Steven Spielberg has always been very political, with a long track record of donating money and time to Democratic candidates and progressive causes over the last four decades. And yet, the 69-year-old filmmaker has become entwined in the election in ways he likely did not expect.
Both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have used Spielberg’s films to make political points over the last month. Specifically, they have Lincoln — a character with whom a politician would certainly not mind being compared — and Jaws, a movie about a ravenous shark who struck fear into people’s hearts and made Spielberg a star.
Clinton dropped the Lincoln reference during the second presidential debate. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked the Democratic candidate about WikiLeaks’s recent release of excerpts of a paid speech she delivered to the National Multi-Housing Council in 2013 after she left public office. In the speech, Clinton claimed politicians need both a public and private position on certain issues, and Raddatz asked whether it was okay for politicians to be two-faced.
Clinton explained that she’d been referring to the way that President Abraham Lincoln (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in an Academy Award-winning performance) played the political system to pass a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery. “It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th amendment. Tt was principled and strategic,” she said during the debate. “I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do.”
Everything Clinton said about her speech (and Spielberg’s film) was ostensibly true and reflected her unwavering pragmatism. But critics said it deflected from the fact that it was a paid speech to begin with and that such flip-flopping was unpresidential.
The Jaws reference came from sad and dejected former candidate Mike Huckabee, who was standing up for Trump during an appearance on The Kelly File with Megyn Kelly a few days after the debate. Huckabee tried desperately to compare the Republican presidential nominee to Captain Quint, the film’s boastful shark hunter. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was the shark, he suggested.
“She’s going to eat your boat. She’s going to have open borders, immigration out the kazoo,” he said to Kelly about Clinton, somehow going from a shark swimming off Cape Cod in Spielberg’s film to the subject of real-life immigration. “And so, the choice is do you vote for Captain Quint, who’s going to save your family, or do you vote for the shark? That’s the choice you get to make.”
After a priceless smirk, Kelly broke the news to Huckabee, thus destroying his analogy: “Now, governor I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Captain Quint got eaten by the shark.”
Both instances barely qualify as gaffs in such an already head-spinning election cycle, but the fact that either side has used Spielberg and his work as a political flashpoint is telling.
Lincoln is about downplaying the hagiography of a legendary figure, but also honoring that image by showing that status was achieved through savvy insider negotiations that brought on a monumental moral and legislative victory. Though it didn’t come across that way considering the circumstances, Clinton rightly wanted to ally herself with such a resemblance.
Here’s the basic Trump campaign logic, which has always eschewed facts when necessary: Who cares that Quint died, he’s the one people love to remember! Too bad people tend to forget that Quint destroyed the boat’s radio in a fit of anger and almost got his other two crew members killed before he became shark lunch.
Perhaps the most obvious reason Spielberg’s work has been singled out is because the lines between politics and entertainment have blurred in this election to the extent that they’re essentially one in the same. The best way to connect potential voters with your vague and confusing political message is to use something or someone as ingrained in the pop culture consciousness as Jaws and Lincoln. For his part, the filmmaker has stayed quiet besides contributing to the Clinton campaign via the Hillary Action Fund to the tune of $200,400. Something says he agrees that she’s more honest Abe than man-eating fish.
For everyone else who has to put up with this election, they’d probably just quote the late great Captain Quint: Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed.