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

We've seen this movie before—sort of.

Once upon a time, a hugely unpopular president tied to a baffling, unpopular, and apparently interminable war halfway around the world could not run for re-election. New faces appeared upon the screen. A well-liked if elderly soldier, paired with an aggressive young partisan, took on a high-brow, highfalutin' orator from Illinois, whose undeniable eloquence and evident intelligence inspired both loyalty and suspicion. It was the election of elections. The fate of the planet hung in the balance.

Such were the parameters of the 1952 presidential contest, the first national election in which television would play a crucial role and the last one before 2008 with neither an incumbent president nor a sitting vice president in the race. Harry Truman—the Democratic president that Republicans most love to praise—occupied the White House. American boys were pinned down in Korea. And General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied forces during World War II, was pitted, along with brand-new senator Richard Nixon, against Adlai Stevenson, first-term governor of Illinois. John McCain was 16; Barack Obama's mom was 10.

Robin Eley

Those were the Latter Days. There was Communist aggression without and red subversion within; American scientists hastened to beat Stalin in developing a weapon of mass destruction 100 times more powerful than the Model T dropped on Hiroshima. American forces subjected North Korean installations to the heaviest air attacks since World War II. Congress voted $52 billion toward a worldwide network of bases. In late June, air-conditioned theaters in 10 large American cities hooked into a closed-circuit telecast of the latest civil-defense procedures; three days later, the CBS news show See It Now televised a simulated nuclear attack on New York City. And on the last two Saturday nights in July, routine air traffic was directed away from the Washington, D.C., airport as F-94 jets blasted off to defend the nation's capital against an armada of mysterious radar blips.

But these are also the Latter Days. Because, barring some cataclysmic cosmic intervention, either an African-American or a supposed Manchurian Candidate—held captive by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years and running with a mysterious young woman as his vice president—will be inaugurated next January.

How do we know that the end is nigh? Hollywood told us so—then and now. Tension was apparent in the titles of 1952's summer movies: Red Planet Mars (Commies or God broadcasting from outer space?), One Minute to Zero (GIs doing whatever it takes to win in Korea), High Noon (one man standing alone . . . because he's right!). And now? Well, according to Hollywood, a black man in the White House signifies disaster. In The Fifth Element (1997), with the entire universe under threat of obliteration, there was Tommy "Tiny" Lister; in the more provincial Deep Impact (1998), with a meteor hurtling toward earth, our leader was embodied by Morgan Freeman. Lou Gossett presided over the Christian-fundamentalist Armageddon of Left Behind: World at War (2005), as Danny Glover will over the multi-cataclysms of Roland Emmerich's upcoming 2012. And who can forget Dennis Haysbert, who served two seasons as president in the nonstop terror world of 24 (2001-03)? Certainly not John McCain. He informed Entertainment Weekly that Haysbert's David Palmer was his favorite fictional (heh-heh) president.

John McCain made his bones as a happy participant in the most destructive air war in human history, but he's not a product of Vietnam. His mentality was formed during the Cold War, pre-Elvis.

Perhaps 16-year-old McCain caught Red Planet Mars—the movie that dared to ask the question "Is the Man from Nazareth the Man from Mars?"—when a student at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. The most visionary of the anti-Communist films, Red Planet Mars was also the first Eisenhower film. Shot during the winter of 1951-52, this vision of divine intervention opened a few weeks before the world's first televised political convention nominated "the spiritual leader of our times" on the first ballot. The movie's president is a former military commander played by an actor who strongly resembled Ike. Moreover, Red Planet Mars anticipated Eisenhower's worldview, as had recently been reported in Time magazine, that America was a civilization built on religious beliefs now challenged by "a civilization built upon the godless theory that man himself has no value."

This summer's ruling apocalyptic fantasy was less ideological and less grandiose. Opening over the July 4 weekend, Pixar's Wall-E projected an unaccountably optimistic vision of human extinction in which a solitary robot trash compactor—its name an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class—single-mindedly organizes the endless detritus of an abandoned world. For much of the movie, this endearing protagonist is the earth's last vestige of humanity. The descendants of the planet's former inhabitants drift through space in a giant shopping mall, too bloated to do anything other than drink their Happy Meals and watch TV. Could that be us?! New York Times columnist Frank Rich saw the movie with an audience of innocent children and was impressed by their rapt attention: "The kids at Wall-E were in deep contemplation of a world in peril. . . . They seemed to instinctually understand what Wall-E was saying [and] at the end they clapped their small hands. What they applauded was not some banal cartoonish triumph of good over evil but a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out."

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.

Anticipated by X-Men, surprise blockbuster of the 2000 campaign, and initiated two years later with Spider-Man, the big-screen comic book has been the characteristic Bush-era action genre. America auditioned a number of superheroes this summer and liked more than a few. (Four of 2008's top 10 grossers have been superhero films.) There was the rakish Iron Man, supposedly inspired by the young Howard Hughes, and his struggle against the Taliban. There were the reconfigured Hulk and a kinder, gentler Hellboy. There was Will Smith's pissed-off, dissolute Hancock (an original character!) and the kill-machine protagonist of Wanted. And then there was the creature John McCain identified as his favorite superhero: Batman. (Obama agreed, but qualified his enthusiasm by also mentioning Spider-Man, a character he might have well appreciated as a lonely eight-year-old. Batman, by contrast, is nearly as old as McCain.)

As its title suggests, The Dark Knight is less movie than worldview, a recognizable dystopia ruled by the threat of terror, in which the rich live in gated communities and the economy is controlled by the Chinese. Basically one hostage situation after another, the movie's lugubrious doomsday scenario opens with preparations for what might be a skyscraper attack and continues through two and a half hours of stylish nonstop brutality to end with a crescendo of moral confusion. The 9/11 references run rampant, but even more insistent is the meditation on civic responsibility, the nature of due process, the legitimacy of torture. The crusading D.A. recognizes Batman as our Caesar—and Batman recognizes no limits. High Noon has given way to darkest night. As the ads put it: "Welcome to a World Without Rules."

While reviewers could not help but detect a critique of the war on terror in The Dark Knight, right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Kavan praised The Dark Knight as "a paean of praise to [George Bush's] fortitude and moral courage." The movie justified a president "vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand." CNN commentator Glenn Beck waxed even more enthusiastically specific: "Batman goes into another country and with a C-130 snatches a guy out, and then throws him back here into Gotham. So there's rendition. . . . One of the ways they find the Joker is through eavesdropping. I mean, the parallels here of what's going on is to me stunning!" The American Spectator further personalized the allegory: Batman's capacity for action, his love of risk and maverick indifference to public opinion, were pure McCain.

A vulgar Marxist might note that as Batman is the alter-ego of the richest man in Gotham City, his "law" is the protection of capital. (Smeared lipstick notwithstanding, one of the scariest things about the Joker is that he has no respect for money.) In any case, the film's ongoing discussion as to whether Batman is the hero we deserve or the hero we need is trumped by the villain's funhouse-mirror dialectic. The Joker (secret star of the movie, played by an actor from beyond the grave) argues that, operating from somewhere outside of the law, Batman is the real agent of terror. He, on the other hand, embodies a particular logic: "I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." Like bin Laden, the Joker has the power to drive Gotham City mad. This criminal is Al Qaeda squared, Katrina personified, the Wrath of God run amok. And so The Dark Night is illuminated by two choices: chaos or fascism.

Sarah Palin may get to make her Checkers speech, or, scheduled for early October, Oliver Stone's supposedly scabrous Bush parody W might constitute an intervention. But all things being equal, the choice is Wall-E versus The Dark Knight. The 2008 election will come down to absurd hope (a funny little dingbot can redeem this blighted planet) or the miserable fear of that damnable, fascinating, scary clown.

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