Pop hope

Pub date December 31, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› kimberly@sfbg.com

The "shoe-in" for my moving-image man of the year: Barack Obama or Iraqi journalist and footwear hurler Muntadhar al-Zaidi? Both have been well-lubed by YouTube and have been given a good, hard-soft spin from multiple angles by every news outlet, citizen blogger, and self-starter with iMovie. The vid that jump-cuts between Obama’s high school hoop shots and latter-day pickup games, the proliferating replays of George W. Bush’s duck-and-cover face-save (and the swelling parade of shoe-throwing online games) — all were duly devoured and disseminated. Al-Zaidi’s act of protest — captured with Rashomon-like variation, though the marks that might substantiate allegations of torture in his post-incident detention remain conveniently invisible and off-camera — was the perfect kicker to a year in which politics on film and video were given prime 24/7 eyeball time by viewers more accustomed to rolling their peepers or averting them in disgust from the White House and the evening news.

Oh, ’08 — the year that welcomed the ‘Tubing of the president-elect via the outpouring of readily replayable speeches, endorsements, and "Yes We Can" and Obama Girl clips as guilty-pleasure eye-candy respite from the workday grind. And oh, the withdrawal — assuaged only by grainy images of a shirtless Obama on Hawaiian holiday. Hollywood may have prepped America for a black president in the form of Dennis Haysbert on 24 and Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998) — but this year the president elect’s cinematic corollary really seemed to be Milk, an adept, accessible, and inspirational bon mot that put its trust in viewers’ intelligence and ability to fix their attention on city supervisor meetings and California state politics.

Through a viewfinder, the parallels between Barack Obama and Harvey Milk were numerous: the change-centered career trajectory of a community activist, the against-all-odds and unique but tough-sell narrative, the bridge-building wherewithal, and the gotta-have-it charisma. Even the Milk trailer tagline, "You gotta give ’em hope," read like a direct pull from an Obama war-room session. Yet the differences also glared with the passing of Proposition 8 in ’08. Add to that the strange fact that likely more couch potatoes of every political persuasion around the country have glimpsed the lengthy Obama infomercial — and even the Obama commemorative coin or plate TV ads — than have seen Milk.

If Obama and Milk succored with romantic promise and possibility, the stumbling close of the Bush years and his party’s latest last-ditch follies provided the bitterest laughs, with doses of unexpected sympathy for the devil. The handful of movies that critiqued the overseas skullduggery committed in the name of the US of A — including the grim-faced Body of Lies and black-humored Burn After Reading — resembled the mutant brethren of Dubya, taking subtle and slapstick aim at the politics hatched by someone’s CIA-head pater familias. Also injecting considerable comedy into the country’s sad plight was, you betcha, the vice presidential candidate drummed up to succeed such-a-Dick Cheney. The tabloid-friendly talker from the Dubya school of gab first and let God sort it out later, Sarah Palin lent herself beautifully to self-skewering by way of Katie Couric and the genius sendup that followed by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.

The politically liberal Oliver Stone’s treatment of the sitting prez himself in W. was almost kind-hearted in contrast, with Josh Brolin adding a measure of nuanced oedipal angst to the now-beyond-tiresome good-old-boy facade. You had to love the way the young W. is lensed: his mouth perpetually open and his fists full of brewskis and/or a barbecue throughout the first part of the movie. Stone’s prez is as innocent as an identity-free frat boy — even though the filmmaker does conclude with a recurring dream sequence that ends up referencing traditional horror tropes. It’s not over till the monster screams. Or is hit by a shoe.

The year closed with the ticket-clinching bookend to W., ideal for every disgraced presidential library: Frost/Nixon. Its bracing, sexy blend of meta-Medium Cool media savvy and humanizing Milk-y goodness and characterization managed to slightly sweeten the sour old manipulator, the worst US leader since our latest. Bringing more than an ounce of the creepiness cloaking his noted disco-sleaze turn in Dracula (1979), Frank Langella transformed Nixon into the most menacing and identifiable blood-sucker entangled with an all-too-human dissembler/interrogator amid this year’s Twilight and True Blood vamps. As divulged in the dark of the movie house, Frost/Nixon‘s and W.‘s rogue presidents were united in at least one thing, besides the fact that their real-life counterparts made us embarrassed to be Americans. Their backstory — their real, pathetic will to power — had little to do with public service or serving anything but their damaged, mysterious, played-out egos.


Best use of Google Earth-cam: Burn After Reading (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA/UK/France)

Best post-Planet of the Apes Statue of Liberty desecration: Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, USA)

Most phun without pharmaceuticals: Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

Best vampire-human love story: Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)

Best mix of mudflaps, hair bands, and mystery flab: The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)

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