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What did the Obama presidency mean for movies?

Arrival (Photo: Paramount)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

Thursday morning, when I woke up with a chest-tightening cough and the realization that I had about two hours to think of something interesting to say about Arrival and Loving for our weekly Facebook Live broadcast, I rummaged around the bathroom for the inhaler that was left over from when I’d had bronchitis, walked my son to his preschool, came back wheezing, and sat down on the living room couch with my laptop and my little semi-seasonal notebooks.


To be honest, I don’t think it was really possible to measure the influence of Barack Obama’s presidency on American film until now. In this nascent new reality, created by the unexpected (but not unforeseeable) election of Donald Trump, both Arrival and Loving seem slightly quaint. The former is a sci-fi film about a team of American scientists working as part of an international effort to communicate with aliens who have arrived announced on Earth; the latter is a biographical drama about Richard and Mildred Loving that draws the subtlest of parallels to the Supreme Court’s more recent decision on same-sex marriage.

As a voracious reader of film criticism, I recall how the last months of the George W. Bush presidency produced a number of pre-emptive postmortems for that now dimly remembered “Bush era.” The Bush administration had an obvious impact on media and the culture of American news, but there was something about the Obama presidency and its mix of social progressivism and international hawkishness (often supported by surveillance) that made it a flashpoint for depictions of conflicts of ideals and realpolitik. It was the Cold War, but without that sneaking suspicion that both sides were more or less the same.

Zero Dark Thirty (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

These are some of the truest Obama-era films: portraits of increasingly marginalized heroes (or, often, heroines) and amoral apparatuses of foreign policy like Kathryn Bigelow’s conflicted Zero Dark Thirty and Denis Villeneuve’s deftly executed Sicario; and multiplex battles of patriotism and paranoia in the vein of the last two Captain America movies, The Winter Soldier and Civil War. These are portrayals of unquestionable evil being fought by questionable good. Arrival, also directed by Villeneuve, fits into that category, because it depicts a world descending into conflict and the military being undermined by its own aggression from the point of view of idealistic scientists. But it’s more hopeful.


It’s easy to forget that Obama was not initially elected as a conscientious liberal, but as a timely unifying figure, and that it was only in the last few years of his second term that a look of disappointment—about police shootings, xenophobic rhetoric, institutionalized racism—became such a key part of his persona. And yet, his cultural moment, these so-called Obama years, were marked by conflicted feelings from the beginning. For this period experienced a social liberalization that was reflected in film and TV (and a subsequent backlash, which we now have to deal with) but also popularized a sense of ideological turmoil.

Even something as putatively reactionary as American Sniper takes for granted a conflictedness that would have been hard to imagine for a popular film released in, say, the mid-’00s. Some might remember that back when The Dark Knight came out in 2008, it was critiqued in some quarters as a veiled apologia for the early War On Terror, with Batman putting all of Gotham under electronic surveillance to defeat the Joker. And some might also recall that the same film (shot, coincidentally, in Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago) harps on quite a bit about the innate goodness of people, as illustrated by the parable-like sequence involving the two ships and two detonators. But perhaps it was really the first major film of the Obama administration, preceding his actual election by some months.


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