On Thursday night, Joe Biden showed that he was the master of a technique that’s a staple of film acting but is rarely, if at all, associated with politics: the reaction shot. He laughed, shook his head, and smirked his way to victory over Paul Ryan. Only through the magic of the closeup do we get, in a film, a window into the psyche of a person quietly listening to someone else speaking. Biden appropriated film’s magic. His silent emoting stole the show.
Fifty years from now, the feisty contest between the vice president and his rival will most likely be seen as a breakthrough in American politics, a moment when the TV viewer’s own response found public expression. Ever since the advent of TV, politicians have been lying to the cameras behind sunny smiles as Americans, gloomily glued to their screens, roll their eyes, laugh, shake their heads, and smirk. The audience’s embittered helplessness no doubt explains the success of Jon Stewart, who gives public expression to his viewers’s emotions as he sneers and pops his eyes while playing clips of politicians acting absurdly or dishonestly. For the first time, with Biden’s over-the-top performance, the enraged yet impotent TV audience—liberals, anyway—found expression for its pent-up frustration not in a comedian, but in a politician himself. In some meta-reversal of roles, the debating Biden became Jon Stewart lampooning the debate after it took place.
Look at it like this. President Obama is the ego trying to maintain rational, respectable appearance while navigating the rough seas of partisan instinct on the one hand and presidential authority on the other. Romney is the remorseless super-ego, issuing punishing criticism, accompanied by stern reminders of the nature of American virtue, every time Obama opens his mouth or makes a move. In Thursday’s debate, Biden proved himself a first-rate American id.
Biden’s near-comical expressions of anger, outrage, and disbelief opened a valve. He was doing, in public, in the sacred forum of a vice-presidential debate, what so many people do in the privacy of their own homes, or in the raucous atmosphere of a bar, when they watch such a debate. He was going nuts with frustration in the face of what he considered to be phoniness and untruth.
The reactive smirk has an august history in art. Until recently, however, the smirker was not always the hero. For every courtier making a mocking face behind the back of a sanctimonious Polonius, there was a Molierian hypocrite, faking expressions of derisive horror as his potential victim spoke. In some productions, King Lear’s treacherous daughters, Goneril and Regan, share a private smirk as their father pompously intones his ridiculous request for their vows of love. But the most famous smirker in the history of the theater has got to be Iago, who, in some performances of Othello, furtively mimes his contempt as Othello declaims with an air of self-importance.
In modern times, reactive undermining is more respectable, having become the special tool of the comedians. You can draw a direct line from Groucho Marx rolling his eyes while Margaret Dumont flutters and inflates to Biden’s bravura fake-appalled responses. Jack Benny’s slow-burn look of haughty disbelief is the very DNA of today’s reactive smirk. Johnny Carson perfected it, and passed it down to Jon Stewart.
The undermining reaction is rarer in dramatic film. I can only think of two instances, George C. Scott’s patronizing smile, meant to discredit Paul Newman with Piper Laurie in The Hustler, and Andy Garcia’s look of offended incredulity—almost exactly like Biden’s, come to think of it—as the petty, malign crime boss Joe Mantegna presents his brief against Garcia in The Godfather, Part Three. More frequently, you find the smirk in comedies, like the sendup of Hollywood nihilism in Get Shorty. Think of the priceless expression of growing revulsion on Renee Russo’s face, as her ex-husband, a prima donna celebrity actor played by Danny DeVito, waxes sentimental about their marriage and wonders, “how did it all slip away?” “Well, it didn’t slip away,” says Russo. “You did, when you went off to fuck Nikki at my birthday party.” (DeVito’s reply: “Yeah. That was a good party.”)
But in political life, there are few, if any, precedents for Biden’s performance. His submersive facial retorts were galaxies removed from Al Gore’s patrician sighs during the presidential debates in 2000. Nor did they resemble George W. Bush’s clueless half-smile, which was really an involuntary smirk. Instead, with his reactive histrionics, regular-guy Joe left the bathroom door open and revealed what many people believe is the essential fragrance of American politics.