Robert Osborne, why did you leave us when we need you most? The death this week of the Turner Classic Movies host only highlights, as political developments spiral from the unexpected to the unbelievable, that film may be the best outlet for explanation and escape.
Of course, the movies, products of the times in which they are created, and made with the primary goal of entertainment and profit, are far from free of problematic politics. As a culture consumer, I have had to overlook how much unsavory American history Hollywood dream makers have eradicated when crafting sanitized narratives for the silver screen. For example, no number of Academy Awards could ever rescue the pixilated depiction of the Civil War delivered in “Gone with the Wind” — best to avoid that one.
Yet characterizations in other declared classics remain amazingly astute ways to view the politics of today through a cinematic lens — with the reassurance that it’s only a movie.
Recall Humphrey Bogart as Capt. Queeg, as several already have, in “The Caine Mutiny,” the 1954 film adaption of the Herman Wouk novel and stage play. The tough guy who rules with an autocratic and demanding style loses it by the end, undone on the witness stand as he babbles on about the missing strawberries and a key, while his fingers nervously manipulate steel ball bearings.
It’s not hard to see Queeg in another “tough guy,” tweeting in the early morning hours about conspiracies involving wire-tapping and his predecessor President Barack Obama. Just as the “yes” men in that film, supporters of Trump who have previously benefitted from following in his wake, are slowly backing away from his incendiary charge without evidence, a separation exemplified in statements from a U.S. senator or two, a John McCain, say.
However many more, like the movie’s craven officer portrayed by Fred MacMurray, continue to hedge their bets, afraid to take that step of denouncing the clearly confused man who remains powerful.
With Mar-a-Lago fast becoming the go-to retreat on the water, with repeated visits by the president who famously derided President Obama for vacations and golf, how long before it becomes Trump’s own castle, like the Florida “Xanadu,” full of memories and regrets for “Citizen Kane,” as depicted in the 1941 Orson Welles classic? Like Charles Foster Kane, the wealthy man who had it all yet ended up alone, will the president have his “Rosebud,” not a sled, but a portrait of himself bought with his charity’s money?
Film is rife with the sort of charismatic figures the public loves, then questions when the masks come off. In Trump’s case, there was never a mask. During his campaign, his statements and stereotypes of Muslim-Americans and Mexican-Americans, his mocking of a disabled reporter and a prisoner of war, his demeaning comments about women were there for all to see.
But one has to wonder if, like “Lonesome” Rhodes in 1957’s Elia Kazan-directed “A Face in the Crowd,” portrayed by Andy Griffith before he traded such nuanced portrayals in for cozy Sheriff Andy, the public will eventually get fed up with the down-home Trump character. Rhodes’ downfall came when he belittled his core audience, a move Trump has so far taken pains to avoid, preferring to attack the supposed elites who oppose the billionaire president.
So what movie best describes the American people during this unsettling time? They could be feeling very Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight,” the bride bedeviled by a duplicitous spouse who manipulates her until she gradually doubts her own sanity. A December column in Teen Vogue warned of it. The term “gas lighting” has already made its way to psychology and politics to describe the techniques that make people question what they see, hear and feel.
Are the lights really dimming, or is it just a figment of a fevered and unstable imagination?
Repeat the falsehood often enough, double-down on the charge, demand a hearing — and maybe the public will start to believe there is something there. That may work if, as now, a country is as divided as America seems to be, with partisans listening only to those who echo a particular entrenched worldview. In real life, as opposed to in “Gaslight,” there is no Joseph Cotten or Scotland Yard to come to the rescue.
What is there? Checks and balances, three branches of government, a free and fair press, informed citizens, able to listen to those with whom they disagree and realize that someone is really messing with the gas — all of the above and more.
Or for the pessimist, fearing a modern day Cold War with Russia after reports of election interference, information leaks, spying and questionable U.S. ties, there is the dark comedy of 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” from Stanley Kubrick.
Well, maybe with its misbegotten rogues’ gallery of guys behaving badly and incompetently — and eventual nuclear chaos — that film might not be the escape America needs right now.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.