The year of mythical thinking

"It's a movie, Donald."

That was Harrison Ford's reaction to Donald Trump's expressed admiration for the presidential role Ford played in Air Force One. In the film, the President's plane is hijacked by terrorists, his family is in danger of being executed if demands are not met, some members of his staff do get executed, and the President himself is eventually held for ransom. 

Ah, but he is not your usual politico. This president is trained in commando moves and he single-handedly brings down the bad guys, even the evil top terrorist whom he dispatches with a line delivered in Ford's trademark growl, "Get off my plane!" This president kicks terrorist ass. He could wear a t-shirt that read: I don't call Secret Service.

It's a thoroughly entertaining movie but its appeal goes beyond action fun. Harrison Ford's president is the one many Americans would like to have. That the chubby, weirdly coiffed, trash-talking Donald Trump is what many of those Americans settle for is sad, but, let's face it, most if not all actors who have played the President look and act more presidential than most if not all of the guys who've held the office. And why shouldn't it be so? After all, it's a movie, Donald.

But it's not Batman vs Superman. It's a movie about a real office, the presidency, that often is located in a real plane, Air Force One, and has to deal with a real threat, terrorism. It's a movie that incites real feelings of political weight (patriotism, hatred of America's enemies). It's a movie carefully crafted to make the spectator care for this country, worry about its fragile fate and wish and hope for a leader who is brave, resourceful, selfless and strong. In other words, a hero.

Achilles was a hero. Was there ever a warrior like him? Did the Greeks who heard The Iliad say, it's an epic, Pericles? Or did they get swept by the magnificent action, the manly passions, the tragic fates? Did they believe such a hero was possible? Did they wish they had one? I may not be a sucker for Air Force One, but I am for Troy (well, most of it, Helen doesn't seem worth launching a thousand ships and Peter O'Toole looks silly). Brad Pitt is a great actor-athlete -- I mean it as a compliment. His Achilles would've swept Air Force One clean of terrorists in two minutes. But it's a movie. It's an epic.

And it's a myth. And myth often trumps (no pun intended) other human mental functions. There is an anti-myth in narrative. It's called realism. Arguably two of the greatest novels of the realist 19th century are Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Both have at their core a big illicit romance. And in both it is quite clear that the female protagonists have wandered into it stupidly. Films of various degrees of success have been made of these novels. Yet none compare with David Lean's Doctor Zhivago, in which the also illicit and also I'll-fated romance is not stupid but magnificent. Who, depending on gender and orientation, would not want to be in Omar Sharif's or Julie Christie's arms? Who would not want to drown in one of those two pairs of beautiful and soulful eyes while making love?

Bringing it back to action, the biggest American mythic movie figure is not Harrison Ford. Obviously, it's John Wayne. He owned the screen. He exuded the values Americans, at least the males, think are the right ones. But it wasn't him, was it? It was the roles. I have no criticism of the real life man. I like his movies too damn much. But movies they are. Myths. Epics. And they hit deeper than any politics. They really move you. And if you think what we need is a President who can personally kick terrorist ass, if your mind mashes myth and politics, it's because we humans are built that way. It's so hard, oh, so hard, to disentangle it. So much easier to let it course through your nervous system. The wrath of Achilles. The wrath of John Wayne. The wrath of the President who gets the terrorist off his plane. The wrath of the voter, in this year of voters' wrath.

It's a movie, Donald. It's a movie, my fellow citizens. Let's just hope it's not the last picture show.