This is one of the best films of 2015.
I woke up at about 3:30 a.m. and went online to see if Obama had pulled a victory out of Indiana. He had narrowed Clinton's head to two points by midnight and later added a few more votes, but the story was basically about the same: Clinton's winning margin was so small that it didn't much count, and Obama would be the likely Presidential nominee. Then I started wondering, in the vaporous midnight hours, about how you could make a movie of this primary campaign.
I'm sure there will be documentaries. In the age of the video camera, there cannot be a public moment that went unrecorded. But I'm thinking of a fiction film. What would the angle be? Like most people I know, the primary went on long past my ability to care about it on a daily basis. It must have been a species of torture for the anchors at CNN, who seemed caught in a "Groundhog Day" loop, with the conclusion of each state election sliding relentlessly into the start of the next, while "panels" of talking heads were badgered to extract meaning when there was only pattern. If CNN had "the best political team on television," would it age and wither before the general election?
But where is the story? Hearing for the first time notes of exhaustion and discouragement in Clinton's voice, I wondered what it had been like for her, month after month, state after state, pumping out the same policies, the same optimism, while she was running on empty. Hotel after hotel, early morning show after late-night show, schools, union meetings, church events, potluck dinners, being introduced by the local clone of the Chairman of Today's Event. For Obama, it was the same, with the difference that for most of the time he seemed to be winning, which must have been a consolation.
The problem with a screenplay based on these events is that there would be a merciless sameness. Where is the drama in the story of a game of 48 innings? Each mini-climax, from "Hillary's tears" to the Rev. Wright's display at the National Press Club, was hopefully examined to see if it might "change the direction of the campaign," and it never did, it only prolonged the suffering of that day's CNN "panel." When Wolf Blitzer got out of bed in the morning, were his hand and arm already extended, so that the clipboard had only to be inserted by an aide?
The ideal primary movie was Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" (1998). There were other good films too, like Mike Nichols' "Primary Colors," (1998) based on a roman a clef about Hillary and Bill. Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" (1987), involved Clintonesque moments, had a screenplay by David Mamet, gave a phrase to the language, and was the best of the lot. But "Bulworth" was the ideal, because it had a cut-off point made of drama, not election days. Beatty plays a candidate sick onto death of uttering the same cliches. He takes out a contract on his own life, assuring that he will be assassinated in three days. That gives him the freedom to say exactly what's on his mind--what he, and any sensible person, might be thinking while pretending to believe their own platitudes.
That gave you suspense, comedy, some poignant private moments, and even a possible romance (with the newcomer Halle Berry). It was about transgression, not repetition. But the primary campaign that's now concluding has been a Groundhog loop, with no cut-off except for a victory, at which point the contest itself becomes yesterday's news.
The commentators Tuesday night spoke of Hillary's tired voice and Bill's dejected body language as if describing the malfunctions of robots. To me, it was humanizing material, like the time Hillary shed those tears. And a few days earlier Bill came close to the truth-telling of Bulworth when he told an audience, "I haven't come to ask you to vote for my wife, I've come to ask you to pray for her."
Considering those moments of insight, I thought of another movie that might provide a model for a possible film: "The Queen" (2006). What fascinated me about that film was its uncanny credibility. I could imagine Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sharing their private time much like the characters in the film, with honesty and realism, with exasperation and impatience, carefully modulated to preserve the stability of a long marriage. Even the verbal shorthand was right. These people have been over this ground so many times, they share the same reference points.
Hillary and Bill are both intelligent, experienced political creatures. They've both been running for something since grade school. They are fueled by the desire for high office and public recognition, but fueled also by the process itself. They're good at it. Considering their apparent depression on Tuesday night I realized that, yes, as late as that, they really did still think Hillary could win, even after the CNN "panels" were running out of ways to say farewell. They believed it right up to the end, because they had to, they needed to, in order to keep on running at all.
Yet there must have been private moments of despair. The two realists, as able as anyone to read the trends, must have spoken privately about their shrinking options. And on Tuesday night, as Hillary's double-digit lead in Indiana dwindled to very small single digits, there must have come a time when one of them said, "We've lost this thing."
What were those moments like? What kept them going between themselves? Did they encourage one another, or was there an unspoken pact not to voice the unspeakable? Was there blame when Bill had one of his unwise moments? Did their shared past, of success and scandal, enter into it, or were they absorbed in this moment?
In answering those questions, there you would find the movie. It would be more introspective than audiences would probably prefer, and less sensational. Smarter, too. There would be a limited budget, because you wouldn't need a stadium filled with thousands of people so much as you'd need lots of lonely hotel rooms after midnight. The climaxes would come as one old comrade after another abandoned them for the Obama camp. There would be a desperate, clinging love that had survived all the years, because it was based on shared experience and memories and goals, not so much any longer on passion.
It would be a sad story, but a true one, and it might contain more truth than political movies are conventionally allowed to have. It might, like "Bulworth," say forbidden things. And issues would not be at issue: The campaign was not about political positions, but about sheer desire. Hillary wanted to win, and she ran and ran and ran until there was a kind of heroism to it. Futile heroism after a point, but that's where the story lies.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.