Your Government Shutdown in Movies

By  · Published on October 1st, 2013

Mars Attacks Congress

It’s that time of year again. Leaves are turning burnt orange, horror movies are confusingly not being released, and the GOP has threatened to shut down the government because they failed for the 54th time to stop a law that was passed three years ago. Only this time they actually followed through with the threat (go figure), and now none of us can enjoy the leaves at National Parks or watch NASA launch stuff into orbit.

Unsurprisingly, the concept of the government shutting down (or at least this version of a shut down) isn’t well represented in movies because of how breathtakingly uncinematic it is. When we want to see a political crisis on screen, we demand that Harrison Ford punch a terrorist off of Air Force One or Denzel Washington get brainwashed.

That doesn’t stop films from tiptoeing around the periphery or taking a central role in this current freeze. Whether directly referenced by politicians or symbolically evoked by our collective subconscious, movies are here to help us make sense of it all and/or confuse us even further.

Luke, I Am Your Filibuster

It didn’t start with him, but Senator Ted Cruz became the poster boy for the anti-Obamacare, pro-burnthismotherdown movement with his September 24th fauxlibuster. His marathon speech naturally brings to mind a classic of governmental authoritarianism where the little guy battles raspy-voiced against the tyranny of a corrupt machine.

No, not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That’s absurd. I’m talking about The Empire Strikes Back.

As a doubleplus good bonus, the right honorable Mr. Cruz also compared various elements of the situation to such gems as:

Going to the Mattresses

Unfortunately, in 21 hours, Cruz never mentioned the movie that most represents the shutdown: The Godfather. That’s, at least, according to Republican Whip Peter Roskam.

He recently told BuzzFeed:

“This is just like The Godfather. You know the scene where Michael Corleone is learning how to kill the crooked New York cop? The guy teaching him, Clemenza, comforts him and says ‘This thing’s gotta happen every few years or so. It helps to get rid of the bad blood.’ That is what arguing over all this is like.”

Take heart, people. A government shutdown is apparently something that has to happen every few years or so to clear out our sludgy veins. Fantastic. Not terrifying at all.

Can’t we just take the cannoli instead?

Another Healthy Way of Visualizing the Gridlock

Thanks, Mr. Burton:

(For cathartic purposes only.)

Exploring the Past

Slap my wrist for the tenuous connection here, but the last time the government was shut down was in 1995. Since it took place during the Clinton administration, and since I’ll use any excuse to suggest people see D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ excellent documentary The War Room, I’m suggesting that people see D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ excellent documentary The War Room.

It takes place during the campaign leading to Clinton’s victory…before anyone could have imagined the government would be shut down. There. Tenuous connection made.

And hey, look! It’s currently streaming.

Binge And

Someone on Yahoo Answers asked if the government shutdown would be like The Purge.

To answer that person: yes, it’ll be crappy and not thought out well.

The interesting thing here is that our shutdown is the opposite of the horror home invasion where Polite Leader menaces Ethan Hawke and his handsome family. Class warfare themes aside, all of our emergency services are still operational and all of our laws are still intact (including the one all of this shutdown nonsense was fighting against (which, not without irony, seeks to provide even more healthcare to people who are attacked by people with smiling WASPy masks on)).

Judging by the amount of jokes on Twitter, this seems to be our go-to for viewing the shutdown through absurd goggles (patent pending), although there’s a Star Trek episode that works just as well. Naturally no one seriously believes that we now live in a lawless Dystopia, but it hasn’t stopped mad billionaire John Hodgman from continuing to be a cinema-referencing scofflaw:

FINAL UPDATE: just loaded Ark of Covenant out of some State Dept sub- basement and into my Subaru. Shutdown humble brag? GUILTY #nolaws

— hodgman (@hodgman) October 1, 2013

The West Wing, Of Course

In order to get the most direct view of a fictional shutdown, we have to look outside of cinema. Over the course of 7 seasons, The West Wing tackled just about everything (including a, no kidding, agreed-upon Middle East peace plan), so it’s unsurprising that in Season 5, Episode 8 they closed down the government.

“Shutdown” followed the events of “Separation of Powers” where a cliffhanger meeting between President Bartlet and House Speaker Haffley saw the Republican representation changing the terms of a Continuing Resolution deal at the last minute (demanding raising cuts from 1% to 3%), and when Barlet refuses to budge, it leaves a ton of people harrumphing in the hallways.

It shouldn’t be used for term papers on this shutdown or anything, but as it stands, it’s a fairly solid primer on what the federal government releasing all non-essential employees might look like (using easy-to-grasp poker references!). It also, mostly for dramatic effect, involves a split GOP.

The Horror, The Horror

There are probably a lot of other mirrors for what’s happening right now in our body politick, but it’s striking how pervasive horror films have been in the discussion. Even for October. From Hitchcock to Freddy to The Purge, there’s definitely a pattern here of imbuing the scenario – be it the Affordable Care Act or the shutdown its opposition precipitated – with bloodletting.

I’m sure that says something wonderful about us.

Now, seriously, go watch The War Room. It’s great.

And to everyone who has been furloughed or has been forced to work without pay or relies on WIC or heating assistance or usually benefits from Head Start or just loves seeing NASA do cool stuff, godspeed. Hopefully our elected officials can cobble together the shitshow with the quickness. In the meantime, at least your queue is full.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.