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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Wall-E for President
By FRANK RICH
Published: July 6, 2008
SO much for a July Fourth week spent in idyllic celebration of our country’s birthday. This year’s festivities were marked instead by a debate — childish, not constitutional — over who is and isn’t patriotic. The fireworks were sparked by a verbally maladroit retired general, fueled by two increasingly fatuous presidential campaigns, and heated to a boil by a 24/7 news culture that inflates any passing tit for tat into a war of the worlds.
Let oil soar above $140 a barrel. Let layoffs and foreclosures proliferate like California’s fires. Let someone else worry about the stock market’s steepest June drop since the Great Depression. In our political culture, only one question mattered: What was Wesley Clark saying about John McCain and how loudly would every politician and bloviator in the land react?
Unable to take another minute of this din, I did what any sensible person might do and fled to the movies. More specifically, to an animated movie in the middle of a weekday afternoon. What escape could be more complete?
Among its other attributes, this particular G-rated film, “Wall-E,” is a rare economic bright spot. Its enormous box-office gross last weekend swelled a total Hollywood take that was up 20 percent from a year ago. (You know America’s economy is cooked when everyone flocks to the movies.) The “Wall-E” crowds were primed by the track record of its creator, Pixar Animation Studios, and the ecstatic reviews. But if anything, this movie may exceed its audience’s expectations. It did mine.
As it happened, “Wall-E” opened the same summer weekend as the hot-button movie of the 2004 campaign year, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Ah, the good old days. Oil was $38 a barrel, our fatalities in Iraq had not hit 900, and only 57 percent of Americans thought their country was on the wrong track. (Now more than 80 percent do.) “Wall-E,” a fictional film playing to a far larger audience, may touch a more universal chord in this far gloomier time.
Indeed, sitting among rapt children mostly under 12, I felt as if I’d stepped through a looking glass. This movie seemed more realistically in touch with what troubles America this year than either the substance or the players of the political food fight beyond the multiplex’s walls.
While the real-life grown-ups on TV were again rebooting Vietnam, the kids at “Wall-E” were in deep contemplation of a world in peril — and of the future that is theirs to make what they will of it. Compare any 10 minutes of the movie with 10 minutes of any cable-news channel, and you’ll soon be asking: Exactly who are the adults in our country and who are the cartoon characters?
Almost any description of this beautiful film makes it sound juvenile or didactic, and it is neither. So I’ll keep to the minimum. “Wall-E” is a robot-meets-robot love story, as simple (and often as silent) as a Keaton or Chaplin fable, set largely in a smoldering and abandoned Earth, circa 2700, where the only remaining signs of life are a cockroach and a single green sprout.
The robot of the title is a battered mobile trash compactor whose sole knowledge of human civilization and intimacy comes from the avalanche of detritus the former inhabitants left behind — a Rubik’s Cube, an engagement ring and, most strangely, a single stuttering VCR tape of “Hello, Dolly!,” a candied Hollywood musical from 1969. Wall-E keeps rewinding to the song that finds the young lovers pledging their devotion until “time runs out.”
Pixar is not Stanley Kubrick. Though “Wall-E” is laced with visual and musical allusions to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” its vision of apocalypse now is not as dark as Kubrick’s then. The new film speaks to the anxieties of 2008 as specifically as “2001” did to the more explosive tumult of its (election) year, 1968. That’s more than upsetting enough.
Humanity is not dead in “Wall-E,” but it is in peril. The world’s population cruises the heavens ceaselessly on a mammoth luxury spaceship that it boarded in the early 22nd century after the planet became uninhabitable. For government, there is a global corporation called Buy N Large, which keeps the public wired to umpteenth-generation iPods and addicted to a diet of supersized liquefied fast food and instantly obsolete products. The people are too bloated to walk — they float around on motorized Barcaloungers — but they are happy shoppers. A billboard on the moon heralds a Buy N Large outlet mall “coming soon,” not far from that spot where back in the day of “Hello, Dolly!” idealistic Americans once placed a flag.
And yet these rabid consumers, like us, are haunted by what paradise might have been lost. How can they reclaim what matters? How can Earth be recolonized? These questions are rarely spoken in “Wall-E,” but are omnipresent, like half-forgotten dreams. In this movie, a fleeting green memory of the extinct miracle of photosynthesis is as dazzling and elusive as the emerald city of Oz.
One of the great things about art, including popular art, is that it can hit audiences at a profound level beyond words. That includes children. The kids at “Wall-E” were never restless, despite the movie’s often melancholy mood and few belly laughs. They seemed to instinctually understand what “Wall-E” was saying; they didn’t pepper their chaperones with questions along the way. At the end they clapped their small hands. What they applauded was not some banal cartoonish triumph of good over evil but a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out.
You have to wonder what these same kids make of the political show their parents watch on TV at home. The fierce urgency of now that drives “Wall-E” and its yearning for change is absent in both the Barack Obama and McCain campaigns these days.
For me, Mr. Obama showed signs of jumping the shark two weeks back, when he appeared at a podium affixed with his own pompous faux-presidential seal. It could have been a Pixar sight gag. In fact, it is a gag in “Wall-E,” where, in a flashback, we see that the original do-nothing chief executive of Buy N Large (prone to pronouncements like “stay the course”) boasted his own ersatz presidential podium.
For all the hyperventilation on the left about Mr. Obama’s rush to the center — some warranted, some not — what’s more alarming is how small-bore and defensive his campaign has become. Whether he’s reaffirming his long-held belief in faith-based programs or fudging his core convictions about government snooping, he is drifting away from the leadership he promised and into the focus-group-tested calculation patented by Mark Penn in his disastrous campaign for Hillary Clinton. Mr. Obama’s Wednesday address calling for renewed public service is unassailable in principle but inadequate to the daunting size of the serious American crisis at hand. The speech could have been — and has been — delivered by any candidate of either party in any election year since 1960.
What Mr. Obama has going for him during this tailspin is that his opponent seems mortifyingly out-to-lunch. Mr. McCain is a man who aspires to lead the largest economy in the world and yet recently admitted that he doesn’t know how to use a computer, the one modern tool shared by everyone from the post-industrial American work force to Middle Eastern terrorists to Pixar animators. Getting shot down over Vietnam may not be a qualification for president in 2008, but surely a rudimentary facility with a laptop is. What Mr. McCain has going for him is a press corps that often ignores or covers up such embarrassments.
The Republican’s digital ignorance is not a function of his age but of his intellectual inflexibility and his isolation from his country’s reality. To prove the point last week, he took a superfluous, if picturesque, tour of Colombia and Mexico, with occasional timeouts for him and his surrogates to respond like crybabies to General Clark’s supposed slur on his patriotism.
For connoisseurs of McCainian cluelessness, the high point was his Wednesday morning appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The anchor, Robin Roberts, asked the only important question: Why in heaven’s name was Mr. McCain in Latin America when “the U.S. economy is really at the forefront of voters’ minds”?
“I know Americans are hurting very badly right now,” he explained, channeling the first George Bush’s “Message: I care.” As he spoke, those hurting Americans could feast on the gorgeous flora and fauna of the Cartagena, Colombia, tourist vista serving as his backdrop. “It’s really lovely here,” Mr. McCain said. Since he can’t drop us an e-mail, a video postcard will have to do.
Mr. McCain should be required to see “Wall-E” to learn just how far adrift he is from an America whose economic fears cannot be remedied by his flip-flop embrace of the Bush tax cuts (for the wealthy) and his sham gas-tax holiday (for everyone else). Mr. Obama should see it to be reminded of just how bold his vision of change had been before he settled into a front-runner’s complacency. Americans should see it to appreciate just how much things are out of joint on an Independence Day when a cartoon robot evokes America’s patriotic ideals with more conviction than either of the men who would be president.