by Robert L. Waring (June 1998)
To join the chorus of praise for Warren Beatty's film Bulworth, let me say that he has made an imaginative, funny and thought provoking film. It seems he set out to write, direct, produce and star in a political comedy and has succeeded on those terms. In the film, Senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty), an old guard liberal running for reelection, is so disgusted with what he has become that he obtains a ten million dollar life insurance payable to his daughter and hires a hit man to kill him. Knowing he is going to die frees him to say what he really thinks about politics in America.
After his reformation, Senator Bulworth has many profound and troubling comments on the sorry state of the present attitude of most politicians towards racial and economic inequality. (You don't contribute money to my campaign, you don't matter.) He also exposes white audiences to manifestations of alienation many blacks feel towards American society. Unfortunately, Bulworth appears to be a wasted opportunity. Senator Bulworth mostly comes across as a raving lunatic, and thus his observant ramblings are likely to be perceived by many as more reminiscent of Richard Pryor rather than Huey Newton.
The film gives Senator Bulworth (a sort of Hunter J. Thompson impersonator) a landslide victory in the election. Beatty apparently believes, or at least wants his audience to believe, that the electorate will support an outrageous (gonzo) cynic. Here, it is Beatty's stereotype of voters that is way out. I think the experiences of the few bold liberals who have dared to speak their minds in election campaigns in the last thirty years are more telling. Take, for example, Jerry Brown, who ran for President in 1992. He was perceived by many to be a lunatic, though not as extreme as the foaming at the mouth lunacy evidenced by Beatty's Bulworth. Jerry Brown was practically run out of town on a rail. No one has seriously suggested that if Brown had appeared even crazier he would have fared better in the election.
The message I got loud and clear from Bulworth is this most voters do a dysfunctional dance with those they elect. They want politicians who promise to fix the system, but in the end, they really do not want any serious tinkering done. Call it cynicism from the "big government" era of the sixties or from centuries of corrupt government leaders, if you will, but I think the roots go much deeper. People are scared of changethe devil they don't know is more terrifying than the devil they do knowbut they do not want to admit it. They want promises, but they really don't want to see laws enacted to deliver on those promises. The one exception to the above seems to be in the criminal justice system, which only serves to illustrate how fear is the biggest voter motivator today.
This movie may strike a chord with voters, however, in reinforcing the illusion that they have the guts to elect a maverick such as Bulworth to a position of power and obscuring the fact they lack that courage. Like many of the images in Bulworth, it's a distorted reflection.