Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Showtime releases the film on Friday, November 8.
For its first hour, “The Kingmaker” is a charming and wistful portrait of the former First Lady of the Philippines, whose affluence and outsized persona once loomed large across the nation. Then it takes a more disturbing turn, as director Lauren Greenfield transforms an absorbing look at the life and legacy of Imelda Marcos into a reminder of the many crimes at the center of her family’s fascist rule. Greenfield, whose “Generation Wealth” and “The Queen of Versailles” have turned her into the preeminent chronicler of luxury and its dangerous allure, has crafted a fascinating documentary about the Marcos family’s troubled history — and the disturbing ways that it’s making a comeback today.
“The Kingmaker” is a natural outgrowth of Greenfield’s “Queen of Versailles,” which also dealt with the faded opulence of a wealthy family lingering in the shadow of their former glory, but the stakes here are much higher.
However, anyone unfamiliar with Marcos may be smitten from the outset: An ebullient 90-year-old adorned in pricey clothes and immaculate makeup, she lumbers through many of the sites that distinguished her husband’s reign as adoring onlookers follow her every move. As the movie begins in Manila 2014, Marcos gazes out the window at the old palace that she and President Ferdinand Marcos occupied from 1965, until his dramatic ousting 21 years later. “I miss the clout of being First Lady,” she sighs, and considering that she’s accused of usurping billions of dollars to finance her lifestyle, dragging the economy in the process, it’s easy to see why.
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Before it gets into that — and before it gets into her dictator husband’s atrocious record of murdering and torturing his citizens after declaring martial law — “The Kingmaker” maps out the glamorous existence of the ruling couple during the height of their popularity. In a swift blend of talking heads and archival footage, Imelda’s rise unfolds against the backdrop of broader global concerns. It was President Marcos’ decision to fixate on foreign loans that ultimately sank the country’s economy, but those gathering storm clouds were obscured by Imelda’s globe-trotting lifestyle as it raised the nation’s profile around the world. They lived “the Filipino equivalent of Camelot,” as one observer recalls, and so the Marcos’ story is initially presented in fairy tale terms.
But even here, the giddy manner in which Imelda recalls her career comes with significant implications: Greenfield zips through Imelda’s accounts of hobnobbing with Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein, referencing each of them as if they were close friends. Imelda’s capacity to engage with leaders around the world may have complimented her husband’s work on the home front, but her inability to acknowledge the connotations of her associations with these men is the first indication that she’s not exactly a folk hero above reproach. Still, while Greenfield doesn’t let her subject off the hook, she does allow Imelda to become a genuinely empathetic figure. Her story takes on tragic ramifications as others recall how her husband essentially shipped her around the world so he could maintain his affairs.
Once “The Kingmaker” goes bleak, it doesn’t let up, revealing the intricate saga of the Marcos’ hidden wealth, Imelda’s dangerous tendency to hoard real estate deals, and the horrors that affected the nation after the declaration of martial law. This “twist” of sorts is somewhat inelegant: Considering the shocking nature of these revelations, the movie doesn’t quite land the transition into its eye-opening second half. Greenfield zips through many of the more dramatic shifts that altered the Marcos’ rule. These include the People Power Revolution that resulted in their exile in 1986, the assassination of Marcos’ political opponent, Ninoy Aquino, and the circumstances surrounding the deposed dictator’s death that precipitated Imelda’s return to the country. (Anyone unfamiliar with the modern history of the Philippines will have some googling to do once the credits roll.) Imelda is an unreliable narrator who defends her legacy, but there’s not much to indicate she was forced to answer the hardest questions.
Nevertheless, Greenfield doesn’t skimp on the worst details of the Marcos’ regime, and includes detailed accounts of activists recalling how they were raped and assaulted in prison. These bleak recollections set the stage for the movie’s unsettling final chapter, which chronicles the efforts by Marcos’ children to reenter the political arena. One woman who suffered under the earlier regime sets the record straight: “It’s not OK for them to flaunt what they stole.”
Yet that’s exactly what Imelda does, throughout the years and into the present. Early on, as she digs through a lineup of framed photos from her glory days, she casually knocks one off the table and shrugs off the broken glass without comment (a minion jumps into action to gather the shards). These sort of small gestures contribute to the impression of a woman at once aware of her destructive tendencies and ambivalent about their repercussions. They also allow her character to resonate with broader implications: Among the many images of Imelda with celebrities that flit through in various montages, one of them sees her and her husband posing with Donald Trump.
And like Trump, Imelda is all too eager to pass her family’s power to a new generation. The remarkable closing act of “The Kingmaker” tracks the family’s return to prominence in the country, as her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, parlays his position as a senator into a strong campaign for Vice President. He’s not entirely successful — but with the election of Marcos family friend Rodrigo Duterte, whose horrific rhetoric and policies have resurrected the Marcos regime’s mentality, “The Kingmaker” makes the case that Imelda’s next generation comeback is inevitable.
One of the scariest moments of the movie finds the living members of the Marcos clan standing before an emphatic crowd as they sing the national anthem, with a terrifying look of defiance on their faces that suggests the national nightmare is just getting started. (The crowd hysteria is alarming as well.) It’s a shrewd reminder of the way that power can linger long after the leader has left the throne. “The Kingmaker” clarifies the harrowing situation facing the future of the Philippines, but more than that, it’s a warning sign for the entire world.
“The Kingmaker” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. Showtime will release it theatrically this fall and broadcast it in early 2020.