Now, the images are more complex, and in some ways blurrier. Politically and personally this president functions as a screen onto which different Americans project their fears and fantasies. From the right, the picture is often of a monster whose policies are steps on a scary road to socialism or some other exotic form of tyranny. Many liberals, by contrast, have expressed disappointment at his willingness to compromise with Republicans and his reluctance to fight. At different times and from various angles Obama is a fiery orator, an aloof intellectual, a policy nerd and a shrewd strategist. He is notoriously resistant to sketch-comedy impersonation and also, perhaps, to simple pop-cultural appropriation.
Last year in The New York Review of Books, the critic J. Hoberman wondered when we would see an “Obama-inflected Hollywood cinema”. It may be too soon to identify an Obama Cinema, but the president’s second inauguration seems like an appropriate time to try. His first term wasn’t easy for Hollywood, representationally; the most visible evidence for this seeming paralysis was the whiteout that descended over the 2011 Oscars, where African-Americans were conspicuous only by their absence.
Subsequent Oscar nominations for The Help partly rectified the colour imbalance. This year race is firmly back on the table with movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained. Yet much like Obama, who has rarely made race a topic of conversation, the current nominees for best picture speak to other issues, including war, the economy and just about everything else. Some of the connections between politics and movies are obvious, but we wanted to go beyond the topical resonance of films like Zero Dark Thirty and enter into the realms of allegory and national mythology. Here is our highly preliminary, wildly speculative thematic guide to American cinema in the Obama Era.
Our current bout of Lincolnmania may have begun that frigid day in 2007 when Obama announced that he was running for president. Since then Lincoln books have continued to pour in and he has become an unexpected box-office draw with Steven Spielberg’s political procedural, Lincoln. That Daniel Day-Lewis’s grave and wily interpretation of the mature president outperformed a younger, axe-wielding Abe in the gonzo Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn’t just a surprise, including at the box office, it was also one of the biggest film stories of 2012.
Literal Lincolns have been few on the big screen, but variations on the Lincolnesque have emerged, from the leadership of Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks, a distant relative of Abe) in Toy Story 3 to Jamie Foxx’s avenger in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.The Lincoln in Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s film represents the triumph of the moral good, achieved through rational discourse, the law and backroom wrangling. In Tarantino’s Django, by contrast, the salt-and-pepper team played by Christoph Waltz and Foxx embodies a blood-drenched fantasy of justice achieved through the rule of the gun. It’s a fantasy that has deep roots in American history, on screen and off. What these period pictures have in common is a sense that
righting our wrongs is a shared burden. Or, as Nick Fury, in describing another battle between good and evil, puts it: “There came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat”.
Marvel’s The Avengers might have been called Team of Rivals — the title of the book, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, that was one of the sources for Lincoln. And Joss Whedon’s Marvel costume party is, like Spielberg’s historical costume drama, largely about an urgent response to a political crisis. It is also about community organising, as Fury mobilises a fractious group of individuals whom he must persuade to pursue a set of common interests.
As such, The Avengers may be the exemplary Obama era superhero movie, replacing the figure of the solitary, shadowy paladin with a motley assortment of oddballs and, despite the title, focusing less on vengeance than on interplanetary peacekeeping. A similar ethic informs X-Men: First Class, which takes place around the time of Obama’s birth (at the height of the Cold War and the civil rights movement) and which shows how the idealistic pursuit of justice and tolerance can end up tragically divided between radical and conciliatory impulses.
The ideal of community and the threats to its survival are powerful themes in these anxious times, when economic upheaval and environmental catastrophe are ever-present worries, and when the values of comity and neighbourliness can seem hard to sustain. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Promised Land, both released in 2012, imagine emblematic American landscapes as ecologically and socially fragile places, easily destroyed by hundred-year storms or million-dollar fracking payoffs. Another, The Descendants (set in Hawaii, the president’s birthplace), locates the struggle between the pursuit of profit and the desire to hold onto other values within the conscience of a lawyer played by George Clooney, the president’s contemporary and a quintessential Obama era movie star.
The Great Recession “officially” ended in 2009, but that hasn’t dramatically thinned unemployment lines or buoyed the global economy. Historically American movies often take on class in “little micropolitical movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice”, to borrow an observation from the German filmmaker Christian Petzold. Newer fiction tales like Warrior (about brothers battling in the lower middle class) and Arbitrage (about a nose-diving venture capitalist) as well as documentaries like Inside Job, have taken on the economy and its fallout but largely attract more critical love than paying customers. One of the few class-conscious titles recently to hit the top of the box office was Steven Soderbergh’s independently produced Magic Mike, about a stripper whose offstage dreams seem thwarted when he’s turned down for a bank loan.
The big studios still shy away from openly taking on class, unless the issue comes swaddled in period rags and a comfortable historical distance, as in Les Miserables, and even the last Robin Hood was more about the rights of the rich than the privations of the poor. That said, glimpses of class conflict emerged amid the shadows of The Dark Knight Rises, which riffs on the French Revolution, nods at the Occupy movement and glances back at the gangster movies of the 1930s, in which struggles for power and money were accompanied by the rat-a-tat of Tommy guns.
Of course, The Dark Knight Rises is also a war movie, and Obama has been (to cite his predecessor’s self-description) a wartime president. The Dark Knight Rises imagines a Hobbesian state of social chaos, a more complicated situation than pictured by its prequel, The Dark Knight, which is in some ways the central movie of the Bush years, with its sharply drawn lines of good and evil. Batman’s fight with the Joker was as personal and apocalyptic as Harry Potter’s epochal struggle with Voldemort, which came to an on-screen conclusion in the same year that Osama bin Laden, the prime evildoer of the Bush era, met his violent end.
The big movie about that event — Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty — was pre-emptively attacked as a piece of election-year Obama-boosting, and then criticised, for seeming to imply that waterboarding and other brutal forms of interrogation produced some of the intelligence that led to Bin Laden. Obama appears on screen briefly, but the film’s action takes place far from the centres of political power, in Central Asian “black sites” and then in the cubicle warrens of CIA headquarters. Its mood is hardly triumphant, and its message is far more equivocal than some commentators have supposed. The world of Zero Dark Thirty is one of shadows, ethical compromises and constant danger, and though it ends with victory — as most American war movies have — it also ends in tears.
Movie audiences tend to prefer symbolic, fantastical wars, with intergalactic robots, alien life forms and futuristic settings. But those films have nuances of their own. Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes scramble the usual good guy/bad guy dichotomy, suggesting that the enemy is us.
The year 2012 culminated with a sigh of relief for believers in supposed Maya end-of-the-world prophecies. But intimations of apocalypse have figured heavily in the popular imagination of the past four years. Real-world disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, wars) have been mirrored in movies about rampant zombies, planetary collisions, killer epidemics and other harbingers of human extinction. The future — as depicted in The Hunger Games, The Book of Eli, Contagion and Cloud Atlas, among others — looks very scary indeed. These outsize fears may be the flip side of the extravagant hope of 2008, or exaggerated versions of the real challenges that we will face over the next four years.
A.O. SCOTT and MANOHLA DARGIS