The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Art always has a political context, a broader social and economic setting for the work, even if it is not explicitly political. This applies to Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” a symbol of the emergence of the artist as a significant member of society, as much as it does to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, originally to be dedicated to Napoelon, whom the musician loved and admired as a symbol of revolution — until he made himself Emperor of most of Europe.

Cultural objects aren’t just aesthetic or emotional, then, but informative — they can tell us about the zeitgeist and psychology of an era or a movement, without wading into the nuances of contemporary public debates.

And the politics of the Obama presidency are oozing all over this fall’s most existential action film, “Drive.”

Glistening with pulp, style, and anxious tension, the movie is a classic heist flick. But it’s also a statement about the type of heroes we long for — and the hole in our lives such saviors might fill.

Ryan Gosling, the lead, is unnamed — he’s known only as “The Driver,” and for a protagonist, speaks awful few lines of dialogue.

This tells us quite a bit by itself.

Whereas in 2008 Americans — and the world — longed for a dynamic savior from financial catastrophe, a fresh identity on which to project hopes and dreams (and, by many accounts, got one in the brilliant Barack Obama), by 2011 we have become restless. Identities, oratory, and life stories matter less than competence, ability, and perhaps most important, the willingness to get tough when it’s called for. We’ll settle for stoic, terse, and gritty.

Barack Obama has been fun to watch — but he’s also buckled more often than many of us might like. There are times when many on the left have wished he’d put on his driving gloves and hit the gas — or pull the trigger.

Whether it’s breaking up the big banks and denying them the ability to hold taxpayers hostage, providing a public option for health insurance, or moving a climate change bill through the Congress, this president has negotiated many of us to death. Sometimes, you just need to kick some ass.

This isn’t to say violence or anger are the solution to our problems. Surely, Obama should not start physically assaulting his political adversaries.

But Gosling’s character doesn’t carry a gun in the film — and he avoids violence whenever possible. It is only when the world proves itself so dark and malicious an environment that he takes that route.

We’ve long passed that point in the Obama presidency.

The movie speaks to our despondence and frustration. Whereas the signature film of Obama’s election year, “The Dark Knight,” was about heroes having to compromise their reputations for the public good, “Drive” suggests something more urgent: get tough, or get lost.


Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden

Photo by Andrea Widburg

America's political media — and especially our "punditocracy" — suffer from myriad defects. They love simple answers and often seem hostile to complexity. They tend to obsess slavishly over the latest polling data. And they suffer from a chronic amnesia that erases not only historical context but even very recent events from their narrow minds.

Marking the end of President Joe Biden's first year in office, the media consensus followed a predictable and familiar framing. After 12 months, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing, his legislative agenda incomplete and his approval ratings in steep decline, Biden was all but declared a failure — with no clear way forward.

Keep reading... Show less

President Joe Biden

At Joe Biden's Wednesday press conference, a reporter cited a list of recent misfortunes before asking mournfully: "Did you overpromise to the American public what you could achieve in your first year in office?"

He might as well have asked Biden, "Have you been sitting at a desk in the Oval Office?" Overpromising is what presidential candidates do. You don't get 81 million votes, as Biden did, or even 74 million, as his opponent did, by informing people of all the problems you won't be able to solve.

Keep reading... Show less
{{ }}