political films

Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)


The Art of the Deal was probably conceived as a timely send up of Donald Trump, a lighthearted laugh-in to accompany the real business of a presidential campaign. But times have changed, even if Trump hasn’t, and the buffoonish nature of the candidate and candidacy is no longer a late night joke. The golden haired businessman is by sheer force of his personality ramming his way through the country’s political system, taking down the Republican Party and civility along with it. His attacks on Latinos, blacks, and women have given voice to the racists and misogynists, and chances are those voices aren’t retreating without a fight. In light of this and the actual violence that has characterized Trump’s rage-fueled rallies, it’s hard to watch this Funny or Die production and laugh at something that we’re just not laughing at anymore.

The parody is based on his 1987 book and is impressively written, directed, produced by, and starring The Donald. It takes the form of a found footage film and begins with a kid nicking Trump’s book and escaping into his office. The wide-eyed boy sits attentively as his idol recounts his past business exploits, schooling him in the process on how to screw people over to get ahead. The film borrows from its source material and is sectioned off into bold chapters – The Art of Intimidating Rent Controlled Tenants and The Art of Suing Those Losers at the NFL. Anyone with a passing interest in the election will recognize references to Trump’s discriminatory rental policies and his penchant for suing losers (i.e. anyone who disagrees with him). The narrative arc, however, traces his all consuming quest to own the Taj Mahal, not the actual Taj Mahal but the Atlantic City hotel and casino. You know, the classy one.

The film captures the sideshow nature of Trump. He’s bombastic and vainglorious, proud of destroying valuable artwork if it secures him building rights and even more self-satisfied if he inflames protestors in the process. Behind the scenes though, he’s so insecure that he can’t even take a dump without proclaiming it the biggest and best shit ever. The movie also revisits his greatest hits reel, at least that’s what he might call his collection of jaw-dropping proclamations. He tells the kid that his Vietnam vet father would have been more heroic if he had lived instead of died in action, recalls his small $14 million loan from his father, and casually mentions killing people in the middle of the street.

These all have the force of a soft jab though; there’s nothing that comedians and reporters haven’t brought up and broken down hundreds of times already, seemingly to no effect. The movie concludes that what Trump really needs is a healthy dose of humility, as if that would soothe his toxic candidacy. He’s given a few chances and gets some sympathetic, perhaps pathetic, moments. Trump spends his 40th birthday alone, with the exception of his lawyer and some strange kid, and it turns out that Alf, the muddy haired muppet, is his best friend. It is also, in my estimation, his most genuine relationship.

As almost two years of campaigning nears its end, however, light entertainment doesn’t seem an effective commentary on the times – and if that’s all this movie’s aiming for, then one wonders what’s the point. Johnny Depp may provide an amusing and admirable facsimile of Donald Trump, but the divisions in our country and the candidate’s own code of conduct invite more sober reflection and more cutting satire. The most instructive scene is when Trump dismisses and belittles his wife Ivana, literally pushing her out of view so that she remains unseen and unheard. Otherwise, the film is too happy just parroting what he says and does, exaggerating for comedic effect. Fifteen months ago, it might have been funny to watch him taking phone calls while lizarding across his office desk on all fours, but with the election weeks away and the possibility of a Trump presidency upon us, I’m not laughing.

Released: 2016
Prod: Funny or Die
Dir: Jeremy Konner
Writer: Joe Randazzo
Cast: Johnny Depp, Ron Howard, Emjay Anthony, Kristen Schaal, Patton Oswalt, Jason Mantzoukas, Henry Winkler, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Alfred Molina, Andy Richter, Michaela Watkins, Stephen Merchant, Albert Tsai, Jack McBrayer, Jacob Tremblay, Christopher Lloyd
Time: 50 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Campaign (2012)

the campaign film

When The Campaign was released in 2012, there seemed to be some restoration of order in American politics. Sure, Rick Santorum was convinced that he might actually win the Republican nomination, but when the campaign season ended, a predictable duo – Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan – stood atop the GOP dais, suit jackets off and sleeves rolled up, their million dollar smiles giving light to the darkness. It was a far cry from the Sarah Palin circus that had thrown the political world into tumult four years earlier.

Well, here we are again, caught in that ever-widening intersection of a Venn diagram that is politics and entertainment, and like some fraying red, white, and blue bunting, we can pull out The Campaign in the hopes of adding some Hollywood flair to it all. The principals involved in this production are not novices to the political entertainment sphere. Director Jay Roach helmed HBO’s Recount and Game Change, writer Chris Henchy penned episodes of the 1990s hit Spin City, and stars Will Ferrell famously played a president on SNL while Zach Galifianakis interviewed one in his web comedy, Between Two Ferns. To borrow this season’s buzzword, these guys are kind of establishment, and that hasn’t been a good thing.

The film throws a spotlight on much of what is wrong with today’s political atmosphere. Congressional incumbent Cam Brady (Ferrell), a Democrat from North Carolina, is a shoo-in for the upcoming election despite his sexual indiscretions. The dastardly Koch Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd), hoping to secure a deal with a Chinese company, exploit this and convince feeble family man Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) to run on the Republican ticket. Marty is no match for his bellicose opponent though, so the Motch brothers hire a slippery campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to even things out. In no time, mud, and fists, are flying.

In a normal election year, say 2012, The Campaign would be an amusing companion piece, a gentle ribbing of our dysfunctional system. But it’s 2016, and we’ve entered a political twilight zone, one that necessitates art that dismantles lies, not just mocks them. This film is funny in an extended sketch comedy kind of way, with leads playing to extreme type and cartoonish villains who chomp cigars and get their comeuppance. It pokes fun at Sarah Barracuda and Dick Cheney’s shooting mishap and is at least equal opportunity in its send-ups, demonizing the money, the politicians, the operatives, the media, the electorate – basically everyone in this great democratic process. But it only ever feels familiar, never uncomfortable. There’s not much in here that hasn’t already been revealed by late night comedy or, on occasion, actual reporters.

The time is ripe for a film that doesn’t just cut close but cuts open the cancers of Citizens United and faux patriotism. The Motch brothers sneer and proclaim that in America “when you’ve got the money, nothing is unpredictable,” a truism but not a particularly shocking one. It seems just pointless for Cam to spout “America, Jesus, Freedom” and then gamely admit that he doesn’t know what it means but knows that people love him for saying it. We’ve moved past this point in our national discourse, and this film along with it.

Released: 2012
Prod: Jay Roach, Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis
Dir: Jay Roach
Writer: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Katherine LaNasa, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Ackroyd, Brian Cox, Sarah Baker, Karen Maruyama
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016