Like its groundbreaking predecessor, “Subsequent Moviefilm” is a raunchy, sharply political picaresque through the American heartland. Beneath the gross-out gags and self-owns, Baron Cohen’s subtext is easily discernible: America, are you really considering four more years of this?
Coincidentally, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi released her new documentary on the same day as Baron Cohen’s film: “American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself” offers a similarly observant travelogue through the country’s fractured political culture, with fewer laughs and more sighs of weary resignation.
Pelosi, the alternately intrepid and insouciant daughter of the House speaker, has made a career of venturing outside her own liberal bubble with films like “Journeys With George” and “Citizen USA: A 50 State Road Trip.” With “American Selfie,” she presents a queasily candid summa of the alienation, wounded psyches and media-siloed belief systems she’s been chronicling for two decades. Like Baron Cohen, she saw this coming.
Less cautionary tales than desperate pleas for sanity, “Subsequent Moviefilm” and “American Selfie” join a slew of narrative features and documentaries designed to move the needle during election season. Showtime brought out the insta-history biopic “The Comey Rule,” about former FBI director James B. Comey, in September, closely followed by the Amazon production of “The Glorias,” an impressionistic biopic about the feminist activist Gloria Steinem. A few days later saw the theatrical release of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” in which Baron Cohen delivers a slyly self-referential performance as Abbie Hoffman, his ’60s-era forebear in mischief-making agitprop.
All were purposefully timed to remind audiences of the Trump era’s depredations, whether in the form of shredded institutions, normalized sexism or creeping authoritarianism. “The idea was, this [series] is going to matter, this is going to count, this is going to be relevant,” “Comey Rule” star, Jeff Daniels, told The Washington Post last month. He added that if Showtime had stuck to its initial plan to air the series after the election, “then I’m out. It’s that simple.”
Will we emerge unblindered or unmoved? Will those mythical creatures known as the “undecided voter” watch “American Selfie” and cast their lot with civility? Will “Totally Under Control,” Alex Gibney’s devastating indictment of the White House’s pandemic response — streaming free on its distributor’s website through Election Day — turn a never-voter into a never-Trumper? Will any number of similarly well-crafted, persuasive investigations — “The Fight,” about the ACLU’s efforts to address rollbacks on immigration and voting, reproductive and transgender rights; “The Social Dilemma,” about the seductive and civic dangers of social media; “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” about voter suppression — achieve their deliverables?
Or will movies designed to leverage the passions of the moment prove, well, momentary?
For the politically obsessed and tuned-out alike, the current crop of #Resistance cris de coeur land like droplets within a deluge of candidate debates, campaign commercials, celebrity PSAs, Sarah Cooper TikToks, digital ads, “Rocky Horror” reboots, direct-mail solicitations, “Princess Bride” table reads, viral Lincoln Project videos, AOC Twitch streams, news stories, late-night comedy shows and social media feeds that are vying for space in our rabbit holes — at a time when everyone just wants hide under the covers till it’s over.
And a convincing argument can be made that the current onslaught of films — the vast majority of them anti-Trump — aren’t just preaching to the converted, but are alienating people who are already turned off by self-righteous movie stars and liberal condescension. Show me an undecided voter who makes up their mind on the basis of a “West Wing” reunion and I’ll show you someone who was never undecided in the first place (which is probably true of that dubious demographic anyway).
To be fair, that “West Wing” episode wasn’t just the whipped topping of liberal nostalgia but the floor-wax of a fundraising effort, as are many of the most memorable cultural products that have come out this season. The “Princess Bride” event alone raised more than $4 million for Wisconsin Democrats. (Deliverable delivered!)
As for the films that are seeking to be game-changers, it’s nearly impossible to discern whether they made a ground-level difference. And that’s okay. In movies, as in all other art forms, the metric of “Did it work?” will never be as important as “Will it last?”
Throughout the Trump era, filmmakers have sought to respond accordingly and find the best language to express outrage, bemusement and despair over a country they see in free fall: It’s no accident that horror became the genre of choice to process a period many have seen as irrationally, unspeakably grotesque, especially when it comes to race: 2017’s breakout hit “Get Out” has been bookended by “Antebellum” and “Bad Hair” today.
Nor is it surprising that the first reality-TV president inspired hordes of satirists, even though their efforts often fell flat, whether in the woefully misjudged liberal-elite parody “The Hunt” or Jon Stewart’s tonal misfire “Irresistible.”
When it comes to capturing the zeitgeist, the movies that will have portrayed the present era most acutely won’t be politely alarmist dramas like “The Post” or noble bureaucratic procedurals like “The Report.” They’ll be the dystopian action “Purge” franchise and “Knives Out,” which tweaked issues like immigration, white privilege, lefty-academic jargon and the arrogance of unearned wealth with relaxed, lighthearted precision.
In other words, “Knives Out” sought to work as entertainment, not as a social tract or policy prescription. In a recent essay in The Post, actor and writer John Lithgow questioned his own impulses to use humor as a weapon against the “pompous, incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt characters” of the Trump administration when the stakes are soberingly high. Satire, Lithgow wrote, “is cathartic, cleansing and essential. . . . But it’s rarely transformative,” invoking British comedian Peter Cook’s jaundiced praise of “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler.”
In 2004, Michael Moore’s scathing documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” broke box office records and won the Oscar. But the film’s target, George W. Bush, was reelected anyway. Here’s a thought experiment: Regardless of the fact that Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side” and Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight” are finely crafted films in their own right, are present-day audiences more likely to watch them or “The Hurt Locker” and “In the Loop” for vivid, if not literal, evocations of the Iraq War and Bush-era geopolitics?
Ideally, of course, we would watch all four, as well as the first “Borat” movie, which today looks more prescient than preposterous. Like all great political art, it captured its era without being captive to it.
As “Subsequent Moviefilm” makes clear, the collective id that Baron Cohen illuminated more than a decade ago has only grown darker and more deeply entrenched. Amazon claims that “tens of millions” of viewers have watched the “Borat” sequel since it began streaming last week. It’s unclear if those figures include people who hit “exit” after the first penis joke. Either way, will it change anything? The answer depends on us, not the movie. Sometimes showing us who we are matters more than telling us what to do.