Retro Film Review: Bulworth (1998)

in #filmlast month


Many Americans, especially those who traditionally support Democratic Party, view this year's US presidential election as the most important clash between forces of Good and Evil since the end of WW2. Not so long ago this Manichean perspective on American politics was unimaginable. Most people, especially those on this side of the Big Pond, saw little difference between Republicans and Democrats - both parties seemed to appeal to the same voting blocks, preach same ideology and enjoy the support from the same set of financial contributors. American politics, with only a section of legislative seats being competitive and opposing politicians telling the undistinguishable variations of the same thing, looked utterly predictable and boring. Hollywood, which was traditionally pro- Democratic, didn't see anything wrong with this thing, but in late 1990s few satirical films tried to challenge this status quo. One of them was Bulworth, 1998 comedy directed by Warren Beatty.

The plot of the film begins in Spring 1996. Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole have just secured their parties' nominations and nation is about to experience a boring and predictable presidential race. Other elections are overshadowed by this spectacle, including
the election for US Senate seat for California. Jay Billington Bulworth (played by Warren Beatty) is incumbent who is competing in Democratic Party primaries. Many decades ago he used to be left-leaning liberal but now, just like Clinton, Blair and Gerhard Schroder, he embraced Third Way at the expense of working class and impoverished minorities. Few days before the primaries Bulworth is completely exhausted and tortured with the knowledge that he had betrayed his old ideals. He suffers nervous breakdown, arranges 10 million US$ insurance policy and arranges hit on himself. With imminent death all political considerations are unimportant and Bulworth, for the first time in many years, feels free to speak his mind. He starts using campaign events to tell the unpleasant and politically incorrect truth to his constituencies and campaign contributors - black voters, Jewish producers from Hollywood and insurance executives. During all these events he is being trailed by group of black women from Los Angeles ghetto, including beautiful Nina (played by Hale Berry). She invites him to go to her neighbourhood and see how black people really live. Bulworth is deeply affected with the experience - he starts to smoke marijuana, wear hip-hop clothes and deliver his campaign speeches in the form of rap songs. His transformation and tendency to speak the truth appeal to the voters. With poll numbers skyrocketing, newly-felt freedom and beautiful woman by his side, Bulworth gradually changes his mind and decides to live. But cancelling the hit proves much harder than Bulworth anticipated.

Although advertised as comedy, Bulworth is actually powerful satire and probably the most explicit attack on political system of 1990s America. Using the ages-old instrument of "divine fool" (this time in the form of deranged politician), Beatty and his co-writer Jeremy Pikser showed how corrupt American politics at the end of 20th Century was. Political campaigns are expensive, which makes politicians utterly dependable on their financial contributors – big corporations and powerful lobbies. Politicians can reach their voters only through media, which are at the hands of big corporations. Campaigns are run by professional experts who tailor political messages according to the perceived views of voters. In that world, big money and special interests are more important than ideology, personal beliefs or the interests of general population. Gerrymandered election districts, flip-flopping elected officials and vanishing ideology are the reasons why American democracy benefits the few at the expense of the many. Bulworth exposes these truths in hilarious and effective ways, including improvised rap songs.

Unfortunately, while Bulworth effectively points towards the causes of the problem, some of the suggested solutions leave much to be desired. Beatty claims that contemporary American democracy can't be changed without bridging the racial and class divisions within Ameircan society. Beatty offers two radical solutions - one is socialism, another is idea that everyone should have sex with anyone else until all Americans are of the same colour. Those ideas might have looked attractive for 1960s radicals, but even many of those disgusted with Clintonian status quo of 1990s wouldn't go that far. Beatty should be admired for his honesty and the uncompromising way in which he expressed his disagreement with the betrayal of 1960s liberal ideals, but most extreme forms of 1960s radicalism were left on the political fringe for good reason.

Another problematic aspect of Bulworth is the use of black ghettos as a metaphor for everything which is wrong with contemporary America. The film stereotypically portrays black community and takes sometimes schizophrenic approach towards their position - black people live worse than mainstream America, but they are also more "hip" and more honest. So, protagonist becomes a true man only after he finds a stereotypical black within himself or when he allows himself to be seduced by beautiful black woman. Unfortunately, Hale Berry lacks chemistry with Beatty and film fails to properly convey this message.

Bulworth also suffers whenever political satire gets replaced with more ordinary forms of comedy. Subplot involving hired assassins is unconvincing and often too distracting. Even more distracting is the use of Morricone's monotonous soundtrack. Thankfully, Beatty is great while he plays his role and some of the supporting players manage to improve the general impression of the film. Oliver Platt is great in the role of Bulworth's spin doctor who desperately tries to save his boss from political ruin only to succumb to the same madness in the end. Beatty's directorial skills aren't that great, but he guides the plot more or less effectively and allows audience to forgive and ignore most of film's flaws.

Even in our times, when the film's message might not be as relevant as it was during the premiere, Bulworth is effective satire that deserves recommendation.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on July 30th 2004)

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