Saving Private Lynch was a hugely expensive all-action blockbuster that proved, once and for all, that Hollywood is integral to the political process.
Great plot, sexy heroine, true grit, derring do, and in the end, the good guys win. It’s classic stuff, PR’d to the hilt and lapped up by a grateful media.
Another Hollywood favourite is the square-jawed hero who reluctantly embarks on a mission to save an embattled planet. These guys display utter certainty, natural authority, moral purpose, immense fortitude in the face of insuperable odds, and superhuman physical strength. They promise, and then deliver, the security we crave in an uncertain world.
The actors who play such parts carry their screen personas straight off the celluloid into the celebrity circus. They have to. The Hollywood PR machine demands that stars promote their product and themselves, and someone who makes $30m per movie as an all-action hero can’t be seen off set as a lisping effete artiste of questionable sexuality.
To cut to the chase: Arnold Schwarzenegger the man is the persona he plays, to all intents and purposes.
Since we live in a world where fact and fiction are often so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, his decision to stand for California state governor is completely logical. Celebrities are our heroes, and one of the most valuable media commodities; politics is a game of media control; the perfect politician is the bankable star whose every last utterance and action is front page news.
Because politics is about media control, media training is crucial to politicians. Many have become highly skilled in the art, because they recognise that it is better presentation, not better logic or a better case, that wins. Their techniques are highly sophisticated. But no matter how sophisticated they may be, no training on earth will imbue them with charisma and heroic status: and charisma and heroic status are the best presentational tools of all.
When a charismatic hero speaks, people listen, and people defer. ¾Arnold is that hero, and he needs no media training at all. He has all the essential qualities of a modern politician. No policies? No matter: policies are a secondary consideration.
Arnold is a very astute manager of his personal brand. He has leveraged his celebrity collateral to set up a platform to run for the post, and he has managed the act with all the finesse expected of someone schooled in Hollywood’s ruthless process of media manipulation.
Every step in this show has been carefully choreographed by PRs par excellence. Asked by Esquire whether he would like to get into politics, Arnold replied “Yes, I would love to be governor of California. If the state needs me, and if there’s no one I think is better, then I will run”.
The hero answers the call.
He elaborated his intention in the characteristic style that has connected so memorably with millions of movie-goers – his trademark “Hasta la vista, baby” one-liners. These are perfectly fitted for a political arena in which shallow soundbites serve as triggers which appear to encapsulate complex policy and intelligent thinking.
¾ So, before he flew to Iraq to entertain the troops, he commented “there’s no money over there and there’s no leadership. It’s pretty much like California”. And when he previewed Terminator 3 to troops in San Diego, he introduced the movie by saying “you haven’t seen special effects like this since the Californian state budget”. Implicit in these asides is the understanding that a real man can right all these wrongs. How? Well, it doesn’t matter how. They always do, don’t they?¾ They just know. And we know that they know.
The scripting in this case is by political adviser George Gorton, with Schwarzenegger’s wife Maria Shriver, an NBC news correspondent, playing the role of James Cameron. Shriver is also, of course, a member of the American political aristocracy: she is JFK’s niece, a fact which can’t harm Arnold’s prospects. The key to political success, as Arnold himself has said, is “work hard, stay focused, marry a Kennedy”.
When the world learned of Arnold’s intention to run, it did so – of course – via a tried and tested showbiz route. No great fanfare. Just a casual mention on the Jay Leno show.
The groundwork has been laid, but what can we expect when the real battle begins? The hero, Arnold, is the terminator with the capacity to save a crisis situation. California is the richest state in the US, it boasts the fifth biggest economy in the world, and has a debt to match of $36bn. This is not the kind of problem that can be blasted into oblivion with a rack of hand-held heavy armaments.
¾ But now we discover that Arnold is not just a pretty face. Oh no – he has a degree in business and economics from the University of Wisconsin, no less. So of course he can balance a state budget. And doesn’t it stand to reason that someone who knows how to extract such astronomical sums from the studios for such fantastically expensive films that generate such spectacular returns at the box office has to be someone pretty sussed on the financial front?¾ Oh yes. This guy is a winner.
That’s already been amply illustrated. No one is better equipped than a major star to rebuff challenges to his or her reputation. It’s central to the PR that drives the trade.
Arnold swatted away a challenge from the feet of clay camp in the shape of journalist John Connolly and Premiere Magazine, who in February 2001 accused him of sexual misconduct and connected his heart surgery with steroid misuse. He successfully sued a supermarket tabloid for claiming that his heart was a “ticking time bomb”, and won a libel case against a Berlin doctor who claimed on a radio show that the actor only had a short time to live because of heart disease. The case was upheld on appeal. The tough guy plays tough.
But he also plays subtle. Type terms that relate to Arnold and Premiere into most search engines, and near the top of the list you encounter a six page rebuttal which contains fulsome character references from co-stars and comprehensively disses John Connolly’s motives and background.
Ultimately, what Arnold is imbued with – through the implicit connection with the characters he plays, and the discipline and focus that only a world-class body builder can command – is confidence. Confidence and certainty are what America wants, and what we all want from our political leaders. According to the plot, Arnold will win. But it’s useful to remember that even the biggest stars can bomb, no matter how hot the PR. Even great PR can’t disguise a turkey.
It will be fascinating to watch this show unfold from our cynical and semi-detached viewpoint. The UK, of course, is always five years behind America. We’ve certainly not got into celebrity politics USA-style yet.
Unless, of course, you think that Glenda Jackson counts