Nov 12, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: The Dead Zone (1983)
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 the other reviews in this series: Idiocracy, Bulworth, Bob Roberts, A Face in the Crowd, and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.)
Guys, I messed up.
This column wasn’t meant to turn out this way. I wanted my look at The Dead Zone to be breezy and jokey. Of all the entries in the Movies that Predicted Trump series thus far, The Dead Zone is the most tenuously and most exaggeratedly connected to the central theme. My entry for A Face in the Crowd was so grave, and I was itching for a little levity. The Dead Zone seemed perfect for that purpose.
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I won’t waste much time outlining the plot of The Dead Zone, because you really should have seen this classic film by now. Suffice to say that in The Dead Zone, schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) gets in a horrific car wreck that puts him in a five-year coma. Upon waking, Johnny finds that whenever he touches someone, he gets clairvoyant visions specific to that person, which among other things, puts him at odds with megalomaniac politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) who, as Johnny foresees, will eventually become president and destroy the world in a fit of atomic pique.
There aren’t many serious thematic parallels to be found between Trump and Greg Stillson. Stillson appears rather far into the movie (over an hour in), and only then to set up a big third act conflict. With as little screen time as Stillson gets, there isn’t room to develop enough of a character to compare to the real President-elect in any specific way.
Like Trump, he’s an independent-minded, plain-talking alpha male populist, but there are few similarities to Trump here that you can’t find in a thousand other stock politician characters from a thousand other movies. There’s one scene of Stillson blackmailing a journalist (mainly for the audience’s benefit, to drive home the fact that the dude is evil) which I could possibly turn into a riff on how Trump hates the news media, but somehow I can’t see Trump doing something so calculated; in real life, he’d probably just revoke the reporter’s press pass, trash them on Twitter, and rest assured that none of his followers would read their work again.
So on its face, The Dead Zone would seem to fit into the Trump theme only inasmuch as I could crank out couple thousand words with variations of the joke “Ha ha what if Trump nuked Japan because he got the trots from a sushi roll?”
That’s exactly what I wanted to do. But it just wasn’t in the cards.
First of all, I don’t know how much actual joking I’m capable of in regards to Trump. Joking means thinking up a scenario that contains an ironic disconnect from reality, and I can’t do that effectively where Trump is concerned. It’s easy to forget now that we’re in the thick of it, but the fact that this—any of this—is happening is absolutely pants-on-head crazy. We’re officially living inside the NyQuil-laced fever dream of a laid-off Daily Show writer. Joking is a chore in this environment: how do you invent anything more absurd than what’s already happened? If it’s possible, it requires more creative powers than I have at my disposal.
And even if I could joke, the chilling Cold War nuclear specter evoked by The Dead Zone has put me off it for now. I find it hard to be jocular while thinking about the fact that in several weeks, Donald Trump will have control over the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. The mere fact that an irascible simpleton will soon be able to erase a metropolis of his choosing ought to be sobering enough. But how do I cope with the fact that, time and again on the campaign trail (and afterwards), Trump has shown that he lacks any measure of appropriate respect for the grave responsibility of controlling that same nuclear arsenal?
He’s asked why we make nukes if we can’t use them. He’s said he doesn’t have a problem with other countries getting more nukes. He didn’t know what the nuclear triad is but felt qualified to comment on it anyway. He’s handed control of the government agency that controls the nuclear arsenal to a man who famously couldn’t remember the agency’s name. And to top it all off, barely a week ago, he nonchalantly announced that he was totally going to start the arms race again (over Twitter, the perfect medium to announce such radical changes to longstanding U.S. nuclear policy). It’s fucking maddening. The Cold War ended when I was a kid; I was sure we weren’t going to have to deal with this shit anymore. So you’ll forgive me if a nuke-armed Trump doesn’t put me in a joking mood.
But most of all, I can’t go forward with the flippant column I planned to write because, upon rewatching The Dead Zone, I found that the movie echoes some of my own feelings about the rise of Trump in ways that I couldn’t have predicted back when President Trump was just a throwaway joke on The Simpsons, ways that go far beyond comparing a fictional buffoonish politician to a real one.
It was something in the hunted quality that Christopher Walken brings to the role that brought this to my attention. Johnny never seems glad of, or even resigned to, his remarkable gift of clairvoyance; quite the contrary. It’s the bane of his existence. It’s brought him nothing but horror and pain. His “gift” is the legacy of an event that shattered his body, effortlessly swallowed five years of his life, caused his lover to drift into another’s arms, and made having a normal life impossible. Moreover, Johnny never seems to get premonitions of nice things happening, like people getting engaged, earning a promotion, or maybe eating ice cream too fast and getting a headache. No, he only has visions of little girls dying in fires, or truck stop waitresses getting murdered, or the entire world ending. These visions scar his mind. Every time he has one, he’s fully transported to the scene in his mind, seeing them as clearly as he sees reality, experiencing every iota of the horror therein.
The one consolation that Johnny should be able to take from his misfortune is being able to avert the danger he sees in his visions. But he can’t even count on that. He certainly should be able to: his premonitions are always accurate (at least in a general sense), and they happen far enough in advance to allow time to change the outcome. The reason why he can’t always get people to believe him is due to something that goes by the name “Cassandra Syndrome”, after a figure in Greek mythology cursed to make prophecies that no one would ever believe. The people around Johnny can’t account for his gift and thus distrust it, particularly in cases when Johnny makes predictions that people don’t want to believe. Pigheadedness is one of the strongest forces in human society, and people will always be able to find a reason to discount you, however unimpeachable your authority, however wise your counsel, if what you have to say makes them uncomfortable.
I found myself identifying a lot with this aspect of Johnny’s character. This whole election season, I feel like I’ve been shouting helplessly into a high wind. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. It couldn’t have been more obvious to me that Trump is intellectually, morally, and temperamentally unfit to run so much as a Cub Scout den. It’s so obvious that I can’t believe anyone who has either a brain or a conscience could support him, and yet I saw people all around me with both who did just that.
I watched Trump sway large swaths of the voting public with simple mind games and easily debunked lies. I pointed out the historical parallels between Trump and demagogues of days past who led their countries into ruin and left black marks on history. I expounded against Trump, often at length, to anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t, as I’m sure many of you did, and I watched experts in nearly every field of human endeavor—economists, lawyers, political scientists, historians, every major newspaper, every living ex-president—do the same. All of our best efforts weren’t enough to prevent this disaster.
Yes, I used the word “disaster”. I’m not necessarily saying that Trump will go mad with power like Greg Stillson and launch an extinction-level number of nukes. But the man is dangerous, and mark my words, something awful will happen. A depression, a terrorist attack, trade wars, actual wars, environmental ruin, the rollback of civil rights, two of those, all of those, take your pick; nothing’s off the table with this guy.
In this day and age of unrelenting assault on critical thinking, it seems as if education (by which I mean being minimally informed about the world you live in, having some modicum of civic and historical literacy; hell, merely having a clear idea what a fact is and what to do with it) can seem like some freakish supernatural power. People by and large distrust this power, and will readily ignore what it produces when they don’t like it. And like Johnny’s gift, the awesome power of historical perspective was won by the human race at the cost of great trauma. Living through the titanic conflicts of the 20th century, suffering the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Amin, Pinochet, Peron… if there’s any good that came out of any of that, it’s that we should be able to predict when dangerous people, dangerous movements, and existential threats to liberal democracy are coming, and take steps to nip them in the bud. Only when we’re able to do the former but not the latter do we understand the full extent of Cassandra’s curse.
It’s enough to make one question one’s own sanity, as indeed I’m doing right now, as I imagine I would be doing even more so if I’d had psychic powers. David Cronenberg’s claustrophobic, nightmarelike direction captures this feeling perfectly, as does Christopher Walken’s unstable performance, which does as good a job at evoking the frantic despair of one’s powerlessness to avert certain calamity as I’ve ever seen put to film.
As much as I wanted to focus this column on the character of Greg Stillson, the scene in The Dead Zone that put me most in mind of this election season didn’t even have him in it. It was the scene in which Johnny implores the father of one of his students to call off peewee hockey practice, because he’s had a vision of the ice breaking and the kids sinking to their deaths. In the face of the father’s intransigence, Johnny furiously smashes a candy jar with his cane and delivers a line with his Walken-ness dialed up to 11: “The ice is gonna break!!” I always liked this scene, but now I see Johnny’s primal howl as an echo of my own titanic frustration at a world that’s gone batty.
I’m sorry then, that I wasn’t able to wring more humor out of this premise. Lord knows we need some of that after the year we’ve had, and Greg Stillson is such an over-the-top character that comparisons to Trump certainly seemed to have comedic potential. But the times we live in won’t accommodate much fictive absurdity, not when there’s deadly serious absurdity happening every day. I can only hope that someday we’ll be able to laugh about it again.