Steven Spielberg’s Obama reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White
The worst Steven Spielberg production ever is, without doubt, his Obama homage, Steven Spielberg’s Obama.
Unlike his disingenuous Obama-in-disguise campaign feature film, Lincoln, this two-minute satirical short looks artless and slapdash; it was made for last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner–an annual event for fatcats that contradicts the United States’ supposed allegiance to democracy by gathering the nation’s most empowered people (media celebritiies) to gently lambaste but mostly celebrate their empowered peer, the President, as the most casual, supercilious, inviolable and narcissistic cat of them all.
Newscasters have disgraced their profession and politics by making movie cameos with apparently no qualms about the implication that news is just another form of celebritized fiction. There’s an unholy alliance between the news industry and Hollywood. No matter the deprivations Americans across the country still suffer from Hurricane Sandy, Sandy Hook, West, Texas and the economy, the Correspondents’ dinner is a ritual for the privileged, the ruling class that Americans like to think doesn’t exist. That’s one reason they go to the movies (the most shameful reason) and Spielberg made this short to further that ends of mystification, misguidance and manipulation.
The mockumentary’s unfunny jokes start with Spielberg asking “I mean who is Obama, really? We don’t know. We never got his transcripts.” This would only be amusing if it weren’t true. There’s obscenity in joking about the media’s protection of Obama’s image and its implicit lack of decorum which began (negatively) with the media’s assault on George W, Bush’s presidency. But Nevermind. (That might have been a more clever title for the short–what, was Tony Kushner too busy reading Entertainment Weekly?).
Steven Spielberg’s Obama was made redundantly, to disguise the euphemistic Beltway metaphors of Lincoln (such as that despicable moment when Lincoln, arms outstretched, mendaciously emulates the scales of justice–but politicking with his right hand and prevaricating with his Left). Yet, those who care about the honor of Spielberg’s best work have to pay mind to this short’s dishonesty. It gainsays the fact of Obama’s media-based mythification by joking about it.
Spielberg pretends in the short to be thinking about doing a first film about Obama and smirks, “Picking the right actor to “play Obama that was the challenge. So I needed someone who could dive in and really become Barack Obama. And as it turns out the answer was right in front of me all along: Daniel Day Lewis.” This plays the moviegoing public cheap, as if they weren’t smart enough to catch that Obama was already the subtext of Lincoln. Spielberg knew this, he let screenwriter Tony Kushner go forward with the rhetorical ruse which The New York Times only cottoned to after the film’s release.
In an analysis titled “Confronting the Fact of Fiction and the Fiction of Fact,” two thumbs-up reviewers chimed “Lincoln isn’t just about how President Lincoln navigated the passage of the 13th Amendment; it is also about President Obama whose presidency could not be imagined without that amendment.” So goes the limits of Times critics’ imaginations. They finally admitted that Spielberg and Kushner’s fabrications were rooted in the dark heart of millennial White Liberal fantasy, not historical fact or African American dreaming.
Because Obama has become the fulfillment of White Liberal dreaming, his mythification in Lincoln and throughout the mainstream media is accepted without vetting–so much so that even Spielberg can contribute to the mythification, attempting to sway an election and then kid about it.
His short’s suggestion that the Obama myth required an actor of Daniel Day Lewis’ stature is inadvertently revealed. Spielberg boasts about Day Lewis’ method of ”becom[ing] his character: Hawkeye from Last Of The Mohicans, Bill the Butcher in The Gangs of New York and Abraham Lincoln from Lincoln. And you know what, he nailed it.” Nailing it is the correct, crucifying term for the Washington Correspondents Dinner’s deprecation of American history.
Spielberg’s litany accidentally links Obama’s presidency to questionable representations of American history: James Fennimore Cooper’s White fantasy that Leslie Fiedler once explicated (in Love and Death in the American Novel) as the embodiment of Eurocentric fears and the basis of America’s racial delusions (a critical thesis now forgotten in the Ebert age); Scorsese’s post-Vietnam imagining of America’s hostile social legacy and immigrant brutality. Spielberg ties all that to Lincoln, not to absolve it but to unconsciously root it to the racial and political confusion about slavery and identity that the unvetted Obama represents.
But, wait! It gets worse! Obama himself takes part in Spielberg’s charade. After once claiming “I have a lot on my plate,” Obama generously took the time to complete Spielberg’s fantasy by showing how he prepares for public performance: Looking into a mirror, Obama preps “Hello, Ohio! Hello, Ohio!” “I love you back.” “Look, look, let me be clear about this.” The only thing that’s clear is that the gathered media artistocracy (including the low-down yet highly-placed of Hollywood and Manhattan) approves this disingenuousness. It’s all right with them. They want a President as lacking in dignity as they are, so they reduce him to their level–morally, professionally, politically.
This short is Spielberg’s most Brechtian comedy: he gets the President of the United States to ridicule the supposedly sincere reasons his constituents support him, undermining the prestige of Office that even his opponents are obliged to respect. (One could argue that the media’s out-of-control disrespect the presidency began with George W. Bush or maybe our lapdog media was born during the Clinton administration). For Spielberg, Obama willingly portrays a performer in the act of deceiving the public. (Only Bill and Hillary Clinton taking on the roles of the mafia gangsters The Sopranos was as offensive.)
It is not funny when Obama-as-Day-Lewis confuses things, saying “The hardest part? Trying to understand his [my] motivations. Why did he [I] pursue ‘heatlh care’ first? What makes him [me] tick? Why doesn’t he [I] get mad? If I was him I’d be mad all the time. But I’m not him, I’m Daniel Day Lewis.” It’s as bad as a Saturday Night Live skit. Or a Jon Stewart Early Show skit. Or a Real Time with Bill Maher skit. (Or a Morning Joe, Rachel Maddow skit, I mean, “newscast.”) That’s how low the producer of the terrific early Zemeckis-Gale comedies has sunk.
For the past seven months I’ve personally been fielding questions about why I didn’t like the movie Lincoln. Going through the unpleasant effort of explaining the film’s basic inaccuracy and unfairness to people who were prepared to love and defend it simply because it was customized to their political sentiments, made my explanation all the more frustrating. (When die-hard Spielberg scoffers praised Lincoln, I knew their commendations had nothing to do with esthetics or history, only with the film’s slanted politics and strenuously forced contemporary parallel to Obama’s lame-duck presidency.)
Now, after the disappointment of the Kushner-Spielberg Lincoln, we get its unfortunate sequel–actually a coda. A coda ought to reinforce a work’s preceding revelations but it’s become apparent that after his previous great films showed the humane aspect of the human experience, Spielberg has taken up the partisan view. Now that Spielberg shows us what Lincoln actually meant, one can really, rightfully rue it.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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