‘Donald Trump, the Movie’ Would Be Worse Than ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Meets ‘Ernest Scared Stupid’

Witnessing the ascension of Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office has been an exercise in what Samuel Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.” His Rime of the Ancient Mariner—a seamless mashup of the prosaic and the supernatural—depends wholly on such a brain-bending technique.

Anyone who made it through eighth-grade English is familiar with Coleridge’s phrase, as well as those who consume film and theater reviews, where it is overused to the point of cliché to judge whether a story is believable or not. Someone once said that shapely fiction ought to be plausible, but not possible. But what about fact? Do the same standards not apply?

From the very beginning, our current president’s rise from epithet-spewing, bombastic candidate to leader of the free world has seemed more surreal than anything else, the work of a sardonic satirist like Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller. Admit it, whatever your ideological persuasion: Did you not utter the words “President Trump” in your head repeatedly following his victory? Could this really have happened here? In America? In a nation we think of as the greatest on the globe?  

Today, an unindicted white-collar criminal, a foul-mouthed game-show host and celebrated bridge-and-tunnel boor lives in the same “dump” that housed the austere likes of Lincoln and FDR. With apologies to Mr. Coleridge, this genre-busting yarn strains credulity. You couldn’t sell the premise to a grizzled film executive without pointing a Luger at his forehead.

Related: The ridiculous stories behind Donald Trump's movie and TV career

trump President Donald Trump speaks about the violence at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as he talks to the media in the lobby of Manhattan's Trump Tower on August 15. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

All of which brings me to a bit of a confession: As a writer living within the boundaries of Los Angeles County, I am legally required to think of the real world as nothing more than malleable raw material to be molded into saleable, three-act stories. Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s trailers. The more a story resembles an existing film plot, the better. And if not a single film, a combination of several well-known vehicles, as we professionals call them.

“Think of it as Mary Poppins meets Mary, Queen of Scots,” a desperate screenwriter says just before some Zanuck or another pushes the button that opens a gaping trapdoor in front of his mahogany desk. “Or howzabout an action melodrama that fuses A Streetcar Named Desire and The Taking of Pelham 123? With Dwayne Johnson as Stanley Kowalski and Angelina Jolie as Blanche DuBois? I’m telling you, this is box-office gold, Sam! Do we have a deal?”

I have been straining to find the proper cinematic predecessors to the lurid tale that has unfolded before us since November 2016. For a while, I conceived of the Donald Trump epic as roughly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington meets Guys and Dolls. Only Damon Runyon could have invented a character as colorful as Trump, whose ham-fisted attempts to wax eloquent make one mindful of Sheldon Leonard’s memorable turn as Harry the Horse. To wit:

“Nathan—If there is no crap game tonight I am sure Big Jule will be considerably displeased; and Big Jule does not like to be displeased, as you can find out from those citizens who at one time or another displeased him. Although I will admit it is very hard to find such citizens in view of the fact that they are no longer around and about.”

The only problem with that pitch is that Donald Trump in no way resembles Jimmy Stewart’s naive and earnest everyman, Jefferson Smith, nor is he even a fraction as likable. Maybe it’s more like Billy Jack Goes to Washington meets The Day the Earth Stood Still? President Gort uttering that ominous bauble of alien wisdom, “Klaatu barada nikto?” Sheer box-office dynamite, my friends! A license to print money, bitcoins, whatever.

I know, I’m working way too hard to find existing stories that approach the unreal contours of Trump’s metamorphosis from charismatic con man into the impulsive guardian of the nuclear football. One slip of his tiny fingers and our proud planet could be reduced to a sizzling radioactive stew. Dr. Strangelove meets Ernest Scared Stupid?

And then it hit me while listening to President Trump’s second attempt to condemn the “criminals and thugs—including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups—that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Donald Trump is Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, especially near that film’s conclusion when the beleaguered boxer is doing his punch-drunk recitations of Shakespeare from a seedy nightclub stage. (“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”)

A monotonal LaMotta doing Brando in On the Waterfront is Trump in a nutshell: the highly improbable King of Queens, speaking words he can barely pronounce, with about as much affect or conviction as a Thorazined zombie reading aloud from an auto repair manual or the phonebook.

“You don’t understand,” De Niro-as-LaMotta drawled, using his cigar as a laser pointer for emphasis. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it. It was you, Charley. It was you, Charley.”

Call it Raging Bully.

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