The Covert Politics of Adam McKay

McKay flag
Graphic by Raphie Cantor

The secret is out—Adam McKay has a political agenda.

It’s the kind of platform that would have Rush Limbaugh popping a vein into a microphone while Sean Hannity rubbed his nipples. It’s the political stance that Fox News has been warning us about for years. The liberal agenda.

Recently, McKay has been a vocal political figure. If McKay’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders flew under your radar back in September, there’s no way you could have missed his Oscar acceptance speech. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph were accepting the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for their masterpiece (yes, masterpiece) The Big Short. In it, McKay told America that if it doesn’t want money to control government, it shouldn’t vote for candidates who take big money. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of Glenn Beck’s pitched tent.

But before McKay was the cutting edge of left-wing Hollywood, he was a writer for SNL, and later the writer/director of such films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers. He and comedy partner Will Ferrell defined the 2000s slapstick comedy. Yet, if you take a look back and squint a little bit, you can see that McKay wasn’t just shooting Ricky Bobby running around a race track in his tighty-whities, or “Boats ‘N Hoes,” he was trying to tell us something. McKay is a latte-sipping lefty.

I’m going to skip SNL for obvious reasons (just go to any SNL comment thread on Facebook to see what conservatives think of the sketch show). However, Ferrell’s portrayal of President Bush is worth re-watching just for shits and giggles. Onwards we march to…

ANCHORMAN

anchorman news team.jpg
Credit: squareeyed.tv

“You’re just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of us. It’s science.”

-Ron Burgundy

The exploits of Ron Burgundy and his motley Channel 4 news team harken back to the seventies, when men were men, women were women, and things weren’t exactly as great, as some may lead you to believe. From the surface, Anchorman is a light-hearted comedy built on the pillars of pastiche and pastels. The hairdos and macho attitudes are enough to make you laugh, so when they collide in one scene, it was nothing short of movie magic. Take a step back, and you can see what kind of picture McKay was painting.

Anchorman was released in July 2004. Just over a year earlier, the US had launched its highly controversial invasion of Iraq. American macho culture was at an all-time high (more on that later). Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), though a citizen of the past, is the epitome of that masculinity. Yet, when looking at the course of the movie, it’s his macho-ness that leads to his downfall. The news team is turned on its head when Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) joins Channel 4. When it’s made clear that Corningstone will be a part of the news team whether Burgundy and his boys like it or not, they do everything in their power to sabotage her. In the end, it’s Corningstone who gets the anchor chair, and Burgundy must accept her place at the news desk to get his seat back.

This was eleven years before “Make America Great Again.” This was McKay showing people that misogyny should be funny, because it is ridiculous. And setting Anchorman in the past allows McKay to tackle the issue head on without making it look like such a direct social commentary. But the covert political statements don’t stop at misogyny. Take the character of Champ Kind (David Koechner). Champ’s trademark “Whammy!” catchphrase is almost enough to distract from the fact that he’s a closeted homosexual, or at the very least, has bi-curious feelings for Ron. But being in the seventies, no one takes him seriously. This was relevant even in 2004, when President Bush was touting a potential constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Finally, there’s the pre-credits scene where a narrator tells the audience what each character went on to do after the narrative. Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) is without a doubt the dumbest character to have ever graced the presence of a big screen. During the aforementioned scene, he is a cuddling with a dangerous grizzly bear. Yet, his fate is being “one of the top political advisers to the Bush White House.”

I was a nine year old kid from San Diego when Anchorman came out. To me, there hadn’t been anything funnier in the history of the world than that movie. To know that its writer/director was adding complex layers to it that I would only discover in my twenties leaves me with only one thing to say: you stay classy, Adam McKay.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY

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Credit: quotesgram.com

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

-Ricky Bobby

Jump ahead a couple years to 2006. The US is still in Iraq. Bush is still in the White House. The macho Americanism hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it was more present than ever. So, Ferrell and McKay must have had a collective “fuck it” moment, and decided to plunge into the belly of the beast by diving into the world of NASCAR.

The above quote, the words that shape the life of Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), are emblematic of that idea. America, the greatest country on Earth, is first. That’s why we have NASCAR, not that pussy-ass Formula One shit. And there’s no better NASCAR driver than Ricky Bobby. So who would be the ideal person to challenge not only Bobby but what he represents? A pussy-ass French Formula One driver. Oh, did I mention that he’s gay, too?

Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) is not just one of the most hilarious villains of the last decade, he also represents a direct challenge to American isolationism and elitism. It’s no coincidence that French president Jacques Chirac was the closest American ally to come out against the invasion of Iraq. In the movie, one of his countrymen was coming to our shores, to beat us at our game—and he was good.

The personification of this American stubbornness is exemplified when the two foes meet. Girard puts on jazz music in the roadside bar that Bobby and his friends frequent. A fight ensues, and Girard has Bobby in an arm bar, pinned to a pool table. Girard tells Bobby that he will release Bobby if he simply says, “I love crêpes.” Bobby refuses, but when Girard explains that crêpes are just those “really flat pancakes,” Bobby claims that he really likes them. Yet, he still refuses to say the phrase, so Girard breaks his arm.

The film deals with other hot-button issues, like Bobby’s PTSD after he gets in a wreck. His injuries are all psychosomatic, and his struggle is dismissed by his loved ones. Granted, it wouldn’t be a funny movie if his family and friends were understanding of his mental trauma. But at least they talked about it!

Bobby reaches his critical moment when his estranged father, the man who bestowed Bobby’s holy “first/last” mantra onto him, reveals that he was high when he said those words. Bobby realizes that it’s bullshit. He has to do what makes him happy, not some bullshit idea of being the best at everything. And so to, does McKay say that America shouldn’t worry about being “first,” it should worry about being the best that it can be. Bravo, Mr. McKay.

STEP BROTHERS

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Credit: quotesgram.com

“Families is where our nation finds hope. Where wings take dream.”

-President George W. Bush

That’s the quote which is shown over black at the beginning of the 2008 movie, Step Brothers. The rest of the film makes no reference to it, or the president, or roughly anything political. Rather it was meant not only as a jab at the president, but also to set the tone for the narrative going forward. The family in the story is just as dysfunctional at George Bush’s linguistics.

There are several possible political statements this film could be making, but it’s a bit more convoluted. For one, the privilege of upper-middle class white men for their ability to basically fuck off their whole lives without getting jobs, and become a nuisance to their parents. Maybe it’s that America, with its drinking age and other legal restrictions being set at 21, has the oldest children in the world. Or maybe it’s once again a comment on the “bro culture” of the mid-2000s as personified by Brennan’s (Ferrell) younger brother Derek (Adam Scott).

The only statement this film makes with absolute clarity—Shark Week is awesome

FINAL THOUGHTS

It’d be another seven years before The Big Short was released in 2015. McKay finally unleashed his wrath on Wall Street and American consumerism in precise fashion. The film would go on to be nominated for five Oscars, winning one for Adapted Screenplay. But while the film was McKay showing America his cards, his previous movies had been telling us what he had in his hand the whole time—a royal flush of wit, that trumps traditional American elitism and ignorance.

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