(SPOILER ALERT: This piece discusses some of the third-act twists in the film. If you haven’t seen it and want to preserve the surprises, best wait to watch it before reading. Fairly warned thee be, says I.)
People have cited The West Wing as primo comfort food for the Current Situation, specifically Martin Sheen’s vaunted portrayed of President Jed Bartlet. This is the guy we want in the Oval Office all the time every day: thoughtful, principled, astute, wise, and weighing the consequences of every move before acting firmly and decisively for the good of all.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the character, and I confess that – in the face of it – I take a certain misanthropic thrill at pointing out Sheen’s other presidential performance: one far more in keeping with the current occupant of the White House.
Greg Stillson represents one of Stephen King’s more memorable villains. King always understood the power of bullies, and in Stillson, he found a terrifyingly plausible embodiment. A jumped-up con artist turned populist politician, he brutalizes and blackmails his way to the halls of power: speaking about the troubles of the common man while surrounding himself with thugs and criminals. People treat him like a clown and don’t take him seriously… until it’s far too late to stop him. In the movie, he’s running for Senate, but in the book, he’s just a third-party candidate in a piddling campaign for Congress: a nobody joker who couldn’t possibly be elected President.
The parallels are eerie, in part because King drew upon well-established demagogues to create the character. The world holds plenty of real-life Greg Stillsons, and we’ve now seen with terrifying clarity how much damage they can cause. In the movie, salvation arises only when the villain shakes hands with reluctant clairvoyant Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) at a political rally, showing him the dark future that awaits.
In point of fact, the danger shouldn’t require supernatural powers to ferret out. And yet here we sit in disturbingly similar circumstances, beholden to the demented whims of another “great man” who peddles anger and easy solutions. What should have been obvious from the start becomes hazy and distant beneath shabby, easy lies. The movie leaves such obvious truths for an actively supernatural power to call out. The one person who sees it coming has no one else to turn to.
Director David Cronenberg takes a typically icy approach to King’s story: aching with sympathy for Smith’s dilemma, but merciless in refusing to grant him any way out. Smith’s a schoolteacher. He just wants to read Washington Irving to high school sophomores and marry the pretty girl in the classroom next door. But God has other plans for him… and in fact claims everything Smith cares about before presenting him with this terrible task. He alone can see, and he alone can act, a cruel fate he neither asks for nor deserves. Small wonder that he rages – quite rightfully – at the bitter hand he’s been dealt.
But his anger won’t change the facts, leaving he with a choice: does he act to stop what’s coming, or try to preserve the life he’s worked so hard to rebuild? It ties closely into King’s notions about God – how He asks horrible things from us without explanation, and gives us free will only to decide if we’re going to follow through – which Cronenberg picks up on instantly. The fate of the world hinges on Smith’s actions, and with his condition deteriorating, he doesn’t have the time to find alternative solutions.
That ultimately moves into some very dark places, with potential political assassination the only thing standing between us and Armageddon. It makes for a sobering meditation, especially now as we sit in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s asinine attack on Syria. As of this writing, we’re still wondering where it will lead. Is it a one-off spat, intended to show us all for the umpteenth time that the 70-year-old toddler can wear his big-boy pants? Or the start of a spiral that ends somewhere disturbingly close to Stillson’s messianic rant? I’m inclined to believe the former, but it reminds us what so many of us feared about this administration and where it might lead us.
And that, in turn comes circling back to Smith, who acted in the only way he could with an unthinkable response to an unimaginable fate. He could see because he had powers, but he could also see because he was a good man. A principled man. A man who could adhere to those principles because he was small and ordinary and lacked political power. Politicians calculate, they game out scenarios, and they act in their own best interests first. One cannot exercise power unless one first defends it, which sometimes means ignoring a screaming moral imperative for the sake of some perceived (and often very shaky) greater good.
Ordinary people are spared that Machiavellian scrum: a scuffle that taints everyone who enters it, even if they do genuinely good things with whatever leverage they accrue. The question becomes, what do we do with the privilege? How do we assert moral clarity over a ruling class that struggles with it at the best of times, and has used the current administration to toss it aside with a contemptuous sneer? Johnny Smith had an answer born of desperation and isolation: an extreme response to an apocalyptic threat. We’re more fortunate than he in that we’re not alone, which gives us the ability to adopt less violent means of fighting back. The protests are having an effect, the checks and balances appear to be holding, and peaceful pushback hasn’t faltered, at least not yet. As dangerous as our current situation is, we’re still a long way from shooting at each other in the streets.
But the goal is no less important, nor is the imperative to act in the face of a grinning demagogue who, like Stillson, combines anger and entitlement into a shoddy hustle about having all the answers. It’s worth remembering that it took a normal man to bring this fictional menace down: someone with nothing more than a basic sense of ethics, and an inability to look away. Here’s hoping that the same clarity can hold the line in real life… and that strength of numbers can give us a few more options than Smith.