In the mid-1970s, William Goldman took on what seemed like an insurmountable challenge: how to turn the richly detailed manuscript of All the President’s Men, which Robert Redford had just optioned from Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, into a movie.
The celebrated screenwriter had faced other such challenges: transforming the meandering story of two turn-of-the-century bandits into 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; figuring out how to terrify us with a Nazi fugitive on the loose in contemporary Manhattan, in 1974’s Marathon Man. (Will a dental visit ever be the same again?) In each case, he succeeded, winning an Oscar for Butch and entering the pantheon of Hollywood’s most formidable writers.
But this was different. For one thing, there was no wiggle room with the truth. It was all well and good to recast two Wild West robbers in the most irresistible bromance ever to grace the screen; it was quite another to play fast and loose with the biggest political scandal of post-World War II America.
There was another hitch: everyone knew the story. The population had been transfixed by the growing Watergate scandal, watching it unfold night after night, week after week, on the three then-existing broadcast networks. What possible surprise could a movie version hold?
Goldman sidestepped the biggest problem: He never tackled Nixon directly, allowing him to exist offstage for almost all of the picture.
Instead, he opted for simplicity: he’d tell just half the story, cutting the president out altogether (except for two or three times when he’s glimpsed on television), and ending not so much in victory as defeat. The film concludes at a point when Woodward and Bernstein have suffered a setback. Only in a final coda, seen as if the news were breaking on an old teletype machine, do we learn of their vindication with Nixon’s August 8, 1974, resignation.
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Someday soon, a filmmaker will take up the Goldman gauntlet with Trump: the Movie. Whoever it is, I don’t envy him or her.
Unlike the 1970s, when President’s Men was at the cutting edge of a brand-new genre, the paranoid thriller — when audiences were unaccustomed to considering their leaders with skepticism, let alone cynicism — we have become inured to such stories. Intrepid journalists have become stock figures in film, crooked politicians as common as coal dust. You only have to look at Veep and House of Cards to know that political figures are at best vapid, at worst venal, in today’s filmed entertainment.
Hagiography has given way to horror into today’s political biopics. With a few notable exceptions (Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, Spielberg’s Lincoln) it’s hard to imagine a return to the days of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Knowledge has made us wise — or, if not wise, at least wiser. Far more acceptable to today’s hard-bitten viewer are the warts-and-all portraits of a fictionalized Bill Clinton in Primary Colors and a stranger-than-fiction Sarah Palin in Game Change, projects that seem to reflect the cynicism of our age, and yet also help fuel it.
How easy it would be for a Hollywood liberal to tread further down this path, showing our present-day president as a pompadoured pinhead, a jester let loose in the palaces of power. But that would be a mistake, as well as a missed opportunity.
Not only would it vastly oversimplify the mystery of Trump (and mystery is the source of his charisma, after all), but it would also do little more than convincing the convinced and incensing the incensed. Trump’s enemies would be reminded why they hate him, just as his fans would be reminded why they hate Hollywood.
Soon, Tony Kushner will reportedly tackle Trump’s story in a stage version that I hope will be as imaginative as his Angels in America. I’d never dream of counseling him about the president, but for any other Trump biographer planning to bring him to stage or screen, I’d say this: surprise me. Don’t comfort me with what I know; discomfort me with what I don’t.
That’s what art’s for, isn’t it?
Art isn’t about confirming our beliefs, it’s about shaking them up. It’s about making us see the heroic side of villains and the villainous side of heroes. It’s about putting us in that uncomfortable zone where we have to reconsider the most elemental of our beliefs, the most ingrained of our prejudices. More than just telling the truth, art has to reinvent it.
Make those of us who hate Trump like him, politics be damned.
William Blake understood this better than anyone when he noted — in one of the most famed of all literary critiques — how brilliant Milton was to let us care for Satan, thus turning him into the real hero of Paradise Lost.
“He did it,” said Blake, “because he was a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it.”
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A true filmmaker must be of the devil’s party.
Which creates a horrible dilemma for anyone of a liberal persuasion: teach us to understand Trump, and you risk teaching us to forgive him. Let us enter Trump so deeply that we start to see things from his side, and you run the danger that we’ll lose faith in our own.
Goldman never dared go that far. His most original touch was turning this most potent of political tales into a buddy movie — not a million miles removed from Butch Cassidy when you think about it.
A modern-day filmmaker could do the same thing. He could make Trump: the Movie about someone on the sidelines — an Ivanka or Jared Kushner, perhaps, or any of the many reporters beavering away to uncover more dirt, though none has yet dominated the story as wholly as Woodward and Bernstein did Watergate.
But doing so would mean failing to explore one of the most complex and confounding characters we’ve seen. And that’s a far worthier pursuit.
I suspect Trump needs a bolder and more violent imagination than Goldman’s. Perhaps only a filmmaker with the absurdist vision of a Quentin Tarantino or a Pedro Almodovar could do him full justice — or at least one with the satirical sense of the late Robert Altman.
Whoever it is should reject the obvious. There’s no point in presenting Trump as we think we know him, as saint or sinner; black and white are fine in newsprint, but we want color on the screen. A real artist must use the whole palette to depict this president.
Trump: the Movie places any real artist in an impossible place, forced to choose between politics and art, compelled to decide whether to remain on the side of the angels or join the devil’s party.
For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive.