Sooner or later the movie will come. The subject is immense, perhaps too big for just one movie. There is a web of compelling characters. Hollywood’s best actors will kill to get parts.
One director is already itchy, ready to go. Armando Iannucci, creator of the HBO hit series Veep and of the cripplingly funny satire The Death of Stalin, tweeted:
“Film pitch. Trump drugged and moved to a replica Whitehouse, where he carries on thinking he’s governing. Millions spent on actors to play his staff, Senators, news anchors, people at rallies.
“There you go. Studios, your highest bid please.”
The tweet itself is deliriously satirical. And Iannucci has both the wit and commercial cred needed. But there are so many ways to skin this cat. What would be the challenges of pulling it off?
First, there is the issue of genre.
A few weeks before Iannucci tweeted his pitch, longtime former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, surveying the cast of characters in the Trump vortex, suggested that Martin Scorsese was the director with the right instincts for the story since it was so laden with the language and methods of his mafia masterpiece, Goodfellas.
No argument there. But the mise en scène is too narrow. There is a new level of infamy to grasp, going all the way from small-time hoods to Vladimir Putin.
At the very least it calls for a combination of skills. Say, Scorsese, Iannucci, and the Coen Brothers, with a nod to John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate.
This would combine the power not just of Goodfellas but of The Death of Stalin and Fargo—a new level of American Gothic equal to the times.
One problem is that everything spins around one character, Trump. Of course, Alec Baldwin owns the comic version of Trump. As brilliant as that performance is it underlines the problem any dramatist faces with Trump: he’s the shallowest of all the characters in the story. Baldwin has so completely captured the disorders—the narcissism, the petulance, the vindictiveness, the insecurity, the ignorance, the absence of curiosity—that the basic emptiness leaves little to explore.
The trick might be to never see Trump. Instead, he is seen through multiple viewpoints and from varying distances, the closest being on the other side of a door. Everybody in the story is tested by the interplay with him.
The drama (and the main theme) lies in watching how the behavior of this one man so rapidly contaminates everything and everyone around him. Few who come into contact with him ever leave unscathed in some way, many of them permanently corrupted in ways even they never anticipated.
The richest characters are those that endure. They are the ones who seem free of misgivings, who thrive as the fortress mentality requires a praetorian valor in defense of the emperor as, layer by layer, he loses his clothes.
Of these there is one standout, the juiciest role for any actor: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
By any measure, Sanders has the worst job in the administration, possibly the worst job in the world. Every day she fronts for a congenital liar. And she does it with breathtaking audacity. A British diplomat once said that an ambassador’s job was to go out into the world and lie on behalf of his country. Sanders has converted that loyalty from nation to person, without blinking.
She cedes no hint of inner conflicts or ethical stresses in public. She glowers down at the corps of White House correspondents like a headmistress tiring of an unruly and impertinent class. Sean Spicer, her forerunner, was no lightweight but he had no staying power and suffered the taunt of being compared to “Baghdad Bob,” Saddam Hussein’s shameless flack.
Given the debased job description that Sanders has to meet, she appears to be one of the most competent people in the Trump inner circle. But for most of the time she is out of view. And that is where the movie must take us—away from the rostrum and into the dark alternative universe where dwell all the fevers of a man unable to distinguish truth from the needs of his own hungry ego.
Sanders has something of an Addams Family spookiness that a great actor could explore without turning to parody. And there is such an actor for the part: Jennifer Lawrence. Given a touch of prosthetics she could internalize the role in the way that she has so often done amazingly in the past, most notably in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, a movie that assembled a proto-Trumpian menagerie of chancers.
Beyond the inner circle there is an equally elusive and compelling character for a marquee actor to take on: Paul Manafort.
Admittedly, there is meager public material to work with in shaping the part. Manafort’s physical familiarity to us so far rests almost exclusively on his various perp walks. They have been replayed thousands of times. He walks from courthouse to limousine with a rigidly forward gaze, so rigid that he misses a step from sidewalk to street, jolting his spine but not his composure.
The court sketches of him give nothing away. His wife delivers his $1,500 shirts to his lawyer in a white plastic bag.
He has a crazy kind of obduracy, apparently suffering the precipitate fall from millionaire to bankrupt, from Trump campaign chairman to political leper, without surrendering an inch of ego, until finally cracking with a plea deal.
As it happens, Manafort’s fatal trajectory of self-sustained jeopardy has a strong affinity to a fictional character whom he somewhat resembles: Marty Byrd in the dark Netflix psychodrama Osark. Jason Bateman, who created and totally inhabits the part, would likely relish the chance of playing Manafort.
Manafort first honed his political skills in Washington during the Reagan years with another graduate of the Young Republicans movement, Roger Stone. While Manafort thereafter remained largely under the radar, Stone became notorious as a dirty tricks artist in many campaigns. The problem with Stone as a character in any movie is that he is simply too ripe to contain. There are too many Roger Stones.
And yet… nobody else sits as centrally to all the conflicts of Trump World. Who else knows the inside stuff all the way from his days as a lobbyist for Trump’s Atlantic City casinos to his alleged awareness of the activities of the Russian hacking entity known as Guccifer 2.0? Stone is the man who knows too much and just loves knowing it without actually confessing to any of it, one part still a guy you can imagine in S&M leather and another part in Savile Row suiting.
So step up Bryan Cranston. This is Walter White times ten.
And, speaking of the Breaking Bad theater of grotesques, how about Bob Odenkirk as Donald Trump Jr.? In the current series of Better Call Saul, Odenkirk is in the last phase of being Jimmy McGill before morphing into Saul Goodman. It seems that Don Jr. falls somewhere between those two tormented characters, between the vulnerable lieutenant and the all-in accessory.
But in this script such a roster of deeply troubled souls needs a counterpoint of comic relief, drawn from the larks who fly happily below the scavenger crows entertaining us with their frisky energy.
Nobody could better fit this role than George Papadopoulos and his wife Simona Mangiante. For a while this couple seemed like serious players, well embedded in the Russian plotline.
Initially federal prosecutors alleged that Papadopoulos had “substantial connections to Russian government officials” and, through a mysterious intermediary, had access to thousands of Hillary Clinton emails held by the Russians that could be used as “dirt” by the Trump campaign.
The script appeal of these characters lies in the fact that they lift the narrative from the confinement of interiors in Washington and Manhattan to an itinerary that resembles a glamorous, helter-skelter James Bond scenario jumping from covert meetings in London bars to a series of Mediterranean watering holes and even meetings with the Greek government.
Along the way the mysterious intermediary, professor Joseph Mifsud, is allowed to evade an FBI dragnet and—like the Hillary emails—melts away.
Papadopoulous, of course, ended up with 14 days in federal detention, a year of supervised release, a $9,500 fine and is obliged to perform 200 hours of community service. Given the original build-up, this was anti-climactic. Papadopolous, it turns out, is not so much James Bond as Austin Powers, the “international man of mystery” created by Mike Myers in his romping lampoon of 007.
At this point in our production it appears that life is beginning to commune with art.
Papadopoulous and his wife are heading to Hollywood, she aspiring to be an actor and he an author. Who knows, they could play themselves. They do it well. Performances on the Sunday shows were like rehearsals, both of them deploying the strangely stateless accents expected of bit part players in a bigger intrigue.
OK, so what is the takeaway—do you leave the theater feeling that you now know more than when you sat down? A good movie with a story as large as this can make important points without bashing you over the head with them. They can emerge naturally through character and action.
In this movie money is a drug that destroys.
Manafort, for example, makes more than $60 million in four years working for Russian-backed Ukranians, and then burns through it, hopelessly addicted to an opulent life style that cannot be sustained.
Following him and the rest of the cast as money spouts from many golden faucets, the audience will end up asking a fundamental question: What were these people selling?
There isn’t an easy answer. Manafort suddenly understood that in Washington he could be a new kind of manipulator. He and Stone discovered pay-to-play. They coached candidates and, once the candidates were seated, sold access to them at a high price.
The feckless Papadopolous introduced himself an “energy consultant” and then became a “foreign policy adviser” which, to be fair, is no more farcical than the idea of Ivanka Trump touting that she had been given charge of climate change policy. In this racket credentials don’t matter. Access is everything.
Once people enter the orbit of Trump they are easily drawn into a bigger international game with a picaresque backstory, and inevitably this intersects with the world of the intelligence services, from which it is difficult to escape. The wives start to wear dark glasses in public.
The Death of Stalin has terrifying intimations of the Trump regime: an inner circle reduced to those abasing themselves and competing for the tyrant’s approval. It also evokes something else that is disturbingly familiar: how tyranny begets incompetence. Fawning accomplices carry out idiotic policies that produce careless cruelty (think tearing babies away from mothers).
The title of this movie is—if we are not careful—The Death of America.