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The Globe and Mail

The U.S. vote: Haven’t we seen this movie?

Actor James Stewart is shown in a scene from the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


Cinema has such a lock on spectacle that when some massive event happens for real, people say it's just like in the movies. So what movies – and TV shows, musical comedies, plays and fairy tales – did the 2012 presidential election call to mind? Under the dreaded facade of two guys talking, and everyone talking about the talking, the borrowed story elements were there for all to see.

The Republican debates, for instance – what were they but the Seven Dwarfs rewritten by the Marx Brothers, in a mash-up with the fairy tale about siblings setting forth to seek their fortunes? In most versions, the son who looks least promising at first ends up winning the prize, and that's how many Tea Partiers saw it this time too.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney's frequent policy changes resembled the periodic reboots applied to Hollywood's superhero franchises, merging Batman's millionaire fantasy of saving the nation with Spider-Man's ability to cling to apparently untenable surfaces. His simulated ordinariness had more in common, perhaps, with Breaking Bad's Walter White, the straight-arrow dad who is gradually corrupted by money and the desire to win.

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U.S. President Barack Obama, by comparison, seemed an earnest plodding knight – remember that first debate? – a character out of Spenserian romance, led down wrong paths by those endowed with less virtue and more guile. And like some errant knights, Obama had a few triumphant dragons to explain away, notably the Gordon Gekkos of Wall Street.

This was the first billion-dollar presidential campaign, each candidate having spent about that much. Also new was the vast river of gold that flowed from arm's-length partisan Super PACs, each run by an operative that Jim Taylor, the moneybags political boss in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), would have called blood brother.

An infamous closed-door speech about the 47 per cent of Americans who are "victims" played like Romney's version of the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross: "third prize is you're fired" – a good line, perhaps, for the boss of Bain Capital. Romney's "binders of women" remark time-warped him back to the Mad Men era, when stenographers in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) sang A Secretary is Not a Toy, and made that view seem almost progressive.

A chair is not a president either, but Clint Eastwood tried to make it so, crudely aping Bob Newhart's one-sided comedy bits – but also cribbing from Tom Hanks as he talked to Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away (2000). Both of them were just movie stars out there alone, stretched beyond the limit of their resources, relying on a prop to help them keep a grip.

During a radio interview, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan did his remake of Run, Lola, Run (1998), in which the heroine gets to do over her frantic cross-town dashes to save her boyfriend. Ryan tried to redo his plural marathon results, which turned out to be just one, and that one a whole lot slower than he said. Vice-President Joe Biden, meanwhile, spent his half of the vice-presidential debate recalling the laugh tracks from every sitcom he's seen since 1965.

Near the campaign's end, a real movie-scale disaster swept through, as Hurricane Sandy pounded the Atlantic coastal states. For Obama, it was a chance to channel Prospero, to play the elements in the struggle for power, and to unite with putative enemies (Republicans Chris Christie and Michael Bloomberg), while the blithe spirit known as the media flitted around nudging the action one way or another.

Now it's all down to the voting – and whatever mischief some Malfoy-ant Hogwarts grad can do at the ballot box. Somewhere in his musty tome, we hear, there's a spell that makes voters disappear in areas thick with low-income Democrats.

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