In 2016, it became shorthand to look at the presidential election as a movie — the sort of ludicrous, overhyped Roland Emmerich-sized disaster epic that everyone considers trash, even as they can’t look away. Now, the movie are speaking for themselves, reflecting the anxious energy of the country in real time.
This dire election season is overloaded with the usual parade of timely documentaries, from Alex Gibney sounding the alarm on the U.S. government’s pandemic response in “Totally Under Control” to the Stacey Abrams voter suppression callout “All In: The Fight for Democracy.” Such trenchant investigations into the state of America’s dysfunctional leadership might help enrage enough citizens to fume their way to the ballot box. But none of them cuts to the chase better than Borat.
“Now vote…or you will be execute,” reads the end credit of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which was dashed out ahead of the election. The movie concludes with a searing political cartoon: Sacha Baron Cohen’s fake news journalist and his fake news daughter provide live commentary to the first-ever fake Kazakhstan ritual known as the “Running of the American,” which finds a giant-sized Anthony Fauci taken down by a giant-sized “Karen,” toting an AR-15, and a COVID-infected MAGA supporter who spews green goo all over the vanquished doctor. Borat chimes in: “The Americans are victorious in their battle against science!”
It’s a masterful condemnation, the sort of grotesque punchline that gets to the core of America’s nightmarish state while acknowledging the damage already done. Nobody pushes the boundaries of comedic provocation better than Baron Cohen, but even he knows his limits. Years ago, his Borat was a sneaky warning signal, the undercover prank artist who exposed the bigotry and myopia percolating in corners of society and threatening to overtake its status quo. Well, that happened. Now, he’s stating the obvious in caustic terms, while reminding viewers that it’s not too late to do something about it.
The “Borat” climax ranks as one of the best movie scenes of the year, second only to David Byrne’s dramatic onstage gesture halfway through “American Utopia.” As the musician looks out at a packed house for his performance at New York’s Hudson Theatre, a spotlight illuminates 20 percent of the room — the same number of American citizens, Byrne explains, who vote in local elections. (“The rest of you are fucked,” he concludes.) Like Borat, Byrne implores the audience to play their part in election season, later explaining how his diverse backup band reflects his vision of a holistic world, where every voice matters even as each plays its own unique role.
Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But so was the 2016 Trump campaign, the lunacy of MAGA, and all the grotesque behaviors emboldened by its victory. Four years later, the movies aren’t making complex arguments against Trumpism so much as the action necessary to take it down. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” may take place in 1969, but there’s little doubt about the writer-director’s intentions when he saddles defendant Abbie Hoffman (Baron Cohen, in a nice bit of cinematic serendipity) with telling the court that “the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things which right now are populated by some terrible people.”
At this point, we don’t even need the wordsmith behind “The West Wing” to spell it out. The movies couldn’t have envisioned this future because you just can’t make this shit up. It has never been clearer in American history that elections have consequences. The Trump administration emboldened racism and xenophobia nationwide, set the moral fabric of the country ablaze, and engendered a kind of partisanship that makes any nuanced approach to governmental collaboration impractical.
The bulk of its failings predate its botched coronavirus response: The government intensified America’s healthcare crisis, gutting the Affordable Care Act without any plans for a replacement. It crippled the country’s immigration infrastructure and endangered lives at the border, instituted inane travel bans, and turned the process of naturalized citizenship into a bureaucratic horror show. A nation of immigrants has become one that shoos them away. It yanked the country out of the Paris Climate Agreement and hobbled the future of the planet at its most fragile moment. It pushed the economy to support only the wealthy few and cast a speculative air about the value of higher education when it’s needed the most. Let’s not even get started on the Supreme Court.
Of course, the Trump camp tells a different story. The president may be a blustering fool, but he excels at commanding attention, forcing audiences to fixate on his own agenda no matter how loathsome it sounds. Any direct engagement with that narrative only plays into its trap. By contrast, there’s a soothing quality to the prospects of Joe Biden — a rather boring and earnest politician, who knows how to govern — as the new leader of this country. He’s not sexy or fun (and certainly won’t make for sensationalist TV), but the Obama years spoiled the country into thinking those qualities should mandate the leadership of this country. Under a Biden presidency, the cult of personality surrounding the presidency would recede, with policy issues taking their rightful place as the main engine of social progress. Government work was never meant to be a reality show, and only a deluge of ballots can turn this one off.
Over decades of media, it has grown too easy to experience election season from the comfort of one’s couch with the same passive attention span allocated to binge-watching “Love Island.” The voting process requires planning (it varies depending on where you live, so make sure to figure yours out) and no amount of politically conscious entertainment can supplant the need for individual agency. The movies are telling us to vote because there’s nothing else left to say.
Real change demands engagement. At the behest of various organizations, this writer has dedicated many hours in recent months to calling voters from Philadelphia to Florida, making sure they had foolproof voting plans. Some hung up on me; others offered more encouraging signs of a charged political consciousness. One beleaguered man cut me off mid-sentence. “Enough already,” he said. “I’m voting for Biden. But I’m just so tired of all this.”
For half a decade, Trumpism wielded that fatigue as a weapon, mapping out the nation’s political future as an assaultive narrative so unnerving that it’s easier to look away. Indifference has become the greatest threat to democratic norms. If Trump loses, the country’s problems won’t fit into the crass extremes of an overindulgent storyteller who panders to the lowest common denominator. It’s time to stop experiencing the political dimension of this country as a linear narrative. No matter what happens on November 3, the credits won’t roll. The logic of the movies can’t save us, but voting just might.