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(Credit: Far Out / A24 / Press / Colin Lloyd)

Film

The impact Donald Trump’s America had on Hollywood’s leading male characters

@Russellisation

The optimistic innocence that swirled at the start of the new century dissipated once and for all when the media personality and bullish businessman Donald Trump took the post of President of the United States in January 2017. With bigoted views, empty patriotic values and arrogant confidence, the 45th President of the United States fostered a venomous American ideology that has since pervaded each corner of the country like an orange-blotched virus. 

Popularising the term ‘fake news’, Trump entered the White House and immediately closed the shutters of outside influence, designing his own absurd reality that put himself at the very centre of the universe. Attacking anyone who dared to go against his vision, Trump demanded an era of misinformation and paranoia as he dug his fingernails into the leather chair of the Oval Office, fearing that he was steadily losing his grip on the American people. 

Leaving his post in 2021, Trump exited with fire and fury, convincing thousands of people to attack and invade the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C, seeking to disrupt the political order with the delusional hope to gain his presidency back from certain death. Five people died before, during, or following the event, with many injured including 138 police officers, seeing the Trump era crumble to a deplorable close. 

Steadily tightening the pressure of social unrest with provocative speeches and incessant drones of “fake news”, for Donald Trump’s time in office to close with such violence was almost an inevitable fate for a president who had charmed a nation like a sheep in poorly-fitted clothing.

As the typically moralistic identity of the American President changed, so too did the national zeitgeist, with culture subtly shifting to reflect the realities of the exigent figure of the White House. Online, provoking internet figures such as Logan Paul sparked controversy, whilst in the field of business, Billy McFarland provided the perfect analogy of the futile pursuit of the modern American dream with his infamously disastrous Fyre Festival.

The line between reality and fiction was being inextricably blurred, as the fake news cycle continued to make the truth discernible from the published fantasy. With the death of truth, conceit flourished, as arrogant businesspeople and American opportunists took advantage of misinformation, paranoia and the fragility of the nation by fueling their own hubris, forever changing the identity of the contemporary world as the empty patriotism of ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) gained ground. 

The American dream had now been indelibly derailed, and Hollywood, the biggest stage to reflect such magical national fantasy, followed suit, with filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, the Safdie brothers, Sean Baker, Jane Campion and Quentin Tarantino piercing the facade to access the modern truth of the USA, imbuing their male leads with a range of values that fell victim to, and indeed criticised, Trump’s nation.

Dissecting the innards of modern America, such aforementioned filmmakers asked what facet the current ‘dream’ of the country currently exists in, applying a fierce criticism of the lies the Trump-era constructed. Take Howard Ratner of the Safdie brother’s 2019 film Uncut Gems, a deplorable, selfish protagonist, played by Adam Sandler, with a strange New York swagger that overpowers the viewer like an extra-strong mint. Gorgeously chaotic, Ratner lives his life from bet to bet, often gambling away his own security in favour of a fantastical jackpot that perpetually tempts him like a dangling diamond. 

Disregarding his wife, family and work associates to get as close as possible to achieving his own selfish idea of success, Ratner doggedly chases his next ‘hit’ with an unquestionable arrogance that recalls Trump’s own high-wire act that straddled politics and volatile public life. 

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Shades of the same identity can be seen throughout Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where fantasy is favoured in place of bleak history, and the protagonist Rick Dalton eventually becomes enamoured by his own inflated self worth. In addition, Todd Phillips’ titular Joker may be the mutated product of a world far darker than our own, though he certainly bears resemblance to Trump as a faux entertainer with sinister intentions and an ability to rouse a strong following of like-minded clowns. 

This era of the Trump-inspired egotist has also inspired the polar opposite, with more recent movies such as 2021s The Card Counter telling stories of a troubled loner, guilty and self-destructive after flouting American morals. Likewise, Pig starring Nicolas Cage, follows a lonely man living a solitary life in the forest, away from the humdrum and consumerism of the city. It’s a fiction not too dissimilar from the low-key sincerity, melancholy approach to the life of Johnny in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon released in the very same year.

Crucial to the powerful influence of Trump was his disarming charm, however, with each of the aforementioned characters displaying the same allure despite their obvious shortcomings. Such is obvious in Uncut Gems, a film about a poisoned American mind obsessed with fantastical success, and is a sentiment continued by Sean Baker in his recent 2021 film Red Rocket.

Brought into the critical eye of the film, the demise of American values is the butt of the movie’s joke as the protagonist burns joints emblazoned with The Star-Spangled Banner and embodies all the selfishness and hatred fostered throughout the president’s time in office. Charming, yet despicable, Simon Rex’s Mikey Saber finds himself torn between the responsibilities of reality and the allure of fantasy, opting for the latter in a moment of callow foolishness.  

Telling Huck that he considers himself to be a “political filmmaker”, Sean Baker explains: “All of my films have something to do with the people left behind by the American Dream,” with each of his films deconstructing this notion. Incredibly critical of how his country has transformed under modern politics and shifts in sociology, Baker adds: “I think those who are the unfortunate by-product of that are the ones who are then forced to live in the shadows of it…I think you can see, based on where the election went, where people’s heads are in terms of what they consider success – and that’s a very sad thing in my eyes”. 

From Sean Baker to Quentin Tarantino to the Safdie brothers, such American filmmakers responded to Donald Trump’s reign by imbuing a sense of conflict within their protagonists, wrestling with the same emotional turmoil that so many across the nation were struggling with at the very same time. Embodying the same arrogance, bravado and senselessness as the President himself, the personalities of Howard Ratner and Mikey Saber are endemic of the contemporary American zeitgeist.

Even over a year since his final day in office, the legacy of Donald Trump’s reign still looms over American progress, stained indelibly to its identity in the form of stupid red hats, unyielding bumper stickers and intransigent MAGA supporters. In response, cinema continues to disarm his legacy, with The Power of the Dog director Jane Campion becoming the latest to dissect the origins of his bravado, instilling her own film with an exploration of his masculinity. 

“Like, when things didn’t go well for him [Trump], he melted,” Campion explained in a recent interview with Indiewire, asserting, “He couldn’t ever even say the words ‘I lost.’ He created this massive fiction. Even to say the word ‘failure’ is just not an option for someone like him, for these kinds of men”. 

As we continually look back to question and repair the events of Trump’s time in office, cinema perseveres, with the leading male characters of Hollywood creating a mosaic of values that offers answers to the steadily reconstructing modern American dream.