Campaigning through Film

What the presidential candidates’ favorite films tell us about who they really are.

“Right now, you say to your wife: ‘Let’s go to a movie after Trump.’ But you won’t do that because you’ll be so high and so excited that no movie is going to satisfy you. Okay? No movie. You know why? Honestly? Because they don’t make movies like they used to — is that right?” – Donald J. Trump

There’s much that can be said about a person based on their favorite films. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. However, everyone’s also entitled to their secret judgments based on those opinions. For example, I personally don’t trust anyone whose favorite film is Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane (1941)this is a pretty unpopular opinion coming from someone like myself, who will die defending 13 Going On 30 (2004). Telling someone your favorite film is Citizen Kane is equivalent to saying your favorite rock ‘n’ roll band is The Beatles. It’s not really an opinion. It’s closer to a fact.  I understand the merits of Citizen Kane as much as the next film buff, but there’s nothing left to discuss. It’s more fun and arguably more constructive to debate the merits of a bad film, like 13 Going On 30 or Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009), than a film that is universally hailed.

Music critic Steven Hyden refers to these boring opinions as the “default smart opinion.” In his 2016 book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Hyden uses this theory to discuss one of the most polarizing Best Picture winners of the past century, Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004):

“Hating Crash has become what I like to call a Default Smart Opinion. A Default Smart Opinion is an opinion that’s generally considered to be inarguable because it’s repeated ad nauseam by seemingly intelligent individuals… The usual formula for a regular smart opinion – research plus careful consideration plus nuanced analysis – doesn’t apply. You needn’t actually listen to a Nickelback album or watch “The Big Bang Theory” or study Kim Kardashian’s collected philosophical scrolls. You merely have to recite recycled bits of conventional wisdom.”

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I couldn’t have said it better. Default Smart Opinions (DSO) are flooding our pop culture-obsessed minds and filling the void where original thought once existed. Anyone who uses a DSO is hiding their true, natural opinions. It’s used as a veil, masking their guilty pleasures from a world that would criticize them if the truth were to be exposed.  It’s also an easy way to be liked by people you’ve never met without putting forth any effort. That being the case, it was no surprise which films this year’s presidential candidates chose as their favorites.

Former political lobbyist and film critic Noah Gittell has said, “When you’re running for president, I don’t think any answer to any question is cast off or not given much thought.” Campaigns are always highly organized. A candidate will, normally, avoid saying something that hasn’t been approved in some way by their staff. The point of any presidential campaign is to work in an active way toward a particular political or social goal while gaining as many voters as possible along the way. They know what the people want to hear and do their best to feed it to them without betraying their social or political beliefs. Unless they have to, of course.

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On the record, democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s favorite films include The Wizard of Oz (1939), Casablanca (1942), and Out of Africa (1985), the latter of which stars both of her favorite working actors, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. These are some pretty standard DSOs. Two of these films are Best Picture winners and one was nominated but lost to Gone with the Wind (1939). These choices even seem subliminal; Casablanca has little to do with American politics but the title in Spanish translates to “White House.” Could Clinton be hiding something? Does this mean she really did put a hit on a cat? Is she really a member of a race of blood-drinking extraterrestrial lizards that secretly run the world? Or is it something worse, like actually enjoying Battlefield Earth (2000)?

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Similarly, in news that will shock no one, Donald Trump has gone on the record stating that his favorite film is, you guessed it, Citizen Kane. Trump, a real estate tycoon with a dream of running the country, is a fan of a film about a media mogul with dreams of running the country. Is Trump aware of these parallels? Does he see himself dying peacefully at Trump tower with no family and nothing to his name except for a childhood toy?

In addition to Citizen Kane, Trump also claims to enjoy The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Again, no surprise that Donald Trump is entertained by a film featuring white outlaws beating up Mexican bandits, not to mention, it’s another widely accepted classic. Other films on Trump’s list include classic macho favorites such as Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather (1972), two films heavy on organized crime and murder. Rounding out his list, however, is Gone with the Wind (1939), which Trump probably threw on there because the film beat out Hillary’s favorite film at the Oscars.

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

So what’s Mr. Trump hiding? Not much honestly, he’s very upfront about how awful he is, which is what makes his clandestine choices for his favorite films even more perplexing. Isn’t this the guy everyone likes for “telling it like it is”? I would’ve believed him had he chosen American History X (1998) as his favorite. But, Citizen Kane? I call BS.

Both of these candidates aren’t being up front with the nation so we’ve done the research and picked some film recommendations to broaden their cinematic horizons as well as guess which films they secretly watch between campaign tour stops.

Hillary Clinton

Gone Girl (2014):

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Come on, Secretary Clinton. You must’ve leaped out of your seat and cheered when the big reveal occurred. Who didn’t? If you win the presidency, you’re pulling off something very similar, albeit less violent, I hope. You are campaigning to be the first female President of the United States of America. That, in and of itself, is a historical task, but you’re doing so against Donald Trump. It’s hard to come up with a better villain for this narrative. His view towards women is questionable, at best, and his presidency would reinforce a patriarchy more than I’d like to believe.

You shouldn’t be afraid to admit you watch this film before each debate or open forum especially when you receive unfair criticism from Trump supporters who hold signs that read, “Trump vs. Tramp,” on one side and “Trump That Bitch” on the other. They wear shirts that say, “Hillary Sucks but Not Like Monica” and purchase bumper stickers saying, “Life’s a Bitch: Don’t Vote For One.”  Do the country a favor and shut them up in one fell swoop by switching The Wizard of Oz to David Fincher’s “cool-girl” revenge film.

Election (1999):

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To be honest, Mrs. Clinton, you shouldn’t necessarily like this film. Election follows a high-school government teacher who unethically gets involved in the school election by attempting to thwart the success of a student running for class president. According to Reese Witherspoon, who plays Tracy Flick in the film, the female candidate for class president, Clinton often gets compared to her character.

Unfortunately, the film portrays Tracy as menacingly ambitious. The film is a satire and is meant to critique the democratic process, but it must hit pretty close to home. The teacher, Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, is threatened by Flick, who appears to be the reason his friend was fired due to rumors of a sexual relationship with the student. Annoyed by her presumptuousness, McAllister convinces a dim-witted, but popular jock to run against Tracy who would’ve otherwise ran unopposed.

This mimics the current Presidential election where people voting for Trump often claim they are doing so because they hate you and those voting for you seem to be motivated by their hatred of Trump. The republican party has shown a desire to replace Trump on the ticketSadly, you’ve also struggled to gain the support of a percentage of past Bernie Sanders supporters. Among all the fishy characters in Election, Flick is considered to be the villain of the film. But looking at it from an objective point of view, Flick is actually a very efficient, well-organized leader.

Therefore, Mrs. Clinton, you should include this film in your list to change that belief. McAllister is an adult who acts in childish ways and abuses his influence. Sound familiar? You and Flick are victims of the very unfair way women are portrayed in society. Simply talking in front of a crowd, the media began calling you “Shrillary” due to the sound of your voice. That’s unfair, right? Include this film in your list to earn some respect from the film nerds who are tired of talking about Casablanca.

All The President’s Men (1976):

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With all due respect, how did you miss this one? Out of Africa was a clear “two Academy Award winners with one stone” attempt, but the omission of this film from your list is borderline unacceptable. The film follows two reporters from the Washington post that cover the infamous failed burglary of the Democratic Party Headquarters at Watergate. With the help of a source named Deep Throat, the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. It’s understandable how it might be a little awkward to say this is a personal favorite of yours due to the recent email scandal, but the pros may outweigh the cons and I believe you should embrace it.

First, it stars your favorite heartthrob, Robert Redford. Secondly, although Trump has labeled your email scandal as worse than Watergate, let’s not forget that 22 million emails were “lost” during George W. Bush’s presidency. Most importantly, however, All The President’s Men is a film that almost all journalists love.  If you’re trying to get people to vote for you, it could be a smart move to suck up to the journalists by including this film. During this campaign, journalists are the enemy of your enemy. Let’s not forget, it was the same style of old fashioned whistleblowing in the film that revealed Donald Trump’s 1995 tax records to a reporter for the New York Times. A choice like All The President’s Men could create a beneficial alliance for you, without having to meet in any dark alleys.

Donald Trump

Nightcrawler (2014):

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Mr. Trump, you say you love Citizen Kane but that choice is just a wall, sheltering voters from your real favorites. This 2014 neo-noir film about a thief who films accidents and crime scenes for the local news is something you must’ve enjoyed. The story follows Louis Bloom, a man living on the fringes of society who decides to turn his life around by starting his own business and making an “honest” living. Bloom (played by a creepy Jake Gyllenhaal), is someone you might refer to as “good people.”

During your campaign, you’ve been feuding with publications all over the nation. USA Today, who has never endorsed a political candidate in history, declared you “unfit” to run the country. It’s situations like these where you must wish you had someone like Lou Bloom on your payroll to sway the truth. In fact, he’d be the perfect publicist for you during these disastrous last weeks.

You constantly refer to the “dishonest” media. Well, here’s a film that corroborates that statement. In the film, Bloom manipulates crime scenes to better suit the local news’ mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That could also be the tagline of your campaign where the technique so far seems to be “shock the people into voting Trump.” Nightcrawler calls out its viewers for being obsessed with tragedy as long as it’s happening elsewhere. The news station in the film doesn’t care about crime in the streets. It’s when that crime seeps into the surrounding suburbs that they see a juicy headline. This is reminiscent of your idea of keeping “evil” out of America. Also, pretty soon you will actually control media if your plans for a Trump television channel go through. Please don’t get any ideas from this film.

Black Sheep (1996):

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Donald, this film is right up your alley. Black Sheep is a film about a well-intentioned relative trying to help a family member get elected governor. However, although they mean well, the help offered turns out to be incompetent, unwanted, and publicly embarrassing for the gubernatorial candidate. No, this is not the Melania Trump story. Nor is it the Donald Trump Jr. story.  It’s not about any member of your family whatsoever, but it very well could be with that plot summary.

You must be able to see the humor in this film, assuming you have a sense of humor. Throughout the campaign, your family has done their best to support you to disastrous and comical results. Donald Trump Jr. compared refugees to Skittles in a tweet. He shows a natural talent for screwing things up in 140 characters or less, just like his father. Eric Trump has given interviews where he demonstrates the incapability to count to four as he continuously refers to four people at the table as “the three of us.” Melania Trump once gave a speech that plagiarized Michelle Obama. And Ivanka, who had the role to get younger people to register to vote, forgot to register herself in time for last year’s primary.

Presidential elections are usually a comedian’s Olympics, but this year the funniest material can be ripped straight from the headlines. At the end of the day, you do a fine job humiliating yourself without the help of others. However, that hasn’t stopped the “others” from trying.

Gran Torino (2008):

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly isn’t the right Clint Eastwood movie for your list. I get why you chose it though. Eastwood has been known to create some highly entertaining pieces of republican propaganda, but it’s Eastwood’s adaptation of “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas” that belongs on your list in order to bring in new voters. If you get elected president, then I hope you stayed awake during this movie and follow a similar path as the main character, Walt, played by Eastwood. No, I don’t want you to experience the same fate as Walt; however, a similar character arc would be nice.

We meet Walt who’s already a racist curmudgeon, but by the end of the film is embraced by his minority neighbors and even risks his own life to save theirs. I think people can change, however, I’m still waiting for the day your small heart grows three sizes. It could take the right film perhaps? Based on your favorites, I don’t think you’ve seen many.


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Let’s not forget the other candidates running in 2016. It’s shocking how much information we have access to on Trump and Clinton while all that exists on the other two party nominees is solely their social and political views as if that’s important to voters. How are we supposed to endorse a candidate who won’t even inform us about their favorite film? Unfortunately, that information is probably locked in a vault deep inside the pentagon leaving us to use our skills of deduction to come up with educated, yet inconclusive guesses to which films they might enjoy.

Gary Johnson

In October 2015, you were involved in a near fatal paragliding accident when your wing clipped a tree causing you to fall 50 feet. You suffered multiple bone fractures including a broken rib, knee, and a burst fracture to his thoracic vertebrae. Interestingly, you used medicinal marijuana for pain control for 3 years while recovering. In addition to using medicinal marijuana, you were named CEO of a company called Cannabis Sativa Inc., which aimed to sell medicinal marijuana in states where it was legal to do so.

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Thus, Mr. Johnson, three years of healing in addition to your former position at Cannabis Sativa Inc. lead our team of researchers to conclude that you would enjoy some pot-themed comedies such as Dazed and Confused (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998), and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Also, you’d appreciate Dallas Buyers Club (2013), a film about the true story of an AIDS patient that smuggled illegal drugs into the country in order to treat the disease for him and other patients. Check them out and let us know what you think.

Jill Stein

You might be one of the only politicians on the side of “whistleblowers.” You’ve said you’d have Edward Snowden in your cabinet if you’re elected and also believe political prisoners, such as Julian Assange, should be freed. You believe wikileaks should be the standard of journalism. In your mind, it is heroic to resist the media and political elite’s control of information. You’d love half the movies released today! Anything involving standing up to “the man” is right up your alley. Therefore, we are recommending to you Erin Brockovich (2000), Citizenfour (2014), and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2014).

This photo provided by Open Road Films shows, Michael Keaton, from left, as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, "Spotlight." The film is among the 10 nominees for the Producers Guild Awards, which were announced Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films via AP)

We can tell you are captivated by those films “based on the true story” of small people who give the good ol’ middle finger to Uncle Sam and step on the toes of Lady Liberty. More recently, last year’s Best Picture winner Spotlight (2015) addresses the true story of the Boston Globe uncovering the scandal of the Catholic Church protecting its priests who engage in extremely inappropriate behavior. Give these films a watch and good luck ruffling some feather in this upcoming election.


Those no longer in the race were also subject to our investigation. Here’s what we came up with as recommendations:

Bernie Sanders

Bernie, you’ve never publicly mentioned your favorite film, but Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) might be a film you can identify with. The story of a small town guy from Vermont, like yourself, who inherits 20 million dollars from his uncle resembles your philosophies on distribution of wealth. People criticize you for this view on the issue, but like Mr. Deeds at the end of the film, you might be the “sanest man who ever walked into [a] courtroom.”

Ted Cruz

Although you’ve said that your favorite film is The Princess Bride (1987), even going as far as acting out an entire scene during an interview, we’re not buying it. The movie you’re most likely to enjoy the most is David Fincher’s true crime thriller, Zodiac (2007), because we know it was you. The jig is up and it’s time to come clean. There’s no evidence anywhere of you and the Zodiac killer ever being in the same room at the same time. Just saying.

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Of course, this is all speculation. The point is that the films mentioned above aren’t default smart opinions and require some explanation when saying it’s a favorite. Sometimes the explanation is fun and other times the explanation is thoughtful.  Saying Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane is your favorite film requires no explanation, therefore it doesn’t say much about the person. The presidential candidates deflected a pretty simple question by choosing DSOs. To film lovers, telling someone your favorite film is important because it’s personal. “What’s your favorite movie?” is the biggest question someone could ask me, so I was disappointed with their answers. They didn’t put much thought into them. Donald Trump even stated that “… they don’t make [films] like they used to…” referring to the film industry. However, many of us would disagree.

So who will it be? A Trump/Pence presidency or a Clinton/Kaine presiden… Wait a second. Clinton/Kaine looks awfully similar to → Citizen. Kane… Dear god…

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Author: Lee Kolcz is a senior at Columbia College Chicago, where he is studying Journalism and Cinema Studies. He is particularly interested in the horror genre and documentaries. This Fall he is the Editorial Intern at Facets. He is not voting for Donald Trump.

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