It makes sense that the Trump presidency cast a disproportionately huge shadow over the past four years of cinema; given that Trump is first and foremost a media creation, it stands to reason that he’d loom large in the cultural psyche. The defining works of the era will undoubtedly be those which picked up on the undercurrents of racism and authoritarianism — and those which defiantly pushed back in the spirit of resistance. But somewhere amidst the fire and fury, some films dared to dream forward and envision a Biden-inflected cinema.
The septuagenarian was never going to spark much obvious on-screen longing. His dogged focus on consensus liberalism with a working-class bent did not necessarily endear him to the creative class and Twitterati as the primaries began. The mantle of aspirational post-Trump presidents, at least in movies, belonged to candidates like Elizabeth Warren (prominently seen on a car bumper sticker in 2019’s Booksmart) and Bernie Sanders (a sticker for whom is spotted in the background on a door in 2020’s On the Rocks).
In a 2012 essay, esteemed critic J. Hoberman pondered when we’d see an “Obama-inflected cinema,” given that the American film tends to reflect characteristics of the commander-in-chief. He identified 2008’s Milk and Wall-E, two hopeful narratives spurred by the scrappiness of community organizers, as films that presaged the triumph of Obama. A similar, if less pronounced, tenor appears in the archetypes presaging Biden’s rise: the elder sage, the experienced public servant, the skilled technocrat, the emissary of grief.
Signals will inevitably scramble between anti-Trump backlash and pro-Biden pining. Many times, however, they function as reactive and proactive sides of the same coin. Such may be the case for a trend in movies identified by IndieWire’s David Ehrlich in 2018 as “nicecore,” a celebration of common decency on-screen that served as both implicit rebuke to Trumpian bombast and tacit endorsement of Biden’s pleas for unity and healing.
A specific subset of “nicecore” films seems to speak directly to pent-up demand for what Biden represents: the beatification of fellow Silent Generation icons Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers. Both figures inspired worshipful documentaries that did blockbuster numbers for non-fiction films, as well as narrativized features that spoke to the transformative power of their careers. Though those two towering figures were not ideologically aligned, a passion for using their voices to help lift up and empower groups whose concerns were largely ignored in the mainstream: women for RBG, children for Mr. Rogers. In an era where the right co-opted nostalgia to stoke fantasies of a mythic American power, many found comfort from a turbulent present in a gentler vision of the past.
This is the paradoxical promise of Biden, a bridge to the future by embracing the past. His aim is not a return to a bygone era so much as it is an attempted restoration of its promise in the present. This journey played out quite literally in two of the most hyped blockbusters from the Trump presidency, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and 2020’s Tenet. In both films, a team of heroes found their only hope to rescue the future from total annihilation was to travel back into the past. These are not the retrograde Reaganite fantasies of time travel films like Back to the Future; the societal threats are genocidal and require collective cooperation to thwart.
Given Biden’s close association with the historic presidency of Barack Obama, it’s inevitable that popular themes from that administration bubbled to the surface once again. (Before settling on “Build Back Better,” Biden’s slogan might as well have been “Make America 2015 Again.”) Those reverberations produced one of 2020’s unlikeliest must-watch films: Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, released in 2011 during Obama’s first term. The film, a moderate success upon release, found new appreciation during a real pandemic in which the dystopia played out on cable news rather than in cinematic fantasy. A government that valued and listened to the skilled scientists and bureaucrats in its employ was only in the pictures.
Biden-era public sector pride might lack the soaring rhetoric of hope and change, but an enduring legacy of Obama-inspired culture from Lincoln to television’s Parks and Recreation is a belief in the power of good governance when people who believe in its institutions are entrusted to run them. Frederick Wiseman’s mammoth documentary tribute to the nuts and bolts of municipal government, City Hall, spends four-and-a-half hours detailing just how many devoted servants it takes to keep the engine running. Though the film was by no means a massive popular hit, it’s no accident that the documentary’s “star,” Boston mayor Marty Walsh, is now headed to serve as Biden’s secretary of labor.
Capped off by a bungled pandemic response, the Trump administration showed the folly of trying to run the government like a business. Biden’s presidency represents a renewed trust in civil servants and skilled technocrats to once again control the levers of power in Washington. In contrast to how figures like journalists and legal advocates became heroes of the #Resistance and on screen, such as 2017’s The Post or too many hagiographic documentaries to list, this call to service was recast as a stolid exercise of selflessness. Public adulation and self-aggrandizement are not guaranteed; drudgery and diligence are.
A civic crusader in the Biden mold looks like Mark Ruffalo’s Rob Bilott in Dark Waters or Adam Driver’s Daniel Jones in The Report, both from 2019. In order for these men to hold bad actors and rogue institutions to account, they must bury themselves in ungodly amounts of research contained in mountains of paper. Neither of these marquee name actors has much of a chance to grandstand about their travails, but that’s the point. It’s not about the men themselves. It’s about making immense personal sacrifices that benefit the societal good, and that very tenacity confers nobility on their work. Public servitude as recast by Biden-era thinking is not a silver bullet to solve problems, but without people willing to roll up their sleeves and try, the country has no shot at all.
Even before the insurrection at the United States Capitol made vividly clear the state of disrepair Biden will inherit, he campaigned on a promise to heal the soul of a nation reeling from multiple intertwined crises. The man once referred to as “America’s happy warrior” by Obama in his 2012 acceptance speech had become something of a wistful warrior for a grieving nation. Prior to his brief retirement, unimaginable personal tragedies bookended Biden’s tenure in office: a car crash that claimed the lives of his first wife and one-year-old daughter just prior to his swearing into the Senate in 1972, and the death of his beloved son Beau from brain cancer in 2015.
This weariness permeated recent starring roles by aging Hollywood superstars, Brad Pitt in 2019’s Ad Astra and Tom Hanks in 2020’s News of the World. Whether their uncharted territory is the outer reaches of the solar system or simply Reconstruction-era Texas, the most treacherous terrain each aging man must traverse is their own sense of familial grief. This anticipated loss informs them as it also fuels them along a journey for reunification. “I will rely on those closest to me,” says Pitt’s Roy McBride in his film’s closing benediction, “and I will share their burdens, as they share mine.” The words could easily spring from the mouth of Biden himself, given how frequently he cited his own personal heartbreak as an example for how a nation should pull together, not pull apart.
Perhaps more examples of films that seismically sensed the longing for Biden will emerge in the early part of his administration. With pandemic-related theater closures pushing many 2020 releases into the future, a predictive Biden-inflected cinema pulls from significantly fewer data points than his forebearers. Perhaps some works will hit differently within the context of a different administration, especially those, like In the Heights or Candyman, that might have been intended as a stern admonition to Trumpism. Or maybe, for some, the new climate will present a distinct opportunity to reframe their message.
One film that might get such a chance is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Joe Bell, which premiered under the title Good Joe Bell to mixed notices at 2020’s Toronto International Film Festival. In the week after networks called the presidential race for Biden, distributor Solstice Studios announced the film would get a new title and new edit for a February 19, 2021 release. The film has all the trappings of a Biden-era feature: Mark Wahlberg’s titular character travels the country to promote an anti-bullying message of common decency in memory of his dead son. Neither Joe B. has a spotless record when it comes to standing up for marginalized communities, yet the earnest zeal of these converted men powers them through to try and make a difference regardless. In these circumstances, a broken vessel may just do the trick so long as it can still transport hope, optimism and a willingness to do the hard but necessary work of fostering an environment where all Americans feel welcome and valued.