declared victory in Iraq, or as the first to recognize the threat to post-Soviet Georgia. But the western, these days, is a quaint anachronism. Our post-9/11 moral landscape isn't populated by good guys and bad guys, but by comic-book superheroes and cosmic evildoers.

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