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.

“You know, I use the word unpredictable. You want to be unpredictable.”

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.

“Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of your Magazine? Way down, big trouble, dead!”

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.

“Undecideds in Michigan are gonna break for Trump!!”

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.

Tag: Movies that Predicted Trump

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  • roseohseven

    It may feel hopeless, but your work here to make us laugh (and when we can’t laugh, remind us of what’s happened) gives me hope anyway. None of us will ever have to feel like Johnny if we keep calling out what we see and telling each other, “I see it too.”

  • Ricardo Cantoral

    Why not go straight for Hitler ? Why hold back ?

    • Winston O’Boogie

      I completely agree. If the President-elect has no qualms about calling his enemies Nazis, then why should we?

      • Ricardo Cantoral

        Gee, was that because he has been compared to Hitler since day one ?

        • Winston O’Boogie

          Sure, it’s just those mean ol’ liberals planting ideas in his head, right? Actually, I find it kind of funny that even his supporters think he’s that easily influenced

          • Ricardo Cantoral

            Quit with the Strawman arguments. Trump fired back at all the propaganda manufactured by the MSM who were not unlike Goebbels’ propaganda machine. Clinton had many media outlets in her pocket hence every prediction from them that she would win. This is not a tin foil hat conspiracy because this all was revealed in her emails. Tell me, am I right or wrong ?

          • Winston O’Boogie

            So what you seem to be saying is, comparing the news media to Nazi propaganda is perfectly fine, but comparing Trump to a fictional psychopath in a movie is totally out of bounds, beyond the pale. Do I have that right?

          • Ricardo Cantoral

            Last time I checked, the one who wanted instigated a full scale nuclear war with Russia was Clinton who said that she would enforce a no fly zone over Syria.

          • Winston O’Boogie

            I’ll just quote the review above:

            “[Trump has] 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).”

            Meanwhile, Clinton proposed a no-fly zone over Syria. OMG THAT’S OBVIOUSLY SO MUCH WORSE LOCK HER UP

          • Ricardo Cantoral

            You once again reveal your ignorance. China has been rapidly building up it’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea and Iran aren’t nearly as terrifying but they should be a concern. Hell, if it wasn’t for Obama’s stupid ass then I wouldn’t even mention Iran. Russia looks like they are willing to sensible but there aggresion in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is a concern. Lastly, you do realize that enforcing a no fly zone is an act of aggression, right ? That would have put us on a direct path to war with Russia. I will concede your points about Trump’s ignorance but nothing he has said even comes close to antagonizing the Russians like Hillary did.

          • Winston O’Boogie

            “I will concede your points about Trump’s ignorance”
            Well, it sounds like you’re in agreement with the review, then. Not sure why your original comment in this thread seemed to be taking exception with it. Or did you even read the review?

          • Ricardo Cantoral

            You take one part of my comment and blow it out of proportion. You are getting desperate now.

  • NameWithheldByRequest

    ” 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.”

    Cheer up, it could be much worse. It could have been Hillary’s finger on the nuclear button. Given her insane ranting against Russia and Putin, her advocacy of a “no fly zone” in Syria, which would have meant war with Russia, her “pivot to Asia” to confront China, her threats to nuke Iran, etc., etc., Trump making nice with Putin should be a welcome relief…

    • J Cole

      Let me guess, you get all your news from Breitbart? There’s iterally nothing in your comment that has any basis in fact.

      • NameWithheldByRequest

        So, you’re saying that Hillary didn’t advocate a “no fly zone” in Syria? Military officials, some of whom testified before congress, didn’t say that such a “no fly zone” would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Russia? The “pivot to Asia” wasn’t conceived and supported by Hillary? She never threatened to nuke Iran? Are you sure there’s no evidence she said she’d “obliterate Iran” in 2008 if she were president? I’ve never been to Breitbart, but then again there’s really no need to invent reasons to believe that Hillary Clinton is an insane warmonger…

  • Nathan Forester

    I definitely do think that this movie certainly predicted Trumpty becoming president in a lot of ways. It’s one of Walken’s best performances too.

  • Dan Singh Behr

    What The Dead Zone predicted that uneducated morons can believe that UFO will carry Christian whackos to Saturn and that an idiot on a website would write the same sort of tripe as Vera’s religious tracts. That’s all this is and, predictably, the unworldly stay-at-home keyboard dufus would draw a parallel between a man who has ‘publicly’ created hundreds of thousands of jobs with a ‘fictional character’ who prayed for rain in the back of a pickup truck. ‘Children, if we survived Obama , we will surely prosper with your boogeyman. Grow up.’