Back in 1998, it was hard to see where US politics were going. Warren Beatty took a wild stab with Bulworth, and while the result certainly made a connection with audiences and critics at the time, the cultural legacy would seem limited to the hit song on the soundtrack, Ghetto Superstar. But contemporary reactions only go so far; Bulworth, like other 20th Century Fox products, now finds an unlikely home on Disney+ channel, ready to be piped into the homes of the unsuspecting, and who knows what the kids on the street will make of all this now?
The high-concept scenario presumably reflects some of Beatty’s own anxieties; Bulworth is an older man who has missed out on his youth, and re-invents himself in a way that young people can relate to; a marijuana-smoking, speed-rapping, anti-authority outsider who shakes up the political establishment. If that sounds vain-glorious, then sure, but that’s Beatty’s thing; you can’t accuse films like Shampoo and Reds of being low-profile, and that’s what made them personal triumphs for the star. So to play politician Bulworth, Beatty crafted an overlapping set of reasons for his conversion; is it the attentions of black activist Nina (Halle Berry), the mind-expanding drugs he’s taking, or his proximity to death due to the hit-man Bulworth engages to murder himself for insurance money, and now can’t be contacted?
The plot is convoluted, but that’s fine if there’s a comic reason to do so, and Bulworth the movie certainly delivers a spectacle when Bulworth the politician loses his inhibitions and starts rapping. His rhymes are truth-telling, and what’s remarkable here is that specific names are named and corporations are shamed; this simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen in 2022. In his crumpled dark suit and thin red tie, Bulworth uses his high media profile to gain cross-political popularity and traction with non-affiliated voters, but it’s not just about a salesman image; Bulworth attacks both Republican and Democrat parties as being corrupt and not serving the people, promising to drain the swamp of corruption. As a movie, Bulworth seems to anticipate the recent rise of non-political ‘celebrity’ media figures in US politics, yet the fantasy is powerful enough to appeal to all; Obama frequently joked about his own personal desire to ‘do a Bulworth’ while in office and tell the truth about what he saw.
Bulworth is set at a particular moment in time where cell-phones and the internet don’t exist, but The Simpsons do; the social media wave hasn’t hit, and yet media manipulation of politics are portrayed as having already merged in a dangerous way. While his rapping isn’t exactly Wu Tang-level, Beatty’s film has a dynamic, if not revolutionary view of the political world, leavened with wry jokes and complete with a shock ending. Beatty holds it together as star, writer, director and producer, together with a top-notch team behind the camera, from Vitorrio Storaro to Dean Tavalouris to Ennio Morricone. When the world was seeking fin de siècle visions of the future as the millennium approached, Beatty delivered one that’s bang on viewed from twenty five years after it was made. Not enough attention has been paid to this flawed but pertinent film, although that might be attributed to the unfortunate bait and switch criminality of this widely-seen pop video below that features some weird latex mask horror that is notably absent from Beatty’s cogent, cynical, prophetic film.
Bulworth is now streaming on Disney +