Bulworth, Beatty, Trump and the Dream of the Political Truth-Teller

Jim Hemphill looks back at Warren Beatty's late-'90s uncannily prescient satire of U.S. politics, about a plain-speaking presidential candidate.
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This Super Tuesday, as it became increasingly likely that my choice for president this fall would be between the seriously compromised Hillary Clinton and the seriously deranged Donald Trump, I shut the TV off and took solace, as I always do, in the movies. Trying to decide what to watch to stave off my depression and cynicism, there was really only one choice: the riotously funny, impeccably executed and endlessly insightful Bulworth. The most audacious and fearless film by a man, Warren Beatty, who has been wrongly characterized as an overly cautious perfectionist, it’s one of those movies that was great when it came out and only gets better with every repeat viewing. I don’t have a clue how he did it other than his preternatural intelligence and intimate access to both Hollywood and Washington’s power players, but somehow Beatty had his finger so firmly on the pulse of the American culture that he made a movie of its time that appears more and more timeless with every passing year.

Along with Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, Beatty is, for my money, one of the greatest political filmmakers ever to work within the Hollywood system. First as a producer and star (Bonnie and Clyde), then as producer, star and writer (Shampoo), and ultimately as writer, producer, star and director (Reds and Bulworth), Beatty accomplished something unprecedented in the American cinema: for four decades in a row, in each decade he was responsible for the seminal film summing up, commenting upon, and reflecting that decade’s cultural attitudes and the political implications of those attitudes – and every time, he suckered a major corporation into paying for a lacerating critique of the values that sustained it.

Beatty’s political film of the ’90s, Bulworth, was positively psychic, foreseeing everything from the second invasion of Iraq to Ferguson to the rise of Bernie Sanders. (Bulworth utters the dirty word “socialism” in a positive light nearly 20 years before it became acceptable in American politics.) Released in 1998, it follows Shampoo‘s formula of looking back to the very recent past; an opening title card informs us that it is set in the primary season of 1996, when Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are competing for the presidency before an uninspired populace. The first thing we see after that title card is a series of commercials featuring Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty), a Democratic senator running for reelection on clichés that were prevalent in the 1990s, and that remain so now; the second thing we see is that same senator in his office, broken down in tears as he listens to himself spout slogans like “I’m for a hand up, not a hand out.” In a plot borrowed from Jules Verne’s Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, Bulworth takes out a huge life insurance policy and then orders his own assassination – an act that liberates him to start telling the truth as a candidate. As his dismayed aides hustle him from one campaign stop to another, he gives speeches in which he admits the Democratic party doesn’t care about black people, doesn’t care about the poor – doesn’t care about anyone, in fact, except for the millionaires and billionaires contributing to its candidates. This truth-telling, combined with an outrageous delivery in which the painfully white Bulworth conveys his message via hilarious and profane raps, turns him into a sort of folk hero. The only problem for Bulworth himself is that now that he has rediscovered his ideals, he has no idea how to call off his own assassination.

Beatty’s deal with Twentieth-Century Fox meant that as long as he delivered a film within a certain budget range – somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million – he could do pretty much whatever he wanted, which meant that he managed to co-write (with Jeremy Pikser) and direct one of the most radical, far-left political movies in the history of Hollywood for a studio owned by one of the most powerful right-wingers of the last 30 years. When he saw the finished product, Rupert Murdoch could not have been pleased – but then neither could Bill Clinton, or anyone else remotely connected to the establishment on either side of the aisle. As Bulworth sobs in the opening scene, the camera pans across photos of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and other 1960s legends, and the implication is clear: Bulworth is crying because there’s no one like them left. (Interestingly, in real life one of the politicians Beatty was closest to at the time was conservative senator John McCain, with whom he bonded over a shared passion for campaign finance reform.) All Beatty has to do to underline the point is place audio from speeches by Clinton, Dole, and other contemporary politicians around the edges of the sound design throughout the film; in the first half of the movie, Bulworth makes the same points and it’s clear they’re supposed to be jokes, but the second half of the film is packed with our actual “leaders” making the same fatuous assertions without a trace of irony.

Like Shampoo, Bulworth is both raucously funny and profoundly sad – only it’s more extreme on both levels. If Shampoo was Beatty’s Nixon hangover, Bulworth is the harsh morning-after for liberals who went to bed with Bill Clinton and woke up with NAFTA and welfare reform. Bulworth is thus a comedy born of rage, and of depression, and of genuine tragedy – assassination hangs over the entire film, and the echoes of the real-life murders of Bobby Kennedy and others resonate as queasily here. Yet there’s also a sly humor to Beatty’s treatment of assassinations; one of the running jokes is that a man who Bulworth presumes to be his hired killer is actually a photographer out to take a shot of the candidate with a woman other than his wife. The inference is that character assassination is as viable and prevalent a way of taking down a progressive candidate as the real thing, and it’s impossible not to draw parallels with Beatty’s old friend Gary Hart, who could – and should – have been elected president in 1988.

More recently, parallels between Bulworth and another candidate have been drawn, as the Washington Post, Fortune and other outlets have run editorials considering Donald Trump as the real-life counterpart to Beatty’s fictional hero. As with most ideas bubbling up from the cauldron of simple-minded idiocy and unchallenged conventional wisdom that is our current media landscape, this is one of those theories that sounds right but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The only real similarity between Bulworth and Trump is that both men rose in the polls as a result of truly speaking their mind. Their supporters love them for “telling it like it is,” regardless of whether or not it’s politically correct. (In Bulworth, Beatty’s character offends various groups, particularly when he’s speaking to a black church and a gathering of Jewish entertainment industry execs, just as Trump has offended … well, just about everybody.) The problem – and the truly depressing irony – is that when one of these men “speaks his mind,” he’s revealing potent but often unspoken (at least in the corporate media) truths via thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments while the other is just pulling hatred and ignorance out of his ass – and the man who’s doing the former is the fictional one. The man following the latter approach is the one who might be our next president.

What gives Bulworth its power isn’t its political incorrectness but the force of its ideas; throughout the movie, Beatty and Pikser seamlessly integrate ideology and character to make points about globalization, the end of the black (and white) working class, and countless other subjects in a manner both clearer and more multi-faceted than I’ve heard from any real-life politician before or since. The basic thrust of Beatty’s argument – that capitalism is cannibalizing itself with an ever-increasing wealth gap that threatens to destroy the system for everyone – is not original, but the explication is. That Beatty manages to get so much across so entertainingly in such a compact space (Bulworth runs a lean 108 minutes) makes one wonder why our politicians can’t do the same. Accessible and complex don’t have to be exclusive concepts – but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Trump’s bluster, Rubio and Clinton’s facile catchphrases, or Sanders’ maddeningly vague “free ice cream and orgasms for everybody” brand of democratic socialism. All of them come across as one-dimensional imbecilic phonies compared to the fictional Jay Billington Bulworth.

The appeal of Bulworth as a candidate raises the obvious question of what would have happened if Beatty himself had ever run for president. He came close in 1999, when a contingent of limousine liberals led by Arianna Huffington convinced him to launch an exploratory campaign against Al Gore, who the leftists in the Democratic Party correctly perceived as too dull and centrist to further their cause. Unsurprisingly, initial polling indicated that Beatty might have been able to make a go at it; after all, his friend Ronald Reagan had become the most influential president since FDR, and Reagan was a witless moron. Some pundits asked if Beatty’s reputation as a ladies’ man was an impediment, but given that his heyday as a cocksman occurred long before he was married, it’s likely he would have been able to dismiss any attacks along these lines – Bill Clinton he was not (in more ways than one). Yet ultimately Beatty’s candidacy stalled for precisely the opposite reason Reagan’s ascended: where the Gipper’s head was an empty vessel eager to be filled by the moneyed interests supporting him – he urged his handlers to sell him the way he once sold Boraxo soap – Beatty’s probing intellect and desire for control made the world of politics anathema. He was too bright and too principled for the debased compromises that would have been required of him; he might have been able to bend the conglomerates that financed his films to his will without selling his soul, but the American political system was a bridge too far.

After writing one op-ed in the New York Times and flirting with a handful of half-hearted TV appearances (Meet the Press, Larry King) he ultimately canceled, Beatty dropped the idea and confined his political activity to an amusing and effective 2005 campaign against a series of ballot measures spearheaded by an actor with more fully realized legislative ambitions (and a future replacing Trump as host of The Apprentice!), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps it was for the best. The fact is that Beatty may agree with all of the ideas he put into Bulworth’s mouth (as well as those in the mouths of supporting characters played by Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, and others), but that doesn’t mean he’s Bulworth any more than Trump is the character he plays, or Hillary is the character she’s playing, or … you get the idea. There are a lot of parallels between political campaigns and movies, particularly in the way protagonists are created who are engineered to elicit our identification and support – the fact that the “characters” we’re being given this election are the best that their performers and their brain trusts (a term I use generously) can come up with makes me wake up in a cold sweat night after night. Even though I know it’s just a pipe dream, ever since I first saw Bulworth in the summer of 1998, I’ve been waiting for a candidate like its hero to emerge in the real world. I’m still waiting.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. He also hosts a monthly podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.