I remember when I first watched this, I absolutely loved it – who ever heard of a politician deciding to actually, really tell the truth? At the time when Warren Beatty made Bulworth (1998), the premise seemed to be anarchy and subversion writ large and, thanks to a number of really rather good set-pieces in the film that revolve around exactly that premise, it appeared to live up to its billing, both from sly satire and belly-laugh perspectives. Well, I watched it again the other evening with the Divine C after a break of some years – how has it aged?
We join Democratic Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) at seemingly the height of his success, with Bill Clinton about to begin his second term in office and Bulworth poised to win yet another term representing a black community in Washington DC that he knows absolutely nothing about, despite him being a liberal who rubbed shoulders with Martin Luther King and the Kennedys back in the day. In fact, as we join him, he has not slept or eaten for three days, but he has drunk plenty – he’s having the official long, dark night of the soul, watching party political broadcasts of himself pontificating about how ‘You know, we’re standing on the doorstep of a new millennium’ and how he believes in a ‘hand-up, not a hand-out’ for African Americans.
In fact, he is suicidal and, to prove his point to himself, he takes out a contract on his own life, after arranging some very lucrative insurance for himself to cover for his daughter in the event of his untimely death, with an insurance rep who’s hoping Bulworth can bottle up a certain troublesome, ‘un-American’ bill in the Senate. But what Bulworth subsequently realises is that the freedom his decision has given him, namely his seemingly impending death, has also allowed him the chance to jive with the people – to tell his black voters how little the Democrats actually care. His efforts bring him into the orbit of Nina (Halle Berry) who, despite her seeming attraction to the senator-turned social crusader, may well have much to hide…
Angry black woman: Are you sayin’ the Democratic Party don’t care about the African-American community?
Bullworth: Isn’t that OBVIOUS? You got half your kids are out of work and the other half are in jail. Do you see ANY Democrat doing anything about it? Certainly not me! So what’re you gonna do, vote Republican? Come on! Come on, you’re not gonna vote Republican! Let’s call a spade a spade!
[Loud, angry booing]
Bullworth: I mean – come on! You can have a Billion Man March! If you don’t put down that malt liquor and chicken wings, and get behind someone other than a running back who stabs his wife, you’re NEVER gonna get rid of somebody like me!
But, I don’t know – in spite of how good the above quote sounds (and believe me, it works very well indeed), whether the film now has anything to offer apart from its obvious sentiment that politicians are all crooks, is a moot point.
And Bulworth’s descent into rap may now seem somewhat patronising, but I still feel that it is the only way the film could have made the points that it so needed to at the time, and now, for that matter.
What the hell – it’s still very funny and, if anything, nearer the mark now than when it was first released.