Matt Gurney: Mourning an America
Yes, I know it's just a romantic sci-fi thriller movie. But it's also a reminder of how bad things got in only 12 years.
By: Matt Gurney
Pop culture has always been a time capsule, of sorts. It can remind you of good things that were lost, and can also jarringly remind you how much genuine social progress has been made, when beloved characters from a generation or two ago casually say or do things that would be instantly cancellable today. And it can also remind you of times and places in your own life. What can jog a half-lost memory better than a line of dialogue or a few chords of a nearly forgotten song?
I started a little project in the summer. After my wife teased me for never having seen Good Will Hunting — I dunno, folks, I guess somehow I just missed it for 25 consecutive years — I began writing down a list of movies I'd either never seen or had seen long ago and mostly forgotten. One of the films was The Adjustment Bureau. Starring Matt Damon (again!) and Emily Blunt, it was released in 2011, near the end of Barack Obama's first term, when Donald Trump was just a reality TV star, a year before my first child was born. I did see it once, when it was newly available on Blu-Ray (that’s how we watched movies, once). But then babies were born and jobs were changed and houses were moved and a clingy basset hound adopted and any memory I had of the movie beyond a vague sense of "I enjoyed that!" was lost. So I put it on my list and a bit after New Years, around the time Kevin McCarthy was on his 12th or so ballot for Speaker of the House, popped it on.
And whoo boy. What a strange reminder of just how much, and how badly, American politics has changed.
Here's a quick primer (very mild spoilers ahead, but I'll try and avoid any big giveaways). Damon plays an up-and-coming Democrat politician from New York City, a staunch idealist, environmentalist and progressive with blue-collar roots and a touch for speaking to the working class. A random encounter with a young woman, played by Blunt, leads to an immediate mutual attraction. Strangely powerful and all-knowing men wearing nice hats suddenly begin to appear in Damon's life, all of them working to keep him and Blunt apart.
It's never fully explained who these men are — time travellers from the future or angels sent by God seem equally plausible (the latter seems more strongly implied, but it's left open to interpretation). These men in hats are tasked with preventing the Damon and Blunt characters from falling in love because they are both destined for greatness. Blunt's character will be a legendary artist, and Damon's, the president of the United States.
But only if they don't fall in love. That will change the course of both of their lives, and someone, or something, doesn't want that to happen.
It's a fun movie. I'm glad I watched it again, and happily recommend watching it, if you haven’t. But it's the opening scenes that gave me pause. In the first few minutes of the film, we are treated to a classic Hollywood montage, with cameos from real U.S. journalists and political commentators — James Carville and Daily Show-era Jon Stewart, among others. The montage lays out for the viewer all that they need to know about the Damon character, his background and the basic outlines of the career trajectory that will take him to the White House ... so long as he never falls in love with Blunt, that is.
And that montage. Wow. That America, folks. That whole kind of American politics. It's dead and buried. Actually, it's more basic even than that. The ability to even pretend American politics was like that is dead.
Do you all remember how, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it felt strange, even painful, to see the World Trade Center in films or on TV in some establishing shot of the New York skyline? This actually became a whole series of mini-controversies. Microsoft had to explain, almost apologetically, that its next version of its Flight Simulator game would remove the Twin Towers from its NYC simulation, for accuracy's sake. A Spiderman movie had to trash an entire trailer — a pretty cool one — that involved capturing some bank robbers in a getaway chopper in a web spun between the two towers. The Sopranos altered its opening montage to remove a shot of the towers, too. And so on.
Sometimes the plot demanded the changes, as the content would not be current without them, but other times, it was entirely to avoid a jarring and unpleasant reminder of tragedy for viewers just looking for a bit of entertainment.
That's how the montage at the start of The Adjustment Bureau felt. It's hard to even fully put into words, which is suboptimal when one is a writer. But you don't have to just take my word for it, because The New York Times has the whole scene in question on its website. (Beware spoilers).
That America is just gone. The press wouldn't be that breathless over a politician. The crowds would be less fawning. Even Jon Stewart would be more jaded! The speeches would be nastier and angrier. Indeed, consider that the Damon character isn't wildly off from the real-life A.O.C., in terms of how his roots are presented. Compare how her career has progressed in real life to how Damon does in the opening moments of the film. It's night and day.
Hell, in the Philip K. Dick short story upon which the film was (very) loosely based, the protagonist isn’t an aspiring politician, but a salesman. Just an average guy whose fate needed to be adjusted in order to avoid a global catastrophe. If The Adjustment Bureau were to be made into a film today, I’d guess that would be closer to what we’d get. An average guy, or maybe a scientist or a doctor. Anyone but a senator.
To be clear, yes, I know it's just a movie. The Adjustment Bureau's opening scene isn't a faithful portrayal of what American politics was actually like back in 2011. Obviously. But the scene was at least plausible enough to be in the realm of possibility. It was supposed to feel realistic, which is why they had cameos from real people. It wasn't jarring in the way it feels today, because American politics, though never perfect, wasn't nearly as toxic and dysfunctional then as it has become.
It's funny. Remember that list I mentioned above? Movies I've either never seen, or haven't seen in a long time? A few years ago, I was toying with the idea of rewatching The West Wing, the NBC televised drama that followed the fictional presidential administration of Josiah Bartlet, played by wonderful actor Martin Sheen. I watched the show live when it was on, and had the first few seasons on DVD boxsets. I haven't watched more than an episode or two in probably something like 15 years. And when the urge to maybe go watch the series again came to me a few years ago, during the imposed downtime of one of Toronto’s COVID-era lockdowns, I had this strong feeling that, actually, maybe I'm not gonna do that. Maybe I'd rather keep my fond memories of it than rewatch it and be depressed by just how wildly fantastic it would seem today. (In fairness, it being an unrealistically cheerful fictionalization was a critique made even then.)
I mentioned my recent rewatch of The Adjustment Bureau to friends recently, and we got to talking about Veep, the HBO dark comedy about one woman's unlikely and torturous rise into the U.S. vice presidency, and then later the Oval Office. We all agreed that we loved Veep's earlier seasons, but not the later ones, which just got increasingly weird. It stopped being funny. And my friend made an interesting remark. Veep was funny, he said, when we all assumed that Sarah Palin was about as bizarre as U.S. politics would ever get. That's what was being satirized. When real life, especially in U.S. politics, flew right through that fail-safe point and just kept getting weirder and darker, shows like Veep had to get increasingly absurd just to keep up with reality. It didn't work.
And this didn’t take long. The Adjustment Bureau came out only 12 years ago. This isn't some wildly long-ago period, where we can all shake our heads and chuckle at how weird things were way back when. This was only three presidential election cycles ago. Hell, the character Damon played, if elected to the Senate in the movie, would only have had to face re-election once since then.
In his piece for The Line on Monday, Steve Lafleur dared to predict that perhaps we've touched bottom. He cited some examples of why he's feeling optimistic. I don't think he's wrong, necessarily, though I'm not convinced he's exactly right, either. (That's another column.) But maybe he's right about one particular thing. Maybe politics in the U.S. has gotten about as nasty and dysfunctional as it's going to get, and will rebound from here. Or at least not get any worse.
Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. But even if we've seen the bottom, that bottom was an awful long way down. It was weird to feel this, something akin to grief, so sharply while checking out a moderately successful romantic sci-fi thriller. But that's life, sometimes. A sense of loss can sneak up on you.
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