Review: Bulworth (1998)

Bulworth is an incisive satire of American democracy at the doorstep of a new millennium

By Zeke Trautenberg

The opening titles of Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth establish a national political climate of cynicism and lethargy in the midst of the 1996 presidential primary. Superimposed over a black screen, the titles announce that Bill Clinton is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while Senator Bob Dole has locked up the Republican nomination. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, an incumbent senator from California, is behind in the polls against an upstart challenger for his Senate seat going into the final weekend of his campaign. The titles declare that amid this uninspiring panorama of politics as normal, “the populace is unaroused.”

The first scene in the film, a wide shot of the Capitol in the rain, underscores this dreary reality. This morose atmosphere is similarly captured in the subsequent shots of an empty moonlit hallway in the Capitol and then of the eponymous Senator alone in his shadowy office. Bulworth is crying himself to sleep as variations of his own television advertisement play on repeat. Each of these ads begin with the photogenic Senator, bathed in sunlight, proclaiming “We stand on the doorstep of a new millennium…” This mise en abyme of asinine political ads overwhelms the flesh and blood Bulworth, who sits crying in a chair. Amid this weepy tableau, the camera pans across the wall of the Senator’s office where images of more inspiring moments hang like specters of an idealized past. There is a photo of a young, long-haired Bulworth in Washington, an image of Jesse Jackson during his 1984 presidential run, and a sketch of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of the California primary in June of 1968.

This last image looms heavily over the film. Although nearly thirty years have passed, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination informs Bulworth’s paranoia and his disillusionment.  Bulworth shares little in common with the idealistic and principled Senator from New York; he is a washed-up and compromised Clintonian Democrat of the 1990s, eager to please corporate interests, cut back the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s transformative Great Society, and raise as much money as possible. Even worse, Bulworth reveals himself to be corrupt when he takes a large life insurance policy from an insurance businessman, in exchange for squashing a bill that would regulate the industry. The policy is part of Bulworth's scheme to have himself killed. In a move that satirically and explicitly draws connections to the tragic legacies of Robert and John Kennedy, Bulworth takes out a contract on his own life—a scheme he christens the “Weekend Research Project.”  Ironically, his imminent assassination shakes him out of his malaise and goads him into action.

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, where he is on a last-minute fundraising tour, Bulworth decides to break with all political common sense: he speaks his mind and tells the truth. Tailed by a CSPAN crew, Bulworth, wantonly travels across Los Angeles, at first guided by his campaign schedule, and then by his tempestuous impulses. For much of the film, Bulworth is accompanied by Nina (Halle Berry), a young woman who appears impressed by Bulworth’s truth-telling at his first campaign stop, a black church in South Central. At the church, Bulworth takes the pulpit and begins reading his stump speech, but after a few sentences he tosses it aside. The topsy-turvy camera alerts the viewer that Bulworth is poised to break with the standard operating procedure. Abandoning the script like a rogue Mr. Smith, Bulworth goes on a tirade against corrupt politicians, the insurance industry, and endemic racism. He chides his audience for voting for the Democratic party, observing that the party takes them for granted. Further provoking the crowd, he asks, “What are you gonna do, vote Republican?” Trying to temper his boss’s off the cuff remarks, Bulworth’s campaign manager (Oliver Platt) declares to no one in particular: “Never underestimate the value of a frank exchange.” Platt’s impotent character is one of the funniest parts of the film: unable to maintain control and spin the truth, he descends into a narcissistic, cocaine-fueled mania.

The poster for Bulworth

The poster for Bulworth

In addition to its connection to the genre of political satire, the film is a portrait of a racially segregated and economically stratified city. In addition to the church in South Central, Bulworth traverses a range of distinctive locations in the city, including a mansion in Beverley Hills where he meets with Hollywood power-brokers; a hip hop club; the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, a white Lutheran Church in Pasadena, and a TV studio. The Senator’s displacement is an allegorical device that reflects the racial tensions of Los Angeles in the years after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and in the midst of the O.J. Simpson trial. As he grows closer to Nina, Bulworth meditates on his own past as an idealist politician and revels in memories of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton. In of the most pointed exchanges of the film, Bulworth asks Nina, “why are there are no more black leaders?” Nina responds that the decline of the industrial economy and organized black labor in Los Angeles, which blossomed during World War II, has hollowed out the black middle class and left a dearth of leaders capable of representing the black community.

The film represents Bulworth as an imperfect surrogate for black Angelinos, who ostensibly voices the community’s relevant issues and demands. The Senator is depicted as a well-meaning but clownish character. The Senator raps throughout the film and is fascinated by the term “the nappy dugout,” but these discomfort produced by the character's actions make him more, not less, complex and subversive.  And while the film occasionally detours into caricature, especially in its depiction of African American women, it nevertheless maintains a sympathy for its subjects and its hard edged critique of a Democracy that excludes many. The film’s exquisite 1990s hip hop soundtrack, which features songs by Pras (“Ghetto Supastar”), Cypress Hill (“Insane in the Membrane), and NWA (“100 Miles and Runnin’”), is a testament to the film’s authenticity and its earnest engagement with black culture.  

Beatty outside the McGovern campaign office in Beverley Hills

Beatty outside the McGovern campaign office in Beverley Hills

Beatty himself was and remains an outspoken champion of liberal politics. He campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and in the late 1990s he briefly flirted with a Presidential run. His long filmography also reveals an obsession with politics. Among the most notable of these films are the conspiracy-thriller The Parallax View (1974); Shampoo (1975), which is set on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and which he co-wrote; and the Bolshevik Revolution epic Reds (1981), which he co-wrote and directed. However, Bulworth is Beatty's most personal of these politically-inflected films, especially its finally shot, in which Beatty the director conjures the spirit of Bobby Kennedy.

Bulworth is a potent portrait of America at the end of the twentieth century. Its depiction of economic inequality, universal health care (“Only socialized medicine will save the day”), the legacy of the First Gulf War, racial divisions, and O.J. Simpson—whose life and times have recently been reexamined in film and television—, resonate in the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act, the Black Lives Matter movement, and America's continued military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise, traces of the film’s incisive satire can be seen in the recent television show Veep and the documentary film Weiner (2016), which chronicles the disastrous mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner, a man who like Beatty's fictional Senator, indulged his impulses. In the year 2016, amid a contentious Presidential election rife with demagoguery, xenophobia, and racism, we could use our own Bulworth. Although before you take the stage, whoever you are, remember to mic check one two.

Director: Warren Beatty

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Country: USA

Photos: 20th Century Fox and AP