"It’s so much of a show with Donald Trump, I don’t know if a movie could ever top that”: Director Jay Roach

Bryan Cranston (right) plays United States president Lyndon B. Johnson and Anthony Mackie (left) is Martin Luther King Jr in All The Way, directed by Jay Roach.
Bryan Cranston (right) plays United States president Lyndon B. Johnson and Anthony Mackie (left) is Martin Luther King Jr in All The Way, directed by Jay Roach.PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Bryan Cranston plays United States president Lyndon B. Johnson and Anthony Mackie is Martin Luther King Jr in All The Way, directed by Jay Roach (above).
Bryan Cranston plays United States president Lyndon B. Johnson and Anthony Mackie is Martin Luther King Jr in All The Way, directed by Jay Roach (above).PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Films and TV shows that look back on historical events which have shaped the current landscape resonate with viewers

For Hollywood, Donald Trump is proving to be a source of both horror and creative inspiration, so do not be surprised if some day you see a movie about the current Republican frontrunner.

Even as stars such as George Clooney come out to condemn Trump's politics and pour cold water on the notion that he could become the next President of the United States, the candidate has been an undeniable boon to comedians and late-night talk show hosts, providing them with endless fodder for jokes.

Now, one prominent film-maker admits that he, too, is mining the current electoral cycle for material.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles last week, director Jay Roach and the cast of his new political drama, All The Way, an HBO telemovie about President Lyndon B. Johnson's passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, cannot hide their dismay over the ascent of Trump.

They were there to talk about their movie, which debuts in Singapore on Sunday, but as with many chats with liberals in the US these days, the conversation inexorably turns to the electoral fortunes of the real-estate mogul and one-time reality TV star of The Apprentice.

Trump is "crude and crass and empty-headed and a supreme narcissist", says Emmy-winning Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013) actor Bryan Cranston, who plays Johnson in the film.

Johnson, who was instrumental in ending racial segregation in the US, would be "shocked at how things are going" and he would look at the race-baiting Trump and think: "What has happened since I've been gone?", adds Cranston, 60, thundering in Johnson's Texan drawl.

"If it weren't serious, it would be laughable. Here, we have a former reality-show guy who's now at the top of one of the two parties," says the actor, who is backing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

"I believe that smart people and common sense will prevail and he will soon be swept to the side. Some day, we will all say, 'Remember 2016?'

"Because he is truly the emperor without any clothes - he has no ideas, he floats with the wind."

Roach, who also directed Cranston in the politically charged biopic Trumbo (2015), echoes these sentiments.

He reveals that making a movie about the current election cycle is something he and award-winning screenwriter Danny Strong "talk about constantly".

The 58-year-old has had success with turning previous election nightmares into award-winning political dramas: He took home two Emmys for Recount (2008), which charts the weeks after the disputed results of the 2000 presidential election, and picked up two more for Game Change (2012), about John McCain and Sarah Palin's 2008 campaign. Strong was the screenwriter on both telemovies that aired on HBO.

"The thing that I'm always interested in is what's going on in the rooms behind these guys, who's plotting what against whom within their own party," says Roach, who also helmed the political comedy, The Campaign (2012), starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

However, he adds: "It's so much of a show with Trump. I don't know if a movie could ever top that."

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan - who adapted the All The Way screenplay from his much-lauded 2014 play of the same name - believes the trend of politics in popular entertainment "taps into the global zeitgeist".

"Democracies all over the world right now are stressed. There are tremendous issues, a real sense of turmoil and a transition. What it is that we're moving into, it's hard to articulate."

This is why films and TV shows that revisit periods of history that shaped the current landscape - as this year's hit series American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson and the HBO movie Confirmation did with race and gender relations in the US - resonate even more nowadays.

Says Schenkkan, 63: "I think these kinds of stories - where we see similar situations that occurred earlier and how other people dealt with them - allow us to perhaps talk about contemporary issues and drop the partisan rhetoric that precludes discussion today.

"Because we have the illusion of, 'Oh, this is the past, this is history, so we can talk about this, right?' And it allows us to engage in a way that maybe we can't in trying to talk about issues today."

Roach adds: "Art at its best gets inside of people's anxieties and maybe prods the anxiety, but also hopefully starts a conversation that then re-inspires and addresses cynicism."

Yet, the director is the first to admit that he is never quite sure how much of an impression his films really make.

"Can we change anything with a movie? I don't know," he says. "When we made Recount in 2000, I thought everyone would see the film and at least start to talk about voting rights and the quality of our electoral process.

"There were so many irregularities in that election, including making it difficult for minority voters to vote.

"Instead of launching a reformation, it feels like it's become worse, with so many new laws passed recently that are designed to make voting more difficult, which is clearly a move by one party to increase their chances of winning.

"It's humbling to someone who made a film about voter suppression," he says with a wry smile.

Of his new film, which shows Johnson's behind-the-scenes lobbying to get the Civil Rights Act passed despite opposition from southern Democrats, he says: "I would like to think this film will trigger new conversations about civil rights and especially conversations about how government should function and how our politicians should behave."

Today's lawmakers could learn a lot from how Johnson rallied Congressmen on both sides of the aisle, Roach says.

"Shouldn't compromise have something to do with legislation? Does it always have to be 'win at all costs, compromise is for losers, negotiation is weakness?'"

•All The Way debuts on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Sunday at 8am, with a same-day primetime encore at 9pm. Also available on HBO On Demand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'Trump and the rise of the political drama'. Print Edition | Subscribe