Political turmoil always breeds strange artistic phenomena, and the movies are no exception. As the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reclines in the West Wing, bone spurs resting beside the crumpled Wendy’s bag upon the Resolute Desk, one such phenomenon we’ve witnessed recently is that of Art as Response. In this scenario a filmmaker — like, say, Steven Spielberg — will work quickly to produce a movie — say The Post — as an active comment on whatever’s happening (or not happening) in the Oval Office. A second phenomenon involves us, the filmgoers and cinemalovers, and the way we inexorably view almost any new movie in the context of today’s political climate. A given film — like, say, Joker — might not actually hold inherent wisdom about that climate, but it’d be impossible for us to read it any other way.
Yet a third consequence of that intermingling of art and politics is even more inevitable than the second, despite it not concerning new art at all: a film — like, say, All the President’s Men or The Candidate or Charlie Wilson’s War or V for Vendetta or Dave or Idiocracy — reaches out from the past and seemingly connects with today in a way that defies explanation. It’s an experience somewhat related to the prescience of the sci-fi genre, and certain practitioners like George Orwell or Michael Crichton definitely had a penchant for it. I’d never considered Stephen King among that crowd of writers whose works could achieve time travel, politically speaking, but that was before I encountered The Dead Zone.
Published in 1979 and adapted to film by David Cronenberg in 1983, The Dead Zone follows Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) after he awakens from a five-year coma with psychic abilities. For Johnny, human contact now brings with it a glimpse into that other person’s future, typified by a horrible disaster that only he, with his inexplicable foreknowledge, can prevent. When he shakes the hand of senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny gets the ultimate glimpse of the future: the apocalypse, borne of Stillson’s ascension to the Oval Office and subsequent nuking of his enemies (ignoring advice from his advisors).
It’s worth noting that the still-relatively-young Cronenberg was at the time making movies that got straight to the point. His previous film, Scanners, dispensed with the usual hero-discovers-special-powers sequences in favor of a single line of dialogue: “You’re a scanner.” The Dead Zone is similarly streamlined from King’s original, ditching swaths from the novel’s first half in favor of the meat and potatoes. It works, for the most part, even if some of the coloring afforded to Johnny’s state of mind is also jettisoned in condensing a 500+ page tale into a two-hour film.
So in the spirit of getting to the point and resisting the urge to keep beating around the political bush, it’s straight-up impossible to not think of Trump and his 2016 campaign when reading and watching Stillson in The Dead Zone. At one frenetic campaign rally — where non-supporters are regularly ridiculed and even beaten — Stillson makes promises like “we’re gonna have clean air and we’re gonna have clean water and we’re gonna have it in six months!” The crowd rides these empty platitudes to a fever pitch. “We’re gonna have all the gas and oil we need! We’re gonna stop playing games with these Ayrabs and get down to brass tacks!”
Though they don’t wear red hats, Stillson’s America Now party furthers the analogue to Trump’s incessant harping about returning the country to some nebulous state of greatness:
They wanted bad trouble for big-time dopers, they wanted the cities to have to sink or swim on their own, they wanted a crackdown on welfare benefits to whores, pimps, bums, and people with a felony bust on their records, they wanted sweeping tax reforms to be paid for by sweeping social services cutbacks. All of it was an old song, but Greg’s America Now party had set it to a pleasing new tune.
“If he pointed me out from the podium and told the crowd at one of those rallies who I was,” says one non-supporter, “I think they’d run me up the nearest lamppost.” That fear may have come across as fanciful in ’79, but a literal call to physical violence is exactly the tactic Trump falls back on whenever he’s confronted with something he can’t handle mentally, which of course is pretty much every time he’s confronted with anything at all. If violent response isn’t optically convenient then a blatant lie will do, and Stillson succeeds with a similarly selective taste for truth: “In his campaign for the House of Representatives, he had claimed on several occasions to have been against the war from 1970 on, but the man’s own published statements made that a flat lie.”
Somewhat necessarily, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone does excise a lot of the focus on how and why a candidate of such obvious immorality could rise to power, never having the time to ask who would support demonstrable violence and rampant disregard for others. But King nailed the smalltown mentality that helped get Trump elected in having a New Hampshire tavern owner explain his support:
He’s one hell of a politician, and coming from me, that’s something. I thought the whole crew was nothin but a bunch of crooks and lollygags. I still do, but Greg’s an exception to the rule. He’s a square shooter. If you told me five years ago I’d be sayin somethin like that, I woulda laughed in your face. You’d be more likely to find me readin poitry than seein any good in a politician, I woulda said. But godammit, he’s a man.
A fox says I AM GOING TO EAT YOU and a sheep votes for him because he tells it like it is. From Johnny’s perspective, having actually seen where such a self-serving ego will inexorably lead us, it’s impossible to relate to anyone who backs the idea of awarding Stillson more power. Granted, we’re by no means the first to recognize the analogues between Stillson and Trump, even if Martin Sheen’s time in the Oval Office of The West Wing makes it a little harder to actually hate him in Cronenberg’s Dead Zone. The ending of The Dead Zone is terrifying when contextualized in 2019, even on a metaphorical level, and yet that overriding mentality of inaction (“the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil”) pervades both book and film from front to back, spurring Johnny to not only see the future but attempt to change it.
“His campaign was an exercise in idiocy,” reads an inner monologue from early in King’s novel. “And now strong-arm tactics! No one could ever get away with that for long in America…but let someone else blow the whistle. Someone with less to lose.” The first artistic phenomenon we mentioned above — Art as Political Response — is vastly important when the alternative is standing by as mere witness to evil’s triumph, hoping to finally hear the whistle blown by someone else with less to lose. But it’s probably equally important to actually learn from history, to simply happen upon art from nearly forty years ago and be dumbstruck by the staggering similarities, such that it might spur you to resurrect that art in the public consciousness (even if only on a lowly film review site). With Election Day 2020 exactly a year from today, The Dead Zone is the kind of film that sees into the future and attempts to convince us, stuck back here in the present, to do something about it.