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Jewish World Review
Dec. 1, 2008
/ 4 Kislev 5769
Obama's pop culture drama
Washington and Wall Street are not the only power centers that are wondering what kind of change President-elect Barack Obama is going to bring. Hollywood moguls are sitting on the edge of their seats in suspense like a teen-aged boy at a sequel to "American Pie."
The entertainment industry is trying to figure out what impact Obama is going to have on popular culture, particularly the big-budget movies that moviegoers around the planet will want to see in a year or two.
"Discussions in our development meetings include the zeitgeist and how it's changed in that last two weeks," Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, producers of "Iron Man," told Entertainment Weekly. "Things are being adjusted."
Good luck with that, guys. Presidents do leave big cultural footprints, usually in unpredictable ways. John F. Kennedy brought a glamorous "Camelot" era to stodgy Washington. Lyndon B. Johnson inspired youthful rebellion, mostly against Johnson.
The Depression-era story of "Bonnie and Clyde" surprised many in 1967 by capturing a more devoted youth audience than the hippie-theme movies did. So did the straight-laced but nihilistic "The Graduate."
Richard Nixon's era of Watergate and the "southern strategy" similarly is remembered for the moral relativism of "The Godfather" and the loveable bigot Archie Bunker of "All in the Family."
The Ronald Reagan '80s gave us the military hits "Top Gun" and "Rambo" and revived 1950s-style family comedy with "The Cosby Show." And, let us not forget Oliver Stone's 1987 "Wall Street," with its cynical-yet-timely catch phrase, "Greed is good."
What impact could Obama have? Your guess is as good as mine, but since I've got the column, here's my advice to the movie folks:
Don't try a movie about his life. At least, not yet. We've already seen it played out on TV and YouTube. Hollywood's fantasy factory is no match for the real-life thriller that "No Drama" Obama's quest already has given us.
Look past his politics to the themes that make his story appealing. "A stranger comes to town" is one of the oldest plot hooks in the world. The more Obama's opponents asked, "Who is Barack Obama?" the more they sounded like the befuddled Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid asking, "Who are those guys?" as a posse relentlessly stayed on their tails. The more they asked, the more we viewers wanted to know.
Think of David vs. Goliath. Yes, you can! Audiences love to root for David.
Tomorrow's inspiring, family-friendly themes are yesterday's corny themes repackaged. Some of us remember how John F. Kennedy devastated the men's hat industry by refusing to wear one. Obama's button-down style could inspire a dapper Cosby-style traditionalism, only hipper.
He scored enough cool points to be named one of Ebony's "25 Coolest Brothers of All Time." Yet he did not mind spending a little of that coolness capital during an interview on MTV, of all places, when he announced: "Brothers should pull up their pants. A lot of people may not want to see your underwear. I'm one of them."
Thank you, Mr. President-elect. We parents across America salute you.
Remember, Americans share more than a flag in common. We share a desire for opportunities and achievement. That's why the campaign ad works in which Obama describes his grandfather taking him on his shoulders "and waving a little American flag" to see some of the astronauts. "Americans," said grandpa, "We can do anything when we put our minds to it." Sure, the spot could have sounded irredeemably corny. But in the context of Obama's life and the obvious obstacles he was overcoming, irony evaporated.
Which brings up a dilemma that comedians have faced: For the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Obama's victory has revived talk of the alleged death of irony. He's revived so many old-fashioned, tear-jerking good feelings about this country's value to the world that it's hard for comedians to make fun of him without sounding downright unpatriotic. That won't last. Political honeymoons never do. But until that honeymoon passes, Hollywood would do well to savor this moment. For now, Obama has tapped a spirit of national pride, unity and respect for racial and cultural diversity that a lot of us Americans wish could last forever.
Put that on a screen. I'd buy a ticket to see it.
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