May 8, 2019
Movies that Predicted Trump: Bulworth (1998)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read our review of Idiocracy!)
It’s election year and America is in a pretty weird place. With Democrats controlling the White House and Republicans controlling Congress, government is bogged down by political bickering. Despite low unemployment and positive economic growth, the dominant feeling in the country is one of apathetic disillusionment; behind all the facts, figures, and talking points lies a whole segment of the population who feels abandoned, ignored, and unwanted by the establishment. It’s in the midst of this malaise, like a wrecking ball out of hell, that an unlikely hero enters in the form of a rich, charismatic old white guy who’s spent his entire life rubbing shoulders with the ruling elite. Breaking all rules of political etiquette, he starts behaving outrageously, offending sensibilities with outlandish racially-tinged comments and unhinged acts of buffoonery. Campaign advisors are in a panic, people react with shock and disbelief, and the media treats it like a ratings-generating circus. But, incredibly, against everything common sense has taught us to expect, he finds an audience. A very large, enthusiastic audience of disaffected people who admire his complete lack of inhibition and decorum: Finally, they think, here’s a politician who tells it like it is and doesn’t care what it costs him. And soon enough, a whole national movement starts taking shape, gradually spiraling beyond the man’s control in a race that could change the country forever.
Sounds familiar, right? Except the year is not 2015 or 2016 but 1996, and the man in question is a fictional liberal Democrat named Jay Billington Bulworth.
Directed, co-written by and starring Warren Beatty in the title role, Bulworth came out in 1998, at a time when dramedies more or less inspired by the many hijinks going on in Bill Clinton’s White House were all the rage in Hollywood. But where films like Primary Colors and Wag the Dog focused more on the corridors of power than on the people affected by it, Bulworth tackled the American public’s political disenchantment head-on with a simple premise: What if a politician started telling us what he was really thinking? Even better, what if he decided to communicate this revolutionary new message of truth to the common man through that modern language of street poetry, rap?
Yeah, fair word of warning: This movie contains scenes of Warren Beatty rapping. Sunglasses may be required to prevent permanent loss of sight, sanity, and musical taste.
The film opens in Senator Bulworth’s office, where the man himself is sitting alone in his office, sobbing and hyperventilating in a fit of depression as he watches his TV self spout centrist platitudes in campaign clips about family values, government size, and “unnecessary” affirmative action programs. Pans and dissolves over photos of various liberal heroes of the 1960s adorning his walls clue us in on the reason for his unhappiness: Power has made him betray the very ideas that got him into politics in the first place.
As the movie gets us more acquainted with him and his campaign staff, it becomes clear that his self-loathing has reached a suicidal point. After making a deal with insurance lobbyist Graham Crockett (Paul Sorvino) to make his daughter the sole beneficiary of a $10 million life insurance policy in exchange for votes, Bulworth pays a shady contractor to have him assassinated while campaigning in L.A. With only a couple of days left to live and nothing left to lose, he finally decides to drop his carefully-crafted façade and goes off-script during a Q&A session at a black church. In plain view of C-SPAN cameras, he openly admits that the Democratic Party only panders to black grievances for votes, calls himself a “running back who stabs his wife”, and urges the congregation to “put down that malt liquor and chicken wings” [!] and vote for someone who actually cares about the issues facing them instead of a two-faced crook like him.
Predictably, this outburst triggers panic among his advisors and outrage among the church’s older attendants. Younger audience members, however, love his newfound frankness and start following him on the campaign trail. Pretty soon, Bulworth finds himself smoking pot in an underground nightclub and dancing with a young black activist named Nina (Halle Berry) with whom he starts having an affair. After a night’s partying, his staff drive him to attend a high-profile fundraiser, hoping that last night was just a stress-induced manic episode. This of course leads to the movie’s most famous scene, where Bulworth, still high, drunk, and delirious from chronic lack of sleep, once again discards his prepared speech and starts rapping about the evils of lobbying and the benefits of socialized healthcare… all in front of a disbelieving audience full of lobbyists, including Crockett himself.
Now a media sensation, Bulworth finds his campaign unexpectedly reinvigorated as his antics gain national media attention and spark intense debate on the issues he’s raising. Now imbued with a new sense of freedom and purpose, he starts having second thoughts about his suicide plan. In an attempt to avoid potential assassins, he hides out in Nina’s neighborhood in South Central L.A., where a series of encounters with racist cops, crack-dealing kids, and gangsters give him a first-hand glimpse of just how bad things are for poor black city-dwellers. After yet another rapping TV performance during which he expounds on these problems ends with a failed assassination attempt, Nina smuggles Bulworth back to her house where she reveals that she was the one who accepted the contract he put on his own head in order to pay off her brother’s debt to local drug kingpin L. D. (Don Cheadle). She hands him her gun and tells him she’s decided not to go through with the job, causing a relieved Bulworth to collapse in her arms and finally sleep after five days of insomnia. The question over who tried to kill him back in the studio, however, remains unanswered.
Meanwhile, the national media is abuzz with the Bulworth phenomenon. Against all expectations, he’s won the Democratic senatorial primary by a landslide and has even gained traction as a write-in candidate for the presidential election, with a whopping 15% of the Democratic vote and 8% of the Republican vote. In the morning, a sobered-up Bulworth wakes up to find himself the new hope of the nation—so much so that his previously terrified staff are already planning a strategy for him to run for president as an independent. With the support of Nina, her family, and even L. D. and his gang, Bulworth accepts. He’s just about to announce his candidacy to a crowd of reporters when a hidden sniper shoots him, ending the movie on an ambiguous note as Bulworth crumples to the ground surrounded by flashing cameras.
Responses to Bulworth seem to come primarily in three flavors; admiration, offense, or annoyance. That some viewers feel offended is no surprise; it is, after all, designed to provoke which, for others, is exactly the problem. Beatty has a lot of points to make, and by God, he’s going to make sure every single one of them gets through. This is the kind of movie where almost every major character gets on their soapbox at some point to speechify on Big Issues, in this case systemic racism and poverty. The speeches, the deliberately bad rapping, the racial and class-based jokes…they’re all there to get a strong reaction out of you. Even Spike Lee can be more subtle than this.
None of this, however, is an inherently bad thing. This sort of approach can work if the characters, story, and plot don’t get crushed under the weight of the message they’re carrying. Thankfully, Warren Beatty, who previously handled political satire deftly as producer, star, and co-writer of Shampoo is sophisticated enough to avoid that. He communicates his ideas through Bulworth but also uses him to acknowledge his own limitations: he may have the “right” ideas, but they’re not anchored in real-life experience, something L. D. and Nina are all too happy to remind him. No matter how well his populist rhetoric connects with people, he’s still a wealthy, out-of-touch white man stumbling around abstract truths he’s spent most of his life hiding from. Because it’s framed as the comical expression of a mind breaking down from decades of moral compromise, his enlightenment through exposure to poverty loses much of the uncomfortable “white savior” aspect inherent to its premise. Bulworth’s rise and (possible) fall is more of an indictment of the state of American society than it is a validation of Beatty’s personal beliefs.
Although not a box-office hit when it came out, Bulworth earned solid reviews from critics and even snagged an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It has since become something of a cult classic, in no small part because the issues it raises became even more topical in the following decade. So how does it hold up now, after eight years of a presidency brought about by these very issues? And how does Bulworth’s story compare to the real-life rise of Donald Trump?
For better or worse, the answer to both is “pretty well”. Transcending mere posturing, the film does a remarkable job of highlighting the permanent crisis between power and ideology that continues to persist throughout decades of political shifts. It remains relevant not because the specific problems it discusses still exist (they do), but because it understands they stem from socio-cultural structures no single set of policies can challenge.
While promoting his comeback film Rules Don’t Apply in an interview with Uproxx.com, Warren Beatty downplayed comparisons between Bulworth and Trump by pointing out that most of his talking points were echoed by Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary. That is undoubtedly true, but I think the comparison still has merit. Both men are fueled by popular disgust with traditional politics, both appeal to disenfranchised working-class segments of the population, and both flaunt their disregard for decorum as a challenge to an ivory-tower establishment that despises them. Politics aside, what fundamentally separates the two is that Bulworth’s antics are a continual series of long-repressed impulses—a far cry from Trump’s more calculated acts of provocation. Bulworth isn’t interested in power, he just wants to relieve his conscience before dying.
This difference is crucial: Bulworth’s actions may be entertaining and we may be encouraged to agree with them, but they’re motivated by a desire that is ultimately selfish. Only direct contact with the lives of people affected by his campaign’s issues gives true meaning to them, after which he sobers up and faces the nation, ready to resume normal politics with a new purpose. Trump, on the other hand, is a reality TV star. Even in business, his most successful product has always been himself, so what we may perceive as spontaneous honesty is really just a performance designed to distract rather than enlighten.
If you’ve ever spent time on political websites and message boards, you’ve probably come across a quotation dubiously attributed to George Orwell which states that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Regardless of the quote’s authenticity, Bulworth unveils an additional meaning behind it that Trump’s election has proven beyond reasonable doubt: In a time of universal deceit, even the appearance of truth seems revolutionary. We’re so jaded by the rules of conduct and discourse dictated by mainstream politics that any outrageous break from them is seen as a daring act of liberation, rather than the symptom of something terribly wrong with our culture.
Next up in Movies that Predicted Trump: Tim Robbins plays a corporate raider/entertainer with no political experience who rides a wave of anti-liberal backlash all the way to the US Senate in 1992’s Bob Roberts.