What can you do? You study power, trying to understand how people who are so obviously wrong can have so much influence. You learn how their power works, so you can get inside it and take it apart. Not surprisingly, it turns out to have nothing to do with rational, disciplined inquiry and debate. So to fight back, you've got to play their game. You can't reason away a massive political faction. So what can you do?
Dan Przygoda's new short film Deadline takes on this overwhelming political dynamic in the cinematic language of suspense thrillers. Quick cuts and nervous zooming and panning (a la 24) charge the everyday scenario of a political talk show with an air of suspense. We discover that a power struggle deeper than the conventional guest vs. host dynamic is playing out under the surface.
Caveat: if you tend to favor conservative positions (even if you don't identify yourself as a Republican), the first half of this film may come across as rather tendentious. It did to me. I think it's a weakness of the film that Przygoda has given his own politics a more earnest voice without giving them better arguments. (I would think that, wouldn't I?) But one has to admit that the conservative talk show host is barely even a caricature of O'Reilly or Hannity, and it's worth seeing how the development of the character of the guest casts his political remarks in an ironic light.
I'm discussing details of the plot below, so if you want to watch the movie before you read on, you can do so for free at deadlinemovie.com. (I don't normally do "spoiler warnings," but part of the fun of this film is the way it exploits the toolbox of suspense dramas, so I'll keep it suspenseful!)
The obvious reason for the title Deadline is that it's about an ultimatum, a decision that talk show host Ted Warner (Robert Newman) has to make by the end of the program: renounce his career, or let his wife and son die. But he's not the only one making a decision under pressure. Despite the expression of firm resolve that James McCartney (James Arden) wears from the opening scene, he seems at times not to have made up his mind that his cold, desperate scheme is the only way. He seems to think that he can actually reason with Warner. Maybe he will not need to follow through on his plan. Maybe he really can just talk, vote, and hope. He speaks as though he isn't just talking to a character on a TV program, not a person who can listen and be persuaded.
At the same time, his reference to bombing abortion clinics exposes the moral incoherence of his own strategy: he's considering crossing the same kind of line between politics and war (even if he pretends that his hands are clean because he is terrorizing without shedding any blood). So Ted Warner isn't listening to James, and he is not even listening to himself. And the segment is ending, and of course nothing is really happening, and James senses that it's time to play his hand or lose the game.
Maybe Deadline is an analogy for the way our public ethical and social conversations are vexed by the demands of the election cycle. If the most important thing is winning the next battle against the other side, we'll start to act like it's a war: if not by setting off bombs and issuing death threats, then by shutting down the pathways of good faith that make actual conversation and even conversion possible.