Clinton vs. Trump?: Hollywood Filmmakers Predict the Results

An Oscar-winning screenwriter, an Oscar-nominated documentarian and the director of the just-released 'Killing Reagan' TV movie all weigh in.
Justin Sullivan, Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump

With less than a week remaining before Americans head to the polls to choose their 45th president, The Hollywood Reporter asked three people who made widely celebrated politically themed films and/or TV series to predict whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will prevail — and to explain their answers. Here are their responses.

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Writer/director of The Contender (2000), creator of Commander in Chief (2005-2006) director of Killing Reagan (2016)

Donald Trump is like Bulworth, but without the honesty. He’s not just the worst candidate in modern American history (yes, that includes George Wallace), he may be one of the worst human beings — a breathing apocalypse of racism and sexism and fascism. And yet he may win. He may fucking win. Unless the networks are in some sort of sick collusion to keep the ratings up. But. For now. He. May. Win.

And in that there is one tiny consolation that may not be a consolation at all, and here it is: Donald Trump will be impeached inside of a year. Which would be fitting because Trump has treated this entire process as a big piece of television entertainment. And, in a great ironic turnaround, in the Hollywood happy ending of it all, that’s what would happen. He’d be removed from office. And what’s more, it’d be the GOP and Paul Ryan who was behind it.

Republicans hate him even more than Democrats do. Because, for one thing, he has spent the past 18 months decoding Republican-speak, and they don’t sound so good when they’re decoded, do they? And, for another thing, he makes it tough for Republican lawmakers with their wives. "How can you support this “pussy-grabber” who’d rate me a three and who wants to date his daughter?!" "Don’t worry honey… when he gets in there, we’re going to throw his orangutan ass out. And when we do, smell the sweet scent of... President Mike Pence!"

Paul Ryan will lead the charge. It’ll be something out of a Frank Capra film. He’ll play the part of Jimmy Stewart. He seems to loathe Trump even more than the rest of them. Trump University. The Trump Foundation. Tax fraud. Sexual assaults. Basic incompetence. Any one of these could stick. And President Trump will sit in the Oval Office — now designed in a way that makes you think you are in the throne room of a Persian Shah — and stew as the whole thing unfolds. He’ll go Captain Queeg, chase down strawberries… and then… and then… he refuses to go… and he summons the Army to protect him… and…

Aw, whatever. Hillary’s going to win. (But they’ll try to impeach her, too.)


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Director of Street Fight (2005, best documentary feature Oscar nomination)

Some years ago, I shot a documentary called Street Fight, about a bloody-knuckles election between the corrupt, rascally mayor of Newark, N.J. and a young unknown reformer named Cory Booker (today a U.S. Senator).

That election taught me a few lessons about politics that make me nervous this November. In the film we see how effective it can be to whip up racial resentment and hysteria about outsiders invading our towns. We see how lies, boldly repeated, can become accepted as truth. We see that the media values balance more than accuracy — always trying to call the same number of fouls on each team, no matter how many fouls each side commits. We see that voters will forgive, and even cheer on, the transgressions of a scoundrel if he is funny and charismatic enough. And in the end, we see that — outside of Hollywood movies — the good guy sometimes loses the fight.

But I’m not without hope. I have spent a lot of time in swing states this year, meeting principled Republicans who support Hillary (and shooting commercials with some of them). And I’m happy to say that Donald Trump has even brought my own extended family together, though not in the way he intended. For the first time in my life, my North Carolina Republican uncle, my tax-phobic dad and I will all be pulling the lever for the same candidate: Hillary Clinton.


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Writer of The Candidate (1972, best original screenplay Oscar)

Predicting this election is like planning a screenplay about the struggle for power in America, and deciding whether you want a Tragedy or a Comedy.

The tragic approach sees the election drama as an apocalyptic, universe-altering, historic event. That's exactly what I fear the rise to power of Donald Trump would be: the drama of a Barnum & Bailey "reality TV" star, selling his own puffed-up idea of himself as "the only one" who could solve all problems, the truly tough guy who will invest in a massive wall to keep others out and pump up our already over-built military to intimidate other countries, ignoring complexities of a world where we are no longer the only power, because he is destined to be The Big Winner, who need merely bluster, lie and threaten to get all he desires.

Those who do not fall in line would be jailed, lynched or assassinated, in a Great Country restored to its original inhabitants (and I do not mean Native Americans) and the righteousness of mob violence. We'd have panic in the streets as markets collapsed, and our hapless population found itself at the whim of a classical bully, who would make alliances with other bullies, push conflict between nations to the brink and ignore the environmental catastrophe which threatens the continued existence of our species. This would be a grand special-effects movie, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Russell Crowe, with final footage where a chunky thumb lingers over a button and a high angle from a space station records the slow-motion disintegration of earth.

There is already at least one excellent movie in this category, Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan in 1957, which chronicles the rapid rise of a charismatic egotist, Lonesome Rhodes, played exuberantly by Andy Griffith, who is discovered strumming his guitar and singing, with a sharp and pointed running spiel, in a county jail. The volcanic and unpredictable Lonesome rapidly rises through local radio to a Memphis country music show to national TV, selling vast quantities of bunkum pills through his uninhibited rascal personality. He envisions political prominence as a natural extension of his talents, but meets his end as most such overweening bastards do (e.g Hitler, Richard III): by pushing his act to the point of self-destruction.

Or one could make a comedy. This would be a serious comedy, not unlike Birdman or Slumdog Millionaire. The heroine would learn something true and important, through many a ridiculous up and down, as she set about saving the country and her marriage. As indeed Hillary has learned much over the years, beginning from the most difficult entry into American politics, as a political wife, too ambitious at first and possibly over her head, suffering abuse even for loyalty to her husband, but hanging in there to master the many difficult details of a political life dedicated to a chain of possible reforms. I might mention a number of Katherine Hepburn films as models here.

Each of Hillary's many changes might be an occasion for comic reversal — but the best comic heroes are those who, like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, do not give up. If our heroine has tried to temper the effects of big money by engaging herself overmuch with the big money people, well, her number one lesson is to disengage herself by finding the power to bring money in line. A comedy need not pretend this is not a difficult and ongoing process. And the constant dynamic is provided by those who sell her short, count her out and mock her, underestimating her intelligence, her energy and her fortitude.

There would also be a great role here for Larry David — I mean Bernie Sanders — as the man who comes to the campaign as a principled hero and learns to humble himself in the face of disaster, making a dramatic last-minute appeal to his idealistic followers. Too bad he could not be played by Jimmy Stewart.

A serious comedy would be more in line, I think, with how politics works, at its best, with elected officials who are able constantly to align their actions with the needs of the times and the art of the possible. A political comedy might engage the sympathy of show business people, who are sensitive to the power conferred by TV stardom to those who imagine themselves as all-conquering  heroes, who can write their own rules because they are "winners." They also know the difficult reality of dealing with a psychopath here and there, especially ones who have the power to punish those who are not true believers.  

In books about psychopaths, they are always in and out of jail, gamblers, junkies, their own worst enemies. In politics and show business, however, there are successful psychopaths, people who rise to positions of top management. Sometimes, it seems like successful psychopaths run the world, and however small or large their chosen satrapy, they are surrounded, each by his own entourage of minders and handlers, each of whom thinks he can protect The Great Man from his own worst impulses, and in so doing, only confirms the boss's royal isolation. But they must never, ever, admit that the emperor wears no clothes!

So I find my election prediction comes down to my faith in my fellow Americans, as well as my taste in movie genres. Will they repudiate not only our erratic and inadequate "media" but also the very act of thinking, reading and considering, each woman and man making up her or his own mind, as a citizen in a democracy must learn to do? Or will they open their lives to the full blast of tragedy — perhaps a braver thing, if one only knew that was the question! Is democracy really all that important, or can it be disposed of in service of what used to be known as "a man on a horse?"

On October 27, 2016, addressing one of his rallies, Trump gave his answer to that question: "We should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump," he told the crowd. "What are we even having it for? What are we having it for?" One might answer, "To express the will of the people as to the direction of our government, in relation to choices which affect us all, but which cannot be left to the interests of individuals." But that inevitably involves the reconciliation of differences, muddling-through, testing our ideals against the comedy of everyday life.

I'd like to think the majority of the American people would prefer realistic struggles to define who we are, who we might be and how best to get there, over the impositions of a self-created Ruler who would magically solve all problems… or declare them solved… or else!