David Hoppe

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:: Warren Beatty’s Bulworth

Still on time

by David Hoppe

The presidential season, with its endless loop of contrived spectacle, indignant finger pointing and solemn assurances, has, like some overstuffed eagle, resumed its perch atop the media tree.  

And with Jon Stewart having left the scene, many of us in the peanut gallery are doubtless wondering where to find a comparable dose of his irreverent common sense.

It seems like more than mere coincidence that Netflix has chosen this time to revive Bulworth, Warren Beatty’s ferocious political satire.

Released in 1998, Bulworth is about a suicidal politician, a U.S. Senator from California once a Bobby Kennedy liberal, now a sell-out, taking large campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists, most notably from the insurance industry.

Exhausted to the point of delirium, Sen. Bulworth hires a hitman to kill him on a campaign swing through Los Angeles. But, with nothing left to lose, Bulworth begins speaking his mind, telling truths and offending almost everyone. Death suddenly loses its appeal; in a Through the Looking-Glass sequence of events, Bulworth takes refuge in an African-American household in South Central L.A., becoming, in the process, the world’s unlikeliest rapper.

Warren Beatty not only starred in the film, he produced, directed and had a hand in its writing. Shot in virtual secrecy and released with little fanfare by its studio, Bulworth was a critical success and did fair business at the box office. When it came out, President Bill Clinton was in the process of being impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky — and delivering the country’s first balanced budget in 30 years.

That, of course, was nearly 20 years ago, and satire like Bulworth’s, in its rage to be time-sensitive, can easily sacrifice timelessness.

But that’s not the case here. If anything, Bulworth’s attack on political plutocracy is more relevant now then ever. And its scorching take on race — the parallel universes of black and white — informed at the time by the South Central riots and the rise of rap as underdog telegraphy, is loaded with prescience.

As with all satire, the colors can be garish and the lines drawn are heavy. But Bulworth also understands that, at its best, this sort of humor comes from a tragic place, the recognition that something heroic is cracking up.

This is what so many politicians and pundits, not to mention some comedians, miss about satire. They seem to think it comes from ideology: the right or (way more often) the left. That it amounts to nothing so much as a penchant for sticking it to whoever qualifies as too comfortable at any given time. This is the stuff late night sketch comedy is made of and, for the most part, it is instantly disposable.

What sets Bulworth apart — makes it funny at times, but, more often, makes it startling — is its grasp of our American tragedy, the way our self-serving insistence on what some call exceptionalism is actually the kind of pride that comes before a mighty fall.  

Call this liberal, if you want. It feels Shakespearean to me.