Moviegoing in the Time of Trump

A brief movie interlude: 

I’ve seen a bunch of new films lately — many of them at last weekend’s Hamptons International Film Festival — and what has struck me is how thoroughly my reaction to them, even films that have little or no political content, has been infused by the Trump presidency. Also how inspiring many of them are, at least in raising hope that our current political nightmare will eventually be ended by the basic decency, humanity and good sense of the American people. Am I being too starry-eyed? Perhaps, but a few examples:   

Time for Ilhan is an affecting little documentary about the successful 2016 campaign for the Minnesota state legislature by Ilhan Omar, a hijab-wearing Somali immigrant — the first Somali-born Muslim elected to statewide office in this country. The fly-on-the-wall chronicle of her amateur campaign operation, her delicate juggling of home and family life, and her interaction with a Somali community that defies every cruel stereotype perpetrated by our immigrant-bashing President, is both heartwarming and uplifting. When filmmaker Norah Shapiro turned on her cameras, she had no way of knowing that Ilhan would win — or that her victory would be overshadowed, on election day, by the shocking national rejection of everything her campaign stood for. But the juxtaposition gives the film an extra dose of poignance and relevance.

Roma, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical film, set in Mexico City circa 1971, has already won a top award at the Venice Film Festival, and is sure to be in the running for Best Foreign Film Oscar when it opens in U.S. theaters in December. The film is both epic and intimate, focusing on the relationship between an upper-middle-class family and their devoted native-Mexican maid, against the backdrop of the violent political protests that roiled Mexico in the early ’70s. Along with the masterly filmmaking (Cuaron not only wrote and directed, but also shot the film himself in lush black-and-white), the film celebrates the quiet determination of these good people to survive amid the crises and chaos that threaten to engulf them. A beautiful and hopeful film. 

22 July, which has just opened in theaters, is director Paul Greengrass’s riveting re-creation of the terrorist attack by a rightwing gunman who killed 77 teenagers at a political youth camp on Utoya Island off the coast of Norway in 2011. Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips) deploys his usual tense and visceral style to convey the horror of the attack, but concentrates most of the film on the aftermath. What stands out is the methodical progress of the legal system to bring the evildoer to justice, the sincere effort by the government to investigate the tragedy — and the absence of partisan bickering or blame casting.  The comparisons are too obvious to belabor. 

Watergate, a new four-hour-plus documentary from filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Inside Job), offers no real surprises or revelations — just a thorough recounting of the Nixon-era scandals, with ample archival footage, fresh interviews (with John Dean, Carl Bernstein, Elizabeth Holtzman and others), and some rather clumsy re-creations of Nixon’s taped Oval Office conversations. Nowhere is Donald Trump mentioned. But comparisons are implicit in almost every scene. On the one hand, Nixon’s crimes seem, in retrospect, even more brazen and nefarious than Trump’s bumbling bad acts. (It’s hard to imagine this President, for all his “lock her up” bluster, actually ordering a burglary.)  On the other hand, Nixon’s misdeeds were at least motivated by what he thought was the national interest (for Nixon, the Democrats really were endangering the country by opposing the Vietnam War). Trump, of course, has no real agenda beyond his own self-interest.   

But what the film illuminates most starkly is how much better the system worked back then. Congressional hearings were conducted in good faith. (The Democrats, significantly, controlled both houses.) Tough questions were asked by Senators on both sides of the aisle. The President used every trick in the book to evade justice — but in the end acceded to court orders, Supreme Court decisions, and the rule of law. The contrast to today, once again, is hard to miss. But Watergate could provide a guide out of our current mess. After a theatrical run, it will air on the History Channel over three nights starting Nov. 2.  

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