Ross Douthat speaks about political caricatures in film
“Imagine that an alien from Mars arrives and you can communicate [with] them, inform them, discuss politics with them only through movies.”
Ross Douthat, a conservative voice for The New York Times and film critic for the National Review, posited the scenario to begin his speech to a room full of students, faculty and local residents on Monday afternoon.
Douthat’s speech, titled “What the Movies teach us about American Politics,” suggested that the U.S. is experiencing a clash of visions and values, apparent in polarization of parties, elites, and even genders.
To caricature Republican values, Douthat suggested that audience members watch “Forrest Gump” — the 1995 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director.
“It’s a movie about a man from the South, with a low IQ and a distinctive manner of speaking, who radiates American decency and transcends IQ and book learning,” Douthat said.
In Douthat’s reading of Forrest Gump as a caricatured Republican movie, the main character’s childhood sweetheart Jenny’s course of action represents the liberal counterculture, wherein she abused drugs, possibly contracted a sexually transmitted disease and suffered an abusive relationship.
For understanding Democrats, again qualified as caricatured, Douthat suggested “The Shape of Water” — the 2018 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Music Score.
“A coalition of marginalized minorities unites against the oppressive government,” Douthat said of the film.
The Shape of Water provides commentary on racism, homophobia, ableism and the patriarchy that Douthat said he believes illustrates modern liberal values.
Douthat also suggested films for the elites of both parties, seeing strata within the liberal-conservative categories.
Douthat proposed “The Social Network” to exemplify the liberal elite. The film is based on Facebook’s origin story at Harvard University.
“This isn’t the best movie about Facebook, but it is the best movie about the culture of the modern meritocracy,” Douthat said.
It reflects the intense ambition and competition among these elite circles, and the many different forms of privilege that fill them — from the regattas, final clubs and stereotypical Winklevoss twins to the flip-flopped and hooded Silicon Valley tech workers.
As for the conservative elite, Douthat selected “The Queen of Versailles,” a film about a timeshare business tycoon married to a former Miss Florida who own the largest house in the U.S.
“The Trumpian excess of the Floridian upper-class or the garish Vegas mansion shown here contrasts the new money chill and old money posh that the Obamas and the Clintons appear to be a manifestation of,” Douthat said.
Chantal Elias ’22, an international student from Toronto, said she came to the lecture upon the recommendation of her Writing 5 professor James Murphy, who organized Douthat’s lecture.
According to Elias, she was curious to hear about American politics from an individual who is actively involved. Growing up in Canada, she said she got most of her news about American politics from the BBC.
Elias said she found some of Douthat’s characterizations less intuitive and questioned the premise that Republicans and Democrats have entirely distinct values.
“The idea he put forth about a clash of elites — I thought [that] was very accurate,” Elias said. “Even in the short clips he showed in the lecture, I saw how the elites of the right and left are different.”