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Critic’s Notebook: Is Barack Obama a Bigger Movie Star Than Brad Pitt?

Critic's Notebook: Is Barack Obama a Bigger Movie Star Than Brad Pitt?

One popular angle for Barack Obama’s detractors is to accuse him of being an empty celebrity. Recall this 2008 John McCain attack ad:

Juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton suggested not only unearned, ephemeral attention but the possibility that Obama was a bad-decision time bomb waiting to detonate and generate unflattering tabloid-esque headlines. In “2016: Obama’s America” — the surprise top-grossing documentary of the year — Dinesh D’Souza returns to and excavates some of the tediously familiar worst-case scenarios (Obama is a secret Marxist, kowtows to the Muslim world, and so on), an annotation of some of the popular pejorative attempts to fix the president’s image. These marginal efforts speak to a pre-selected audience. But what about broader cinematic responses?

Obama often invokes Ronald Reagan as both a communicator and a pragmatic political actor skilled in leading executive compromise, but their presentational modes couldn’t be more different. Throughout the 2012 election season, Obama was most comfortable — quickest, most adeptly responsive — during his must-win second and third debates, and offered his least constricted speech at the end, on election night. The oft-invoked Reagan was associated not just with speech soundbites (“Tear down this wall”), but with blunt, effective images associated with his persona in campaign ads. Reagan turned his thespian training towards projecting himself — a long-rising Republican success story and former jobbing Hollywood actor — as a folksy man of the people.

Images commonly associated with Reagan’s 1984 re-election are totally opposite from the crisp, ever-authoritative presence Obama makes his own. The President cutting wood became quasi-iconic, as were — at least to some extent — all photos taken of Reagan at Rancho del Cielo, given their own section on the website of the Reagan Presidential Library. Often cowboy-hat clad, stacking wood, clearing brush, or making a national address, the image of Reagan on his retreat conjures strong impressions of self-reliance, occupied by an unpretentious chief executive ready to host all and any passing foreign dignitaries. These images stand in for a vision of how proper middle class men spend their vacations, a statement of values more coherent than any detailed foreign policy platform.

In the new crime drama “Killing Them Softly,” a gangland saga (enforcer Brad Pitt kills off heist perpetrators) is backdropped by airport/bar televisions tuned to C-SPAN and C-SPAN2, in which all billboards are plastered with campaign ads and all radios are tuned to news reports. As unconvincing and imaginary as this anonymous American landscape is, it’s notable that Obama is presented in a series of well-dressed monologues, his preferred form of address. Whether delivering a speech, unleashing weighty two-minute debate talking points or holding court on a talk show, Obama’s not a fan of back and forth, going off crowd energy or underdressing. Alone on “David Letterman” or alongside his wife on “The View,” he’s quiet and dull, patiently giving answers that serve as exact synopses of the White House’s previously expressed views.

Obama is most effective when given a momentary excuse to be forceful. His iconic sound bites come from speeches rather than interpersonal interactions or ads. Juxtaposing his promises against George W. Bush’s far less impressive but no less important late September 2008 announcement of a bailout necessitated by “the irresponsible actions of some” threatening “the financial security of all,” Dominik implies that two superficial alternatives produced the same ill-regulated results. W. was primarily associated with malaprops, not ringing declarations of intent; tactfully, or perhaps to avoid overly easy jokes, Dominik leaves these out, equating the two men’s actions. (Screening the film at Cannes, Pitt admittedly rejected such readings, saying Obama’s presence was meant “as a real expression of hope.”)

So far, movies including the sitting president (aside from the fervid sub-industry of anti-Obama conservative agit-prop) have — like “Killing Them Softly” — largely only responded to his 2008 campaign. In 2010’s “I’m Still Here,” Joaquin Phoenix (in two-year character as the worst possible version of himself) flies uninvited to the inauguration, wanting association by attendance with the historic event. Painstakingly set in the already myth-ready election summer of 2008, 2011’s “This Must Be The Place,” now in theaters, has rock star protagonist Cheyenne (Sean Penn) listening to Obama speak about the need for better schools and teachers before impatiently switching over to the NFL. (Sarah Palin is also glimpsed, albeit on mute.)

It’s too early to say whether the bruising, endless campaign of 2012 will be as fertile a recent period signifier as its 2008 variant. On the offensive during his first run, Obama was often criticized throughout his re-election efforts for seeming tired, passionless, or otherwise insufficiently committed to demonstrating his passion and engagement. Will future films have Obama rhetorically differentiating symmetrical foreign policies with Mitt Romney or at his optimistic, rhetorical best?

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