Life Imitating Art: Nine Films that Foreshadowed the Dystopic Media-Political Zeitgeist of 2016

Here at the Norman Lear Center, we are fascinated by the convergence of politics and entertainment (#PoliticsAsEntertainment). This includes the proliferation (and real-life impact) of comedic “news” shows and political fiction TV series, as well as the ongoing transformation of the political landscape into a 24/7 reality-show, populated with stranger-than-fiction characters and unexpected plot-twists.

In the spirit of #PoliticsAsEntertainment, we asked Lear Center staffers to nominate the films that best foreshadow or satirize the current political-cultural-media climate. Here are our top picks, in reverse chronological order for maximum uncanny-valley effect. (Note: spoilers follow.)

Think we missed something? See “And Don’t Forget…” at the end. And please add your own favorites in the comments!

The Purge: Election Year (2016) Adam Amel Rogers

The original Purge movie is an intriguing look at what America would be like with a new Constitution that eliminates crime by allowing all crime, including murder, to be legal for 12 hours every year. People get it out of their system and the result is a model citizenry. The sequel shows how the government and the rich use the purge as an opportunity to kill poor people and people of color.

The third installment, The Purge: Election Year, is overt in exaggerating our real-life issues and current election cycle. The plot focuses on an election between a progressive female candidate, who wants to end the purge, and an incumbent with the slogan “Keep America Great,” who will do whatever it takes to maintain the purge.

The film reveals that the true intent of the purge is to benefit the wealthy white class, the insurance companies and the NRA while eliminating opposition, poor people and people of color. The film is heavy with themes and arguments reminiscent of the Affordable Care Act, Black Lives Matter, economic inequality, overwhelming violence and other issues central to the 2016 campaign.

Idiocracy (2006) Erica Rosenthal

What happens when human evolution is allowed to continue for millennia, unchecked by any natural predators? According to Idiocracy, a film by Mike Judge, the less intelligent overwhelmingly outbreed their brainier counterparts, and society devolves into a sprawling, garbage-infested slum, characterized by epic levels of stupidity and savagery.

Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), average in every way, signs on for a yearlong military “human hibernation” experiment. But the experiment is forgotten and Joe stays in hibernation for 500 years. When he wakes in the year 2505, average Joe has become the smartest person in the world.  And humanity has pinned its hopes on Joe solving all of their problems, including mountains of garbage, food shortages due to the inability to grow any crops and uncontrollable dust storms.

Uhhhmerican President Dwayne Elizondo Camacho (Terry Crews), a dictatorial demagogue who began his career as a professional wrestler and porn star, appoints Joe Secretary of the Interior. In a rousing speech to the House of Representin’, a scene evocative of some recent campaign rallies, President Camacho presents an unrealistic and poorly conceived “three-point plan” that Joe will “fix everything.” In fact, Joe’s life depends on it. When he fails to deliver quickly enough on the President’s promise, Joe is subjected to a reality show-like live spectacle called “Rehabilitation,” effectively a cross between Monster Trucks and the gladiatorial contests of Roman times, in which criminals and political prisoners were publicly executed in front of massive, cheering crowds.

The dystopic future society presented in Idiocracy is an exaggeration of modern times only in degree. Citizens lounge on easy chairs with built-in toilets, watching a reality show called “Ow, My Balls” (which, as the title suggests, involves a man suffering repeated trauma to the testicles) and continuously imbibing a radioactive-green sports drink, which is also used to water the nonexistent crops. Advertising is even more ubiquitous than today, papering the walls of hospitals, which also feature slot machines offering a chance to win free health care. The most prominent corporations include some familiar names: Carls Jr., Fox News, Starbucks (an erotic massage parlor featuring a “Gentleman’s latte”) and Costco (now the size of a large city and offering law degrees). Like the flame-throwing mime in the climactic scene, Idiocracy is relentless in its skewering of our culture of excess, consumerism, schadenfreude and self-interest, which was entering a new era in 2006 with the dawn of reality TV, social media and celebrities “famous for being famous.”

Bulworth (1998) Armine Kourouyan

Bulworth is a political satire co-written, co-produced, directed by, and starring Warren Beatty. Beatty appears as J. Billington Bulworth, a Democratic Senator up for re-election. Depressed by a failed marriage and the hypocrisy of a political game in which everything is said or done in a bid to manipulate poll numbers and get re-elected at all costs, his downward spiral hits rock bottom as he devises a plan to commit suicide. He trades a vote on an insurance bill in exchange for a $10 million life insurance policy to be paid to his daughter upon his death. In order to avoid the suicide exception to the policy, he then hires a hitman to assassinate him in two days.

Steeped in satire, Bulworth uses his last days to do whatever he wants. He begins rapping his speeches at campaign events, including every politically incorrect lyric imaginable. Bulworth continues to throw caution to the wind; instead of attending corporate cocktail fundraisers, he “connects” with the voters by showing up in underground nightclubs and smoking marijuana with his constituents. Along the way he makes some poignant attacks on a corrupt political system and stirs up every uncomfortable feeling in your stomach, as he raps: “What we used to call America, that’s going down the drains. That’s the real obscenity – trying to believe a word the Democrats or Republicans say.” After initially believing he is insane, the public starts to respond to his seeming authenticity and willingness to share uncomfortable truths. Black activist Nina (Halle Berry), who had previously protested everything Bulworth stood for, even begins to fall for him.

Eighteen years later, these themes still ring true. This year we’re not in a movie. The public is responding to leaders whom they believe will “tell it like it is” and “say whatever they want.” In the end, however, the public also wants leaders who can bring people together to solve the mounting problems we all face. Will telling it like it is actually work?  In the movie, Bulworth wins the primary election by a landslide, but is shot, not by his hired hitman, but an agent of the insurance company lobbyists uncomfortable with his new political message. Our fate is left ambiguous just as Bulworth’s life. Only time will tell where this year’s presidential election will take us. No matter what side of the aisle you stand upon, an elderly vagrant makes a poignant message in the last line of the movie to take action for your political beliefs: “You got to be a spirit. You can’t be no ghost.”

Wag the Dog (1997) Erica Rosenthal

“Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.”

This Hollywood-meets-the Hill satire pulls off a remarkable feat; it is the only film I can think of that succeeds in inspiring its audience to root for an elaborate cover-up of a Presidential sex scandal involving an underage girl.

Less than two weeks from the election, the unnamed incumbent has an overwhelming lead in the polls. But the story of his tryst with a Lewinsky-esque “Firefly girl” is about to break. That’s when master of spin Conrad “Connie” Brean (Robert DeNiro) is called in. The name of the game is distraction. Brean, along with Presidential advisor Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) and renowned film producer Stan Motss (Dustin Hoffman), sets out to manufacture a news story that might displace the nation’s limited attention from the Presidential sex scandal just long enough to get him reelected.

At first skeptical, Motss incredulously exclaims, “why, you’d have to have a war!” Dramatic pause. The team sets out to produce a fake war in Albania. Why Albania? Because, says Brean, “Albanian terrorists wish to destroy the American way of life” and “we just found out they have the bomb.” Is it true?  Who cares! By the time the American people find out, the election will be long over. Of course, this nuclear capacity ruse predated by six years the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that would catapult the U.S. into war with Iraq.

The war pageant spares no detail, from the iconic image of a young girl fleeing her burning village, to propagandistic slogans, to catchy theme songs, to a “war hero” who turns out to be more than the team bargained for. Amid all the lies and strategic maneuvering, Ames is diligent in ensuring no undocumented immigrants are inadvertently caught up in the effort, as that could cause a real scandal!

Beyond the obvious spoof on the concurrent Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Wag the Dog effectively foresees the blurring of entertainment and news into a monolithic culture of “truthiness” and manufactured outrage in which there are no facts, only interpretations. The truth, as it turns out, is whatever the public is willing to believe at any given moment.

The American President (1995) Adam Amel Rogers

With The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin created President Jed Bartlet to provide an aspirational alternate reality for those who were unhappy with the Bush Administration. Bartlett wasn’t Sorkin’s first heroic progressive creation though. In The American President, President Andrew Shepard showed us what it was like to have a President rise above partisan attacks with altruistic leadership.

While much of the movie focuses on what it would be like to have a President with a girlfriend, the political depictions foreshadow many aspects of our current reality.

Shepard’s political opponent focuses his campaign on character attacks and manufacturing mainstream outrage over fake scandals – tactics that are now cornerstones of many real-life campaigns. Meanwhile, Shepard tries to ignore the attacks and focus on policy.

President Shepard finally reaches his boiling point and gives an iconic speech that is all too relevant in this political cycle. He begins, “We have serious problems to solve and we need serious people to solve them.” Shepard then lays into his opponent, suggesting he isn’t interested in solving any problems, “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

Then, pivoting to policy, he tackles two issues that are, depressingly, even larger problems now, 21 years after the movie. First, he announces legislation to significantly reduce fossil fuels to reverse global warming and then offers a quote that is custom-built for the 2016 election cycle:

“You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and hand guns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns.”

Network (1976) Kate Folb


For God’s sakes, Diana, we’re talking about putting a

manifestly irresponsible man on national television.

Just take my word for it and watch this film – even if you’ve seen it before.

Network, takes place in a fictional 1976, when four TV networks dominate the airwaves. The fourth, UBS, struggling with falling ratings, resorts to outrageous tactics to garner America’s eyeballs.

Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway in a dynamic Oscar-winning performance), watches footage of an actual bank robbery shot by a terrorist group and decides it’s TV gold. As V.P. of Programming, and to the horror of her colleagues, she eagerly pitches a show featuring footage from terrorist bombings, robberies, airplane hijackings, murders, etc. Using realism and gore to garner the attention of the masses, she guarantees it will be a hit.

When the network’s famed news anchor, Howard Beale, threatens to kill himself on the air, and shouts “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” on live TV, she sees another opportunity to capitalize on his madness and the anger of the viewing public.

Beale, dubbed a latter-day prophet, gets his own show, blending current events, the frustrations of the masses and his own special insanity into a pseudo-evangelist daily talk show that dominates the airwaves. UBS is back on top!

In this fictional 1976, the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment has begun. Prophetic indeed.


(growing fervor)

And I said to the Voice:  “Why me?”

And the Voice said:  “Because

you’re on television, dummy! — “

La Dolce Vita (1960) Scott McGibbon

Marcello Mastroianni stars in Fellini’s comedy/drama masterpiece as a Roman journalist stuck writing for gossip magazines even as he longs for a more literary life, more happiness and maybe even true love.

What “the sweet life” in 1960 Rome provides, however, is a descent into empty Hollywood celebrity, fleeting distractions and fragmented relationships as Marcello drops from journalist to PR agent for the bored, degenerate rich of Italian society. Politics doesn’t overtly play a role in La Dolce Vita, but Italy suffered through more than 60 governments post-World War II and the constant, convulsive collapse of civic leadership combined with growing corruption made it appear more like a failed state than a just, sovereign nation.

As Marcello swims in the sea of a corrupt media driven to create spectacle and chase religious fanaticism, his wise, intellectual mentor goes mad and kills himself and those he loves. Marcello’s only friend at the end is a gossip photographer, Paparazzo, with whom he vacuously runs to a beach to see the spectacle of a large fish just caught be local fishermen.

A Face in the Crowd (1957) Veronica Jauriqui

You could say Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, Andy Griffith’s character in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, plays America’s first reality star. I saw this film for the first time as an adult, years after watching Andy Griffith Show reruns as a child. So his departure from squeaky clean paternalistic Andy Taylor to a cocky drifter and alcoholic was a bit jarring.

In the film, Griffith’s Rhodes gets discovered by a small time Arkansas radio host while detoxing in a local drunk tank. His colorful “aw shucks” personality and good-ole-boy charm strike a chord with listeners. (You know, he’s someone you could have a beer with.) And his star rises – from radio to television where he eventually lands his own national network TV show.

It’s all a façade, of course. And beneath that folksy veneer is a manipulative sociopath intent on gaming his celebrity to influence politics. Courted by a presidential candidate hoping for an endorsement, Rhodes positions himself to be named “Secretary for National Morale,” as a populist leader and political force.

Like any classic American film, there is a downfall and it’s pretty sweet. But the film’s prescient themes of media, celebrity and power are even more relevant today. It amazes me that this movie was made when radio still held sway, household TVs were relatively new and there were only three television networks. Throw in round-the-clock television news, the Internet and cell phones and you can take your pick of recent “celebrity” influencers whose discourse can shape opinions.

State of the Union (1948) Roberta Cruger

When a business tycoon is coaxed into running for president by an ambitious newspaper magnate and Republican strategist, his populist idealism is soft-soaped. This comedy, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, reveals backroom political scheming hasn’t changed much over 70 years. Rousing speeches sound familiar: “You politicians, instead of trying to pull the country together, are helping to pull it apart just to get votes. To labor you promise higher wages and lower prices. To business, higher prices and lower wages. To the rich you say, “Let’s cut taxes”, to the poor, “Soak the Rich!” An attempt to keep “The People’s Choice” in line finds him following the party platform as lobbyists wheel’n’deal to deliver delegates. Politicians determine nominees, claims the campaign manager, because people are too lazy to vote in primaries.

Directed by Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), this satire about election season stars Spencer Tracy as the manipulated mogul, Angela Lansbury as the publisher (and his mistress) and Katherine Hepburn as his wife. A twist develops in the effort to deadlock the 1948 Republican Convention and replace candidates Dewey and Taft with this naïve dark horse. His fraud, betrayal of the American people and compromised principles come to light on national TV.

Uncanny parallels to today’s election are underscored by 1948’s famous historical upset when President Truman’s win shocked pollsters. State of the Union exposes another era of ideological extremes between liberals and conservatives, a States-Rights defect from Southern Democrats, and a surprise contender who was vague on issues like free trade, global isolationism and civil rights. Life imitated art with tension on the film set: actor Adolphe Menjou, who supported the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Hepburn, a staunch opponent of the Communist investigations and Hollywood Blacklist, refused to speak to each other off-camera.


And Don’t Forget…

Bob Roberts (1992)
The Campaign (2012)
The Candidate (1972)
Citizen Ruth (1996)
Dave (1993)
Dick (1999)
The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)
Duck Soup (1933)
Good Night and Good Luck (2005)
The Ides of March (2011)
In the Loop (2009)
Man of the Year (2006)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Medium Cool (1969)
Meet John Doe (1941)
The Mouse that Roared (1959)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Nightcrawler (2014)
Primary Colors (1998)
Seven Days in May (1964)
Team America: World Police (2004)
Thank You for Smoking (2005)

As we plow ahead through convention season and toward Election Day, what films — classic or contemporary — do you feel best predict or reflect our current media-political dystopia? Add them in the comments!

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