In an era where politicians are funnier than the comedians in charge of making fun of them, what role does satire have to play in today’s media? Oisin McElhinney takes a look at the highlights of film’s rich history of political satire, arguably more relevant now than ever before.
Watching Alec Baldwin don a wig and pitch-perfect pout while spurting out post-truths with post-conventional phrases, you could be forgiven for wondering if this superlative lampoon is a better Donald Trump than the real Donald himself (or 46th President of the United States as he is now better known). The same goes for Tina Fey’s dead-on skewering of Sarah Palin. In an era of “alternative facts” where the politicians are funnier and more outrageous than the comedians in charge of making fun of them, what role does satire have to play in today’s entertainment and political spheres? After all, what’s the use in parodying when the objects of it are already busy being self-parodies? And what impact does satire really have when the combined efforts of Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert (to name but a few high-profile examples) couldn’t stop sixty million Americans from (unironically) voting Donald J. Trump into the White House?
While there has been an abundance of satire on our television screens in recent times – a trend that is both welcome and unlikely to change any time soon – there is no shortage of satirical works on the silver screen either. Movies have always been an effective vehicle for conveying critiques of politics, society, and in many self-reflexive cases, the movie industry itself. In many ways, the number of satirical films released is surprising, given the frequently cynical and self-conscious nature of them. And the movie industry, Hollywood in particular, is not known for its love of cynicism – at least on onscreen.
As it happens, SNL wasn’t the first to audaciously deride a megalomaniacal pseudo-politician. The great silent-era clown, Charlie Chaplin, did that back in 1940 with his hilarious and moving depiction of a certain Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator. Chaplin, an open Communist who would later be hounded during the McCarthyite witch-hunts in 1950s Hollywood, directed and starred in his first ‘talkie’ to deliver an impassioned performance culminating in his now-famous speech at the finale (its video has racked up nearly 20 million views on YouTube). Chaplin later said that if he’d known the horrors that would follow in the years to come he could never have made it. But he was able to, and he did. Contrast this to today’s quasi-fascist figure of ridicule President Trump, a man so preposterous that even the masters of all things profane and sacrilegious, South Park, have openly given up on poking fun at him. Coming from a show so fond of controversy that has depicted the Prophet Mohammad and infamously shown Tom Cruise stuck in a closet, this is quite a statement.
In 1992, another famous Hollywood liberal wrote, directed and starred in his own comedic assault on a right-wing reactionary. Tim Robbins’ deeply cynical and cutthroat mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992) is an audaciously accurate depiction of an ultraconservative Christian folk singer who campaigns through hate speech ballads in front of adoring (and suspiciously Trump-like) audiences, making it possibly even more relevant in 2017 than on its release over two decades ago. His victory against the elderly and overqualified Democrat (played superbly by Gore Vidal) is eerily reminiscent of the most recent American election and is proof that a progressive actor in the 90s was able to realise what the pollsters apparently could not: that a folksy anti-establishment image and bigotry masked as ‘values’ is enough to beat competency. It is somewhat disappointing, in fact, that there is a shortage of this type of movie from the past few years. James Franco and Seth Rogan’s irreverent The Interview (2014) is a highly enjoyable spoof of Kim Jong-un, but ultimately lacks any real underlying point. That said, Paolo Sorrentino’s slickly beautiful Il Divo (2008) is an impressive takedown of one Italy’s most infamous Prime Ministers, Giulio Andreotti. Sorrentino’s new series The Young Pope starring Jude Law is another fine specimen of ironic blasphemy and satirical Vatican-bashing.
Along with the obvious objective of critiquing and parodying prominent figures and current affairs, satirical movies also allow audiences an insight into historical eras in a way that traditional dramatic films cannot. While ‘serious’ films often focus exclusively on their self-contained subject matter, comedies and satires may utilise humour in order to transcend the actual events shown on screen. After all, isn’t the whole point of satire to use humour and absurdity to convey a subtler political message or moral allegory? Few films – serious or otherwise – have captured the irony and insanity of warfare and the arms race like Stanley Kubrick’s outrageously funny Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Curiously enough, the short novel it was based upon was not a comedy at all, but the comic genius of Peter Sellers’ acting makes the Armageddon-like events all the more potent thanks to the cuttingly ironic dialogue (“Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”).
Compared to the infinitely more sanctimonious conventional war dramas of recent years such as Spielberg’s self-important Saving Private Ryan (1998) or this year’s insufferably Oscar-thirsty Hacksaw Ridge, Kubrick’s mischievously black comedy still shines brighter. In more recent years, Chris Morris’ disgracefully underrated British terrorism satire Four Lions (2010) has used the same technique of discussing a dark and controversial issue – jihadism, in this case – with equally dark humour. Revolving around a group of spectacularly incompetent English Muslims trying to plot a terrorist attack, it is both a brave and intelligent examination of a topic that is often very difficult to analyse through comedy.
Even the media and comedy itself have been the target of satirical movies. Sidney Lumet’s scathing 1976 feature Network remains one of the finest excoriations of the manipulative nature of television and the brainwashed generation raised on it. Its protagonist, the crazy yet enlightened Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is one of cinema’s enduring icons of the disillusioned everyman (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”). Just as incisive but all too frequently overlooked is Martin Scorsese’s disconcerting psychological study, The King of Comedy (1983). Robert De Niro’s portrayal of unstable aspiring talk show host Rupert Pupkin was later regarded by Scorsese as his finest performance in their collaboration. A more contemporary look at the deceptive nature of the media is Jason Reitman’s acerbic and politically incorrect Thank You for Smoking (2005), starring Aaron Eckhart as an unscrupulous Big Tobacco lobbyist and spin doctor. Morally inverted and hilariously self-aware, it stands among the most engaging and thought provoking satires released this century so far.
The jury is still out as to whether satire can change minds. Recent world events would suggest that its political impact is definitely limited; perhaps its reactionary nature means the impact often simply comes too late. However, as filmmakers have long realised, it has the capacity to challenge viewers and force them to think beyond the superficial exterior that most movies offer. And by making them laugh (or squirm) the subverted message may just resonate.