One scene plays out like this: A young reporter is interviewing a 76-year-old Rudy Giuliani, US President Donald Trump’s lawyer in a hotel suite. The reporter is fake, Giuliani is real. She is nervous, and he tries to “relax” her by pawing her through the interview. She then asks whether he would like to move to the bedroom. An offer he takes up without delay. Once in the bedroom, drink in hand, he makes straight for the bed, lies down, sighs, and puts a hand in his trousers in a way that is hard, if not impossible, to misinterpret. Enter Borat Sagdiyev, veteran Kazakh journalist, who prevents any further swelling of the progress, telling Giuliani that his daughter (the reporter) was 15.Too old for Giuliani.
(Borat 2, released 23 October, directed by Sacha Baron Cohen)
Another scene, from another movie, plays out like this: In a courtroom in Chicago, 1968, a black activist argues with the judge. He has been charged with inciting riots but denied the right to representation. The exchange gets heated, and the judge orders the marshals to take the man away and deal with him as he “should be dealt with”.
The marshals follow the court’s orders. They take the man away, beat him into submission, and bring him back into court bound and gagged. Someone asks him: “Can you breathe?”
(The Trial of the Chicago 7, released October 8, directed by Aaron Sorkin)
In the last month of the US Presidential election, the Trump campaign has been forced to deal with two problems it may not have anticipated. Two, very different, but well-timed films. One mocks, shocks. The other reflects, revisits. Both hurt Donald Trump.
Modern American elections are fought on the battleground of the visual medium. Nixon’s overdue shave cast the infamous ‘5 O’clock shadow’ that contributed to his loss to John F Kennedy in 1960.
Michael Dukakis’s cold response to a question on whether he would support the death sentence if the victims of rape and murder were his wife or daughter blew his (till then excellent) chances against the first Bush in 1988.
It is because of the power of the visual that campaigns spend so heavily on advertising spots on television, and now, the internet.
But you cannot buy the kind of publicity that popular films generate organically. That is what the Cohen and Sorkin have done for Joe Biden’s campaign. As for Trump, dealing as he is with sinking ratings and a Covid-19 recession, discussions about a “stimulus package” suddenly involve his lawyer’s genitals.
For this, he has Sacha Baron Cohen to thank. The bounder features prominently in both films.
Trump, who made both his name and most of his (legitimate) money, in the entertainment business now has a standing job offer once he’s fired from his current position. It’s a job that will demand very little of him—Trump needs to just play himself. Cohen, better known as Borat, has told the President that he is always on the lookout for “racist buffoons” for roles in his films.
The offer is a kind one, given that Trump said he didn’t find Cohen funny and that the comedian was a “phony” and a “creep”. Exactly the kind of engagement he needed 10 days before his re-election bid.
Giuliani, once ‘America’s Mayor’ (for his acclaimed response to 9/11 in New York), is one of Trump’s most tremendous friends. But his incoherent expressions of support for the President are now on mute, as the images of him preparing for a “sex attack” (one of the film’s memorable pieces of writing) are those that eat up the airtime.
Cohen has said that elaborate measures were taken to protect his lead actress from said “sex attack”. He hid himself in a wardrobe in the bedroom where it was imminent, communicating via text with Maria Bakalova, the actress in impending distress; timing his jump into the scene before her safety was compromised.
Giuliani claims he was merely tucking in his shirt when this happened. This explanation requires the sort of suspension of disbelief reserved only for the greatest films, so well done everyone.
But Borat, and Cohen, go much further than the exposure of a prominent sleaze-ball. Playing character within character, Cohen exposes a side of America that seems obvious yet undocumented.
Having been at it since 2006—he’s gotten bloody good at this.He gets a gun-loving crowd to sing “Inject him/her with the Wuhan Flu” about Hillary Clinton and Dr Anthony Fauci. He gets a plastic surgeon seeking business to admit that had her father (Borat) not been present, he would mount a “sex attack” on Bakalova.
Cohen and Bakalova gatecrash Republican events, and even the White House, in ridiculous disguises and no Covid-19 testing despite being around the President’s family and aides, the images describing exactly how competently the Trump administration has dealt with the pandemic.
The Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’ takes on perhaps the more cerebral issues of this election.
The “Can you breathe?” question put to the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in the courtroom scene where he is bound and gagged has a chilling contemporary answer that the world heard: “I can’t breathe”.
That’s what George Floyd, choked to death by a policeman on the streets of Minneapolis earlier this year, said just before he died.
Even in Sorkin’s film about the 1968 riots in Chicago, the black man is kept apart. The ‘Chicago 7’, some of whom challenged the court just as passionately as Seale are all white. Seale is the 8th defendant. In 2020, every 8th American citizen is black.
And, the police officers in the Floyd case have had their charges reduced. The courts, and attitudes of 1968, are clear and present in 2020. This is in no small part because of the President.
The Chicago trial also portrays the abuse of power in the Nixon administration -- its use of the justice department to further the President’s political agenda and his personal interests. This has been a running theme during the Trump administration.
The President has repeatedly asked the justice department to investigate opponents: Joe Biden, the Clintons, Barack Obama, and a host of others. He has also used the justice department under the ever-willing attorney general William Barr as his personal law firm. It is now defending rape charges against the president.
‘Chicago 7’ reminds its viewers how four years of governance without conscience can set a country back half-a-century. Anyone watching the film comes away thinking it could just as easily have been about today’s USA.They wouldn’t be wrong.
As for Kazakhstan, there has been some “make benefit”. The country’s tourism board has adopted one of the catch phrases of the film: “Very nice”.