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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Maryk vs. Queeg?

Have you heard the one about the presidential candidate who, in his youth, was a bona fide war hero but who was somehow painted as a wimp during the hard-fought political campaign? But enough about President Bush’s father.

As the above gag line demonstrates, just about every take on two opposing candidates can be turned on its head. And this is the problem with looking for parallels in popular films to the current political campaign. And why would anyone be looking for parallels anyway? Well, because, as I have often said, you cannot understand life if you cannot understand popular movies. It’s that simple.

Anyway, can you believe that the U.S. presidential campaign is nearly over? Where did the time go? I know I speak for all of us (again) when I say that it’s all gone by much too fast and that we would all gladly have Election Day postponed several more weeks or months, just so we could enjoy all the campaigning and political coverage for a while longer. But sadly, this is not an option, and by the time that I write another one of these things, the voting will be over. And, with a bit of luck, we may even know who won. (Personally, the biggest mistake I made four years ago was staying up late on election night to watch the returns and, when the Missus told me I should go to bed, I replied innocently, “I’ll go to sleep just as soon as I know who won.” I’ll tell you, 36 days later I was one tired puppy.)

Anyway, I am still pondering the relationship between movies and presidential politics. In my survey of films, two months ago, that might, inadvertently or otherwise, affect this year’s White House race, I missed one. I neglected to mention John Sayles’s Silver City. This latest film from Sayles—who in the past has given us such fine movies as Return of the Secaucus 7, Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish and Lone Star—tells the story of a grammatically challenged scion of a political family, who is managed by a ferocious campaign manager. Hmmm, I wonder who that is supposed to be. Actually, Sayles has made no bones about the fact that the candidate and his campaign manager, played respectively by Chris Cooper and Richard Dreyfuss, are based squarely on George W. Bush and Karl Rove. Furthermore, Sayles has said that he hopes that the movie, which is technically a work of fiction, convinces some people to vote against Bush. The plot revolves around a corpse that inconveniently pops up at the end of Cooper’s fishing line, as he is taping a campaign ad with an environmental theme. The ensuing investigation turns up all kinds of nefarious corruption and money passing hands from lobbyists and big business types. Whether this has actually affected anyone’s decision for the real election is problematic. As noted above, just about any film à clé or satire can be turned on its head, if people are so inclined. For example, the appearance of a dead body in the story may immediately remind some of the unfortunate Vince Foster, whose mysterious suicide fueled a lot of the more breathless and persistent conspiracy speculation about the Clinton administration.

The other major Hollywood feature film to have a bit of fun with the current election, as has been noted a couple of times before, is Jonathan Demme’s new version of The Manchurian Candidate. The parallels there are clear enough. The son of a major political family is running on the ticket for one of the major parties, but he is a puppet (nearly literally, since he has been brainwashed by a major corporation) for the moneyed conglomerates. But, as I have also noted before, to the extent that anybody actually bothers to make comparisons between fictional film stories and real life (especially people on the Republican side), more people are likely to have noticed that the titular candidate has made his record as a war hero a central theme of his campaign and this war record comes under attack from a few that served at the same time as he. Indeed, John Kerry’s opponents seem all too eager to jump on the “Manchurian candidate” theme. I have seen at least one article that suggests that Kerry was truly brainwashed, at least in his youth, citing similarities between his speeches and testimony as Vietnam vet against the war and texts issued by various Communist parties internationally. So far, however, I have seen no speculation that the brainwashing extends to forcing him to go into a trance and assassinate people who get in the way of his (or his masters’) plans.

No, I’m afraid that any movie that actually sets out to make a point about the election campaign is nearly preordained to fail. If we are going to find a movie that actually captures the tone of this particular election, it will have to be inadvertent. Scanning movies released in the recent past, one such seemingly unrelated movie comes to mind, if only because of its title. How could a cynical wag resist summing up this contest, between the allegedly europhile, alliance-loving, foreigner-marrying Kerry and Bush, who many paint as a plunderer of foreign countries and our own national treasure, with the title Alien vs. Predator (tagline: No matter who wins, we lose)? Yeah, I know, too easy.

Actually, for some time, this campaign has reminded me of a particular classic movie, one that was released exactly half a century ago. That movie is The Caine Mutiny, which was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk. It was based on the novel and play written by Herman Wouk. It tells the story of the destroyer Caine in the early days of World War II. The ship’s popular captain is replaced by one Philip Francis Queeg and immediately begins alienating the men who were loyal to and comfortable with the old captain. Queeg is also a bit neurotic, especially about cleanliness. The tensions rise until, during a typhoon in which the crew believes that Queeg is paralyzed with panic, Lt. Maryk relieves him of duty. Afterward, Maryk is court-martialed. Things do not look good for the lieutenant until his attorney, played by José Ferrer, gets Queeg to crack up on the stand.

In the end, the leadership struggle on the Caine boils down to, on one side, two very smart and critical lieutenants (played by Van Johnson, as Maryk, and Fred MacMurray as Keefer, the friend egging him on in the background) and, on the other side, the imperfect captain (played by Humphrey Bogart) who had been involved in the war well before his younger lieutenants. For me, this more or less sums up the current contest. The flawed leader who has been at the helm during a time of military conflict versus the much more intelligent-sounding challenger, who seems to have all the answers. The ultimate message of The Caine Mutiny is a bit ambiguous. The court validates the change in leadership by exonerating Maryk, effectively ending Queeg’s career. The judgment is that the crew was justified in removing its captain. Yet, at a victory celebration, Maryk’s attorney tells off the crew. He more or less says that Queeg did not deserve the personal destruction that was brought on him, when he had a solid history of defending America. He finishes by tossing champagne into the face of Keefer, the crewmember who is instrumental in influencing the others to rebel against Queeg’s leadership in a time of war. The right or wrong of the whole incident is not entirely clear.

And that leads to my advice to those of my fellow American citizens who happen to read this before they cast their vote. I have two things to say to you:

  • If you still don’t know whom you’re voting for, then you are simply not paying attention. I know that there actually more similarities than differences between these two men and the American political process virtually guarantees that both will gravitate to many of the same positions, no matter how much they try to portray their differences as night and day. But there is enough of a difference and we have had enough time to compare the two of them that there is no excuse for not having an opinion on who you think will be better for the country. People who can’t make up their minds on something this important scare me.

  • If you have known for months whom you are going to vote for and there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that there is only one right choice, then you are simply not paying attention. If have no doubt at all, then you have been brainwashed. You are not thinking. You are merely acting the way you have been programmed to act by whatever TV or radio shows you listen to or publications you read or organizations you belong to. There isn’t so much difference between these two that a reasonable person shouldn’t have some level of doubt about their choice. People who have absolutely no doubt about something this important scare me.

    There, now that I’ve totally confused everyone, go out and do your duty. And, while you’re at it, have a happy Halloween.

    -S.L., 28 October 2004

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