If you want to see the difference between real political satire and the cheap imitation stuff, watch (or read) Stephen Colbert's merciless skewering of the Cheney administration and its media lapdogs, then go fork over your $10 and see the movie American Dreamz, which purports to do the same thing.
I've done both, although in the reverse order, and I found the contrast between the two rather telling, particularly the audience reaction. (In the case of American Dreamz, I'm talking about the reaction of the moviegoing public and the critics, since the theatre where I saw it was basically devoid of life -- as opposed to Colbert's audience at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, which was basically devoid of intelligent life.)
Atrios's take on American Dreamz was that the makers didn't have enough courage to give it real teeth, and that's about right, although it might have been more a case of wanting it to have just enough bite to attract a blue state demographic, without drifting into full-fledged Michael Moore territory. The movie wants to be safely anti-Bush, just as it wants to bash the entertainment industry, but not enough to make anyone in Hollywood actually take offense.
The results tend to be both grating and feeble. The movie self-consciously adopts some of the annoying mannerisms of a '60s sitcom, with Dennis Quaid playing his George W. Bush lookalike as the standard male lead -- the genial but bumbling middle-aged white guy (think Samatha's husband in Bewitched) who means well but constantly ends up being manipulated by others. Even the heavy -- William Dafoe's Cheney-Rove hybrid -- is just a stereotypical sitcom boss, the neurotic but harmless control freak whose hairbrained power schemes are always doomed to self-destruct.
The Cheney regime definitely has its sitcom moments, but the problem with American Dreamz is that it treats its political characters like it treats the schemers and dreamers in its TV wasteland -- as essentially sympathetic characters. They may be mindless, shallow and cruel (or, in the case of Hugh Grant's Simon Cowell clone, sociopathic monsters without a trace of human empathy) but American Dreamz. wants us to know they're still just people, darn it, and at the end of the day, lovable in their own wacky way.
Even the terrorists in the movie are, deep down inside, supposed to be just like us -- celebrity-obsessed materialists with the attention span of gnats. By the finale, when the suicide bomber contestant who's had a change of heart commiserates with the president over the seeming intractability of all those Middle East hatreds, I felt like I was back at Disneyland, listening to all those folk dolls singing "it's a small world after all." This is schmaltz, not satire.
It's no great surprise, then, that American Dreamz has come and will soon go without much critical or political reaction of any kind -- not even from the professional hysterics of the Michelle Malkin right. Which you definitely can't say about about Stephen Colbert's gig at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Colbert's routine was designed to draw blood -- as good political satire should. It seemed obvious, at least to me, that he didn't just despise his audience, he hated it. While that hardly merits comment in Left Blogostan, White House elites clearly aren't used to having such contempt thrown in their faces at one of their most cherished self-congratulatory events. So it's no surprise the scribes have tried hard to expunge it from the semi-official record -- as Peter Daou and Chris Durang have already noted.
Colbert used satire the way it's used in more openly authoritarian societies: as a political weapon, a device for raising issues that can't be addressed directly. He dragged out all the unmentionables -- the Iraq lies, the secret prisons, the illegal spying, the neutered stupidity of the lapdog press -- and made it pretty clear that he wasn't really laughing at them, much less with them. It may have been comedy, but it also sounded like a bill of indictment, and everybody understood the charges.
If things were going well, if Bush's approval ratings were north of 60%, gas was 80 cents a gallon and the war was being won, I suspect Colbert would have gotten a different reception. His audience could have pretended to be amused -- in that smug, patronizing way we all remember from the neocon glory days. But we're long past the point where the Cheneyites and their journalistic flunkies are willing to suffer such barbs with good humor. The regime's legal and political troubles are too serious, the wounds too open and too deep for the gang to smile while somebody like Colbert gleefully jabs a finger into them.
Colbert's real sin wasn't lese majesty, it was inserting a brief moment of honesty into an event based upon a lie -- one considered socially necessary by the political powers that be, but still, a lie.
Like its upscale sibling, the annual Gridiron Club dinner, the White House Correspondents dinner is a ritual designed, at least implicitly, to showcase the underlying unity of our Beltway elites. It's supposed to demonstrate that no matter how ferocious their battles may appear on the surface, political opponents can still gather in the same room and break bread, with the corporate media acting as the properly neutral host. It's a relic of the good old days of centrism and bipartisan log rolling ("the end of ideology"), visible proof that in the American system, there may be enemies, but there are no mortal enemies. And so last night we had Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame sitting at one table, Karl Rove at another, and no knives were drawn.
The light entertainment at these events is also supposed to reflect the same spirit of forced good cheer, to the point where even matters of deadly seriousness --� things that in other countries might cause governments to fall -- are treated like inside jokes, as with Shrub's looking-for-the-missing-WMDs-under-the-couch routine. Ha ha ha. We're all friends here!
The underlying message, never stated or even acknowledged, is that there are no disputes that can't be resolved within the cozy confines of our "democratic" (oligarchic) system. Friends don't send friends to jail -- or smash their presses or abolish their political parties or line them up against the wall and shoot them.
The problem is that the tissue of this particular lie has been eroding ever since the Clinton impeachment, if not before, and is now worn exceedingly thin. It's becoming harder and harder to conceal the ruthlessness of the struggle for power, or ignore the consequences of losing it.
There were people at Saturday night's dinner who really could end up in jail -- depending on Patrick Fitzgerald's theory of the case and/or the results of the next two elections. Things have been done over the past five years that can't be undone; crimes committed that can't be uncommitted. If Colbert faced a tough crowd last night, it was probably because so many of them understand that the Cheneyites and the Rovians really are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenberg, and that if the airship goes down in flames their own window seats are going to get pretty toasty. Jobs are at stake. Careers could be at stake. For all we know lives could be at stake.
It's an ugly moment, and expecting people like that to laugh at their own misfortunes isn't very realistic. I'll give Colbert major props for his political courage, but not� for knowing how to please his audience. If he'd really been working the room Saturday night, he would have thrown in a few step-n-fetch it Arabs, a snotty Brit and some white trash clowns -- like the stock characters in American Dreamz. It wouldn't have been nearly as funny, but it might have helped the kool kids forget their sorrows, at least briefly.