If there are any lessons to be taken from this underrated and quite frankly excellent Warren Beatty led gem of a movie, those who need to heed them most are the ones who probably won’t. For as well-crafted, funny and affecting as Bulworth (1998) is, it’s also an interesting take on the racial divisions that plagued the United States 17 years ago and still do now.
Senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty) is suicidal, full of self-pity and loathing and dragging himself through a limp re-election campaign. So he decides the only sensible course of action would be to take out a contract on his own life. He secures his daughter’s future by scamming a massive life insurance policy after taking a handy bribe from a portly, suit-wearing insurance company boss.
So what does the man with a day left to live do? After all, Bulworth is no ordinary man. He’s a Senator of the United States. He could get people killed, hire a bevy of high-class escorts and spend his final few hours fucking, getting high and stone drunk. Instead, Bulworth does the last thing you’d expect any politician to do: he tells the truth.
Yes, yes… shocking, isn’t it? Bulworth turns up at a black church in south L.A. and decides to dispense some truth pellets to the crowd. He tells them that don’t mind the Republicans not caring about the black community’s wants and needs, the Democrats don’t give a shit either. Why should they, asks Bulworth, when the black community contributes nothing compared to oil, big pharma, insurance companies, tobacco and all those other shady types. Despite the howls of outrage from the congregation, they realise the truth in his words and Bulworth somehow leaves the church a free and unharmed man.
That’s where Bulworth unravels but the film comes together. Imbued with this new sense of nihilistic freedom, Bulworth’s mouth acts sentiently from the rest of his body. He cracks wise at a fundraising dinner; cutting through the bullshit and deconstructing the role of a Senator, or any other politician for that matter. He mocks the pre-prepared script – written for a primarily Jewish audience – that feeds on their ‘paranoia’ and makes jokes out of it. Bulworth clatters in, raises hell and leaves. It’s hard not to love this guy.
But the crux of Bulworth is its focus on the black/white divide in the USA: the missed opportunities, the oppression, confusion, unspoken words and the grim future ahead. It also touches on the issues that prompted the Occupy movement and a vast number of subsequent protests; the 99% vs 1% issue.
It’s Bulworth appropriation of black hip-hop culture that propels the film and forces the Senator to look at reality, perhaps for the first time in decades. The clothes, the slang, his posse of new friends from the run-down neighborhoods of L.A.; he becomes a reflection of those he has kept at arms length throughout his career. Nay, his entire life.
Sure enough, Bulworth’s truth becomes the tonic that America needs and his popularity – like his adrenaline – sky rockets; detrimental to the health and well-being of his long-suffering aides.
… but wasn’t there something else? Ah yes, the small matter of Bulworth taking a contract out on himself. As you’d imagine, events conspire against him. Attempts to call off the hit are not entirely successful and so in the midst of his political and personal rebirth, he runs for his life and looks over his shoulder constantly.
The companion he picks up along the way, Nina – Halle Berry, by the way, is just stone cold beautiful. It’s almost criminal – is not exactly what she seems either. But it wouldn’t be fair to ruin such a good film for you, would it?
Suffice to say, the film’s final act is frantic, unwieldy and dramatic and remains unpredictable until the literal last second. And it makes you wonder; have any of the characters – hell, have any of us – learnt anything at all? The problems laid bare by this movie haven’t even been properly addressed. What drives this fear of tackling the big questions? It’s a point finely made by Nina who lays down the basic economics of it all. It’s not about pandering, it’s about opportunity. The so-called Land of Opportunity has continually let down a massive swathe of its population and may well do so forevermore. The theory posits that even affording slightly more chance to blacks in the USA would help to re-establish the nation as an economic powerhouse, growing in fairness.
… and yet such scenarios can only be presented competently in satirical films, no matter how on-point they are. Perhaps that is the biggest joke of all.