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Double Feature

eye on the news

Double Feature

A box-office battle on the GOP campaign trail September 6, 2015
Win McNamee/Getty (l), Scott Olson/Getty (r)

Now playing in Iowa and around the country is a remake of the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon plays a smartass Boston street punk turned janitor who just happens to be a genius. While sweeping the halls of academe, Damon’s character solves a math problem that had baffled the boffins of MIT for years. The custodian-savant later mocks a fawning professor by asking, “Do you know how easy this is for me?”

The new version, Good Will Trumping, is the tale of an insolent billionaire and his blue-collar campaign for president. Donald Trump plays a Fifth Avenue cleaning man who mops the floor with his GOP competition. In the Donald’s rewrite, however, the Republican dons are not amused. Tenured professors, who’ve labored long and hard for a chance at the president’s house, resent the undocumented pol and his easy answers to complex problems.

Though panned by the intellectual right, Trump’s self-funded flick is a hit. Professors Krauthammer and Will, annoyed that Trump seems immune to his own jarring bombast, want him tossed out of class. They predict disaster, but no matter how often Trump shoots himself in the foot, his ability to run is unaffected. Big guns at National Review, gurus at the Wall Street Journal, heavy hitters at Commentary and snipers at FOX News write scathing reviews. They despise the rich boy who jumped the line and scorn him as a bumpkin in rhetorical overalls. One-by-one they throw roundhouse rights at Trump’s sneering kisser. One-by-one they get their hair mussed.

Meanwhile, the 16 other candidates fade from the primary radar. Trump makes them sound dull and irrelevant. They pedal furiously to catch the pretender but they’re out of shape. The voters they hope to lead are way ahead of them, and fighting mad. The 16 talk good deeds and details. Trump socks them in the labonza and ducks their feeble jabs. One day he’s a bull in China’s shop, the next he’s waving red flags in the Plaza de Toros. He doesn’t need money so he can say what he likes, and he likes to badmouth people whose help he’ll need next year. Trump doesn’t worry about the wings falling off his campaign because he’s wearing a $10 billion parachute. He agrees with Daddy Warbucks, who told Orphan Annie, “You don’t have to be nice to people you meet on the way up if you’re not coming down again.”

And yet, for all his success at the box office, Trump must wonder if the show has legs. Fourteen months is a long time to hold an audience, movie fans are fickle, and Dr. Ben Carson is crisscrossing Iowa with a remake of his own. Destry Rides Again is the story of an easygoing sheriff who tames the town of Bottleneck and the tough guys who run it. In The Carson Operation, Dr. Ben recreates the Jimmy Stewart role, an outsider with a soft voice and gentle demeanor, easy to underestimate and hard to beat. But how will the new version play to cynical Americans fed up with endless bottlenecks and worried sick about their failing nation?

On August 12, a preview audience in Queens got a peek at The Carson Operation. The American Legion post in Forest Hills was standing-room only. The good doctor was late, but the crowd—mostly Republican, mostly conservative—didn’t care. The mood was tense, focused, a Tea Party redux. In the back of the hall the talk was Trump. Nobody trusted him. But everyone was glad he’s kicking shins. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have few friends on Metropolitan Avenue. The room was eager for a scrap and hungry for someone to lead it. This was not politics. It was business.

In a preview, you don’t watch the show, you watch the audience. Carson’s crowd gave him a loud welcome, not put off by his quiet style. Usually a dusty Destry voice and mild manner do not appeal to New Yorkers who talk like Trump, but this time it didn’t matter. Everyone hung on every word. Carson is a speechwriter’s nightmare, stepping on applause lines, rambling off point, but the audience was not there for oratory. The last time America voted for a golden voice it got Obama. Carson worked hard to present his qualifications, but he needn’t have bothered. Everyone has been to the doctor. Everyone knows what it takes to make it through medical school. Everyone knows there are no community organizers in neurosurgery.

The Queens crowd leaned forward to hear Carson’s positions on the issues and sat back satisfied. He was rock-solid on defense, brilliant on the threat of radical Islam, visionary on health care, secure borders, and education, and inspirational on the value of work and the need for strong families. All well and good, but the audience was already beyond credentials. Now they were looking for heart. Can he punch? Can he take a punch? Is he quick on his feet? Can he duke it out with Donald, and the Democrats, too?

At the end of Destry, the deputy saves the day by putting soft power aside and strapping on his six-guns. In Good Will Trumping, the Donald character doesn’t wait. He enters with attitude and starts banging away. The Carson Operation has a different grabber. Dr. Ben examines the body politic and finds that America’s spine is missing. Preview crowds around the country know very well how it happened and want nothing to do with delinquents. If the primaries don’t deliver the candidates they want, they’ll be writing new scenarios for 2016.

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