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In the lead up to the US presidential election on November 8th, HeadStuff will run a series of articles on politics in Film. Richard Drumm has written about the prescient predictions The Parallax View made about our current political climate, and now Stephen Porzio looks at how Bulworth, Warren Beatty’s 1998 political comedy, examines the interior lives of the political elite.
Warren Beatty’s 1998 political satire Bulworth still feels very relevant in 2016. It’s a film about the personal lives of politicians, which usually only emerge, in all honesty, to voters during times of scandal. Early on, we see Beatty’s titular left-wing but conservative Senator’s campaign to stay in office. His family, shown in the video, seem happy and when Bulworth describes how he abides by the old-fashioned values of “honesty” and “fidelity”, one believes him. However, the audience soon discovers that everything said in the video is a lie. In a scene, now evoking memories of Hilary Clinton in the aftermath of her husband’s sex scandal, the Senator and his wife, Connie (Christine Baranski), feign adoration for each other at a photo op while bickering under their breaths. Throughout, Bulworth is dogged by various reporters enquiring about his affair with a woman half his age, Nina (Halle Berry), bringing to mind not just recent allegations about Donald Trump but also the sex scandals of other U.S. politicians such as Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer.
It’s also a film about spin, something significant to the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election as evident by The Washington Post’s recent article on conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, entitled: “Trump’s Spin Doctor”. When we first meet Bulworth, he is an emotional wreck. The Senator has not eaten or slept for three days and is suicidal (a result of his impending campaign loss), hiring a hitman on himself because suicide would void his life assurance policy. Knowing death is impending, Bulworth begins to speak frankly and candidly at public events, ignoring the wants of his corporate sponsors. His speeches are well-intentioned and truthful (which helps separate the fictional character from Trump, in fact it’s reported Obama spoke longingly of “going Bulworth”) but are laced with swearing and racial obscenities. As his Chief of Staff, Dennis (an amazing Oliver Platt), states in a key scene:
“You stood up in front of three hundred people in a black church and told them that they were not a factor and never would be as long as we remain in the pocket of the insurance lobby! … You went to a fundraiser in Beverly Hills and told various leaders of the entertainment industry that they make a lousy product, and since many of them also happen to be Jewish, you decided the PRUDENT thing to do would be to MOCK their Jewish paranoia! … Now, Senator – I work for you. You call the shots. But I will be able to do my job so much better if you will just simply tell me… what is this new strategy? Just tell me a little bit!”
Yet, despite the obvious provocative nature of Bulworth’s remarks, Dennis manages to spin them into a winning political strategy. As the Senator’s mania becomes more noticeable, he begins speaking in rhyme, a sign of impending mental breakdown. His Chief of Staff uses this to his boss’ advantage, claiming that Bulworth’s honesty, offensive vernacular and rhyming are part of a new campaign to appeal to the black voters within his constituency – he is “rapping”. The spin is successful. Larry King wants to interview him, admiring how Bulworth cuts through the usual political “baloney” and his constituents have a new found respect for the politician.
Also, as Roger Ebert noted in his 3.5/4 review of Bulworth, there is a lot of “substance” to the fictional politician’s critiques of American society, recalling the writings of Noam Chomsky – theories which are just as relevant now as they were in 1998. The philosopher is famed for noting how America is essentially a one-party state. Instead of two opposing Democratic and Republican Parties, together they form a “Business Party” as both are regulated by the same corporate and financial interests such as oil, pharmaceuticals and the entertainment industry. Chomsky claims the U.S. is run only by a handful of affluent elites designed to stay in power no matter which side is elected, while, the less wealthy 80% of the population have no say in their country’s matters.
Beatty, who as well as directing and starring, co-wrote the script with Jeremy Pikser (with uncredited contributions from Aaron Sorkin and James Toback), directly cites Chomsky’s theories, incorporating them into his screenplay. Not only does the central character reference the philosopher’s statistics, but during a televised debate, Bulworth states to his Republican opponent:
“Our campaigns are funded by the same guys … We got a club. Right? Republicans, Democrats, what’s the difference? Your guys, my guys, our guys, us guys. It’s a club”.
Meanwhile, world-class cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) visually separates the decision makers from the poor. The scenes set in political offices or during corporate meetings are almost devoid of any prominent colour. Yet, as Bulworth enters into the predominately black neighbourhood of his constituency, the Italian cinematographer employs vibrant blue, orange and yellow filters. This visual clash helps signify that although the power players and the voters live within close proximity, they may as well be worlds apart.
At the film’s end, the senator, in a twist, is shot, not by the hitman he hired but, by an agent of the insurance company lobbyists, who became fearful of Bulworth’s critiques and growing fame. Thus, Beatty argues that the corporations will always retain power in capitalist societies and to this day, he has been proven right. However, the film’s last line is delivered by a man (played by black philosopher Amiri Baraka) urging Bulworth to “be a spirit”, a soul which transcends a person’s physical body. Perhaps, this is Beatty’s fleeting attempt to encourage a real-life politician to seize some of his fictional character’s “spirit”. Just because faceless corporations try to eliminate the human element, it does not mean we shouldn’t provide a challenge.