“And out of the elephant’s trunk… confetti.”
This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Miss Sloane.
Whilst Humanz, the fourth official album by Gorillaz, was being constructed throughout 2016, Damon Albarn asked his laundry list of guests to envision a party at the end of the world. The big all-consuming celebration that would occur on the eve of some cataclysmic event of barely-fathomable horror, which the album’s music and lyrics would soundtrack. Of the many potential scenarios that Albarn would put in his collaborators’ heads, the one he would most frequently come back to was ‘what if Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States?’ “Trump’s ascension was one of the sources of energy we meditated on, when it was like, ‘Ahh, that’s ridiculous, that could never happen.’” Then, on the night of November 8th 2016, it very much did happen, and Albarn responded by going back through the album and physically deleting every overt mention of the names of both incoming President Donald Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama.
It’s a pretty funny story, or at least it will be in retrospect if we manage to escape however many years of GOP-driven destruction that are still ahead of us in something approaching one piece – dear Christ, it has only been 122 days at time of writing, how has it only been 122 days?! But it’s also the kind of story that is going to (deservedly or not) haunt Humanz for the rest of its existence, since the specific “fantasy apocalypse” that the album’s creation was built upon has turned out to be the quintessential example of Liberal mindsets in the Arts pre-election. The kind of mindsets that thought one could invite Trump onto their chummy late-night talk shows to throw softballs and tussle his wig, or their comedy institution to make joke-cicles because, “ahh, that’s ridiculous, that could never happen!”
Much of the entertainment media, much like much of the news media, had pretty much assumed that a Clinton victory was a cert and was preparing for that kind of landscape. Had been for years, even, given how long some works take to make. But, and this is with the caveat that it is near-impossible for media in production to turn on a dime and reflect the new world climate, ultimately this had led to certain works that were clearly intended to capitalise on a Clinton presidency to carry a sense of complacency about the political landscape in their productions. Or, to put it more simply, ABC’s Designated Survivor is not just somebody deciding to mash together 24 and The West Wing in order to see what happens; its existence can be seen as a premature nostalgic cry for the age of White Male Presidents, since Hillary was supposed to succeed Obama’s lead and cement a more diverse age of Presidents. Hence a show about how awesome White Guy Presidents with morals and patriotism used to be.
In the realm of film, more relevantly, last December saw the release of two politically-focussed women-centric stories: the Pablo Larraín-directed Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie, and the John Madden-directed political thriller Miss Sloane. Both were obviously gunning to be Awards Season contenders, but their end of year release dates also betrayed a pre-emptive desire to cash in on what everyone had assumed would be a historic Hillary victory. After all, once a woman finally ascended to what is still considered by many to be the highest office in the Western world, that would mean that we’d all have a hankering for stories about powerful political women kowtowing the patriarchal world to their own whims, and Hollywood was going to be there to satiate that demand! Jackie, whilst undoubtedly melancholy, is a film about a woman refusing to let the world forget about her, writing her legacy in near-real time, and ensuring that her now-deceased husband gets the respect he deserves. Whilst Miss Sloane offers up a one-woman rampage against a deeply corrupt political system, taking on the gun lobby and a shadowy cabal of asshole men throwing their all at her in an attempt to bring her down, and her eventual triumph against those seemingly-insurmountable odds – otherwise known as the exact narrative that Clinton would have driven into the ground in her victory speech on Election Night had she won.
But Hillary did not win. We are instead in the age of Trump/Pence/Ryan/GOP/Monstrous Self-Interested C*nts, and that’s meant that works like Jackie and Miss Sloane bet against a political climate that distressingly came to pass, which makes them hard to separate from their intended contexts. Hell, it’s almost definitely what caused Miss Sloane’s box office failure last December; one month removed from an historically nightmarish Election Night is exactly when the target audience of Miss Sloane wants to go and watch a film in which a strong, no-bullshit kinda-gal single-handedly pushes gun control regulations through the American political system, and all out of the goodness of her heart at that. Their UK release dates (when I got to see them) weren’t much better. Jackie dropped the day of Trump’s inauguration, whilst Miss Sloane opened the week after House Republicans passed an alarmingly sloppy, half-thought, and hateful even by their abysmal standards healthcare bill that aims to replace Obama’s imperfect but, y’know, humane and vital Affordable Care Act.
Watching both films, it is very evident that they were made to capitalise upon an inbound Clinton administration. Miss Sloane is especially guilty of this, with the large swaths of Sorkin DNA embedded in Jonathan Perera’s script, and John Madden’s shameless attempt to play right into the hands of the crowd that spends every week watching shows like Last Week Tonight, for an “evisceration” of the Saturday Morning Cartoon villains that currently make up the vast majority of the United States government. Because it’s hard to separate these works from their self-evident contexts, it means that they stand as testaments to the kind of complacency that has dogged most of the Left, Liberalism, and especially Democrats over the past half-decade. Clinton’s campaign after all, and as damningly documented in Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes’ exceptional book Shattered, had no central hook other than, “Well you’re not going to vote for the other guy, right? Look at him!” Everybody assumed a Clinton victory and thus failed to respond sufficiently to Trump’s rise in time. The celebration party had been booked despite the battle still raging.
Yet, this does not mean that Jackie or Miss Sloane are without resonance, and not just because both are great movies divorced from all surrounding contexts. For example, although Humanz was predicated on the fantasy of a party on the eve of Trump’s election, that fantasy coming true simply means that Humanz now is a soundtrack to the potential slow-collapse of the world around us. It means that Benjamin Clementine’s references to walls and ‘legal tender’ in “Hallelujah Money” are somewhat fitting and relevant instead of immediately outdated, or that the cheesy closer “We Got the Power” is an attempt at an optimistic release in the face of everything that came before. Albarn had intended to make a hypothetical spiritual sequel to Demon Days, an album created right in the middle of George W. Bush’s time in office, and instead lucked into making a full-on spiritual sequel with a mood and tone that is perfectly befitting the world we are currently in.
To bring it back to Jackie, that UK release date of Trump’s Inauguration proved to be very fortuitous. Taking place predominately in the week following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, this heavy sense of passing hangs over the film at large. Kennedy’s passing, yes, and the transfer of power from Kennedy to Lyndon B. Johnson, but there is of course the symbolism that came with that transfer, the one that’s been rhapsodised into the narrative of the 60s for all-time. Kennedy’s death also signalled the death of what was seen to be the idealist and progressive tenants of the 1960s, with a more cynical and reactionary politics soon to replace it. It’s a theme that Jackie is constantly invoking, in its frequent discussions about legacy, in the pained hypotheticals of what might have been and what may be to come, in Mica Levi’s deliberately unsettling score.
With world events how they turned out to be, and with the caveat that Obama was no paragon of progressive virtue, it’s not exactly a stretch to connect the anxieties that the film touches upon with those shared by progressives and leftists as Trump barrelled his way into office. This is why I mentioned in my Neruda review that Larraín has been inadvertently granted an eerie sense of timing since Jackie, despite focussing on events half a century prior and not to the severity of today’s, ended up inadvertently mirroring the circumstances of the world that it was released into. Circumstances that ended up adding an extra power to my viewing of the film. The inbound Johnson administration’s desire for a fast transition, one that effectively tries to erase the Kennedys from existence within a week, even sort of mirrors the GOP and Trump’s manic and single-minded attempts to wipe out Obama’s legacy in their first few weeks in office, whilst Jackie’s refusal to go quietly into the night can be seen as symbolic with the rise in active resistance and protest ever since the results were called.
Miss Sloane, meanwhile, in this new climate effectively becomes a full-on political fantasy, and that’s before the finale brings in remote controlled roaches that are attached with spy cameras to resolve the plot. What before could have felt like a self-congratulatory backslapping of Liberals once again averting disaster – in the same way that much of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom took great pleasure in trying to do-over real history; a comparison I also bring up due to the appearances of Sorkin veterans Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sam Waterson – instead gets to act as a power fantasy. In fact, that power fantasy, ending with Sloane triumphing against all odds and effectively being responsible for pushing gun control legislation through the system singlehandedly, is what allows it to get away with one of its larger flaws.
For much of the film’s runtime, Sloane sets up the question of how far is too far when it comes to lobbying. The villains obviously exploit every single possible opportunity they can find, treating people solely as statistics and PR opportunities. At one point, the face of Sloane’s campaign, Esme, who happened to have survived a school shooting when she was a teenager, is saved from an attempt on her life by a kind All-American man who had a concealed-carry permit, and the villains proceed to marginalise that staffer and play up her saviour and his permit for all they are worth. But Sloane herself also engages in similar kinds of muck-raking all in service of winning. Ordering illegal surveillance on her whole team without their knowledge in order to root out leaks, organising flash mobs of activists to hound senators in public in order to shame them into voting for the bill, and, most callously of all, engineering Esme’s rise to figurehead of her campaign without her knowing it until her past is forcibly outed on live television.
Every now and then, the film will stop to have the more moral members of its cast, specifically Esme and Sloane’s employer, call out how far over the line Sloane is going and attempt to get her to see the error of her ways. After all, what good is winning, even if said cause is supposedly just and righteous, if you’re not still in possession of the moral high ground when said victory comes in? This dalliance in the grey zone appears to be the film’s endgame… only to completely abandon it once the finale kicks in and reveals that Sloane had actually been in control the whole time. Her relentless politicking, gamesmanship, and morally-questionable practices end up being the very things that galvanise the support required to pass the bill, bring down corrupt senators, and win the day at the cost of her professional career. What had been heading in the direction of “maybe both sides are bad” ambiguity instead suddenly gets flipped into being almost a full-on endorsement of down and dirty fighting by those trying to exact real, vital change. In a way, it reminded me of the full-throated endorsement of that same sentiment put forward by Rogue One, complete with a bittersweet acknowledgement that not everybody is cut out for this kind of heavy, draining sacrifice.
It’s a surprising relevance for our current world, one that I don’t think the filmmakers intended and one that, were progressivism not having to fight tooth and nail for every scrap of ground and basic goddamn humanity at the moment, could otherwise have justifiably been dinged as a political film trying its darndest to avoid saying anything actively political – see also, and less forgivably: the issue of gun control, which forms the base of the movie’s conflict but isn’t really of interest to the film itself. Instead, much like with Jackie and Humanz, Miss Sloane managed to inadvertently turn what would have been a crutch into an unexpectedly timely strength. What could have been a self-congratulatory cash-in on a complacent victory instead found a likely-unintentional but far more positive sentiment, that of a large sympathy towards active activism and a refusal to condemn those who are willing to throw themselves in the dirt to stop regressive conservatism.
Admittedly, films like Miss Sloane and Jackie do not intentionally mirror reality, viewing these films at different times to their initial release dates may lose that unintended extra resonance, and it really helps their respective cases that these are both great films to begin with. Still, both took on alternate lives when I saw them, ultimately supplanting their perhaps-intended narratives. The party may have been premature, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t provide messages of value, albeit likely in ways their creators did not expect.
Callie Petch thought the best way to perfect our tree was by building walls.