WHAT IF? Diplomacy by Movie Trailer
Paul Fischer is the author of A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, which narrates the abduction of South Korea’s most famous actress and filmmaker by Kim Jong-Il–who ran the Ministry of Propaganda before he ran North Korea–and their gripping escape .
Fischer reviewed the short film created by the Trump administration for the Singapore Summit, imagining the film as a trailer for an upcoming movie.
There are very few rules for what makes a great movie trailer. It needs to be short, it needs to be compelling, and it needs, like any other piece of marketing, to be clear. A movie trailer doesn’t even need to be an accurate representation of the film it’s promoting. It needs only to do one thing: make you want to see the movie it’s selling.
The trailer for Donald Trump’s What If (I’m assuming this is the title of the movie-cum-live-event, since it’s repeated twice in the teaser’s runtime, the voice-over backed up by a title card in both instances) might be the first trailer in motion picture history to fail on every single count. It isn’t short–running longer than four minutes, it’s perhaps best described as a short film. It isn’t compelling–its pacing, imagery, and writing are less inspired than even the most mediocre YouTube crackpot conspiracy theory video, the genre of “motion picture” it clearly takes its cues from. (What If targets the same demographic as those videos, too, even though, on the surface level, it seems aimed at an audience of one: Kim Jong-Un.) It isn’t clear–for the first half of its runtime it plays like a preview for a television documentary, all royalty-free stock footage and insistent voice-over, before taking a turn and suddenly pitching you an apocalyptic action film. Its makers don’t even manage to be accurate about their own identity–Destiny Pictures, who, the trailer suggests, is either producing or distributing the teaser, immediately disowned it. We all routinely make fun of movie trailers (they’re loud! They’re simplistic! They give away the whole plot!), but clearly it’s harder to make a good one than it seems–at least for the talented folks at “Destiny Pictures” (actually the National Security Council).
What If the movie, of course, doesn’t exist. It makes sense that Donald Trump, a President who has a hard time differentiating between fantasy and reality, between his Fox News screen and the facts on the ground, would promote a real event–his closed-door meeting with the North Korean dictator–as if it were a motion picture. If What If did exist as a work of cinema, it more likely would be found on Vimeo or YouTube or in a Wal-Mart DVD bargain bin than at your local AMC multiplex. Its narrative principles are dubious: “only the very few will… renew their homeland and change the course of history,” Movie Trailer Guy intones early on in the preview, guaranteeing What If would boast the kind of chosen-one protagonist we all got bored watching back in the late 90s, when Harry Potter and The Matrix beat that trope six feet into the ground. The script is shaky, more a cut-and-paste mood board than a first draft, the Leni Riefenstahl overtones jiving awkwardly with the sanguine pop-song lyricism of lines like, “the past doesn’t have to be the future / out of the darkness can come the light / and the light of hope can burn bright.”(Is this a trailer for a tinfoil-hat conspiracy documentary, or a Bruce Willis action flick, or a Katherine Heigl rom-com? Make your mind up, National Security Council!).
And the message doesn’t feel very cinematic at all, really. “Won’t you agree with me not to fight anymore,” as a plot summary, doesn’t suggest we’re in for a bunch of car chases, shoot-outs, or explosions. Aesthetically it’d be entirely devoid of ideas, judging solely from the trailer’s repetitious use of black-and-white monochrome and melancholy, iMovie-rendered slow motion to depict gloom and defeat , not to mention painfully on the nose (“that world where the doors of opportunity are ready to be opened,” the dialogue tells us, as we watch a guy open a door; “to shine in the sun,” it coos, as a shining sun rises; “will he shake the hand of peace,” it asks, as we watch Donald Trump raise his hand–get it? Donald Trump’s hand is the hand of peace.) The characters driving the plot are one-dimensional: Kim Jong-Un likes basketball (this has nothing to do with the plot, but here’s a guy dunking a ball, just in case), Donald “The Hand of Peace” Trump does… stuff with his hands. He waves and sticks his thumb up and gesticulates every time he’s on screen, as vigorously as Jackie Chan kicks and punches, and as often as Robert Downey Jr. smirks and flies around–so I’m going to assume the President’s ability to move his appendages is an equally key character trait. Neither Trump nor Kim has a single line of dialogue in the whole four minutes. The preview’s closing moments tells us they are both “featuring” in the movie–a term, in Hollywood parlance, one rung below a “starring” role. Tim Blake Nelson usually “features” in blockbusters. Does this movie even have any stars in it? Were they cut out? Maybe one of the beautiful white horses shown running through water for no reason is the real star?
What If has already come to market–its trailer has gone viral–and yet, as a product, it doesn’t know what it is. It promises to be one of those movies, like Warner Bros’ Suicide Squad, where the original director was fired halfway through the shoot, and someone else rewrote and finished the damn thing, but the studio has a release date locked in, and so it’s going to release a preview anyway. The only tension promised by the trailer, interestingly, is in the contrast between its imagery and its narration. The two are often so directly at odds, as when the voice-over discusses “moving back” and the imagery responds with images of rockets firing forwards and upwards, followed by technologically advanced war jets zooming through the sky (later the voice-over introduces the alternative possible outcome, “moving forwards,” and the images immediately displayed are an old-timey silent-film countdown and then the rockets rewinding back into position, because, you know. “Forward.”). It’s like it’s been created and edited, with no competent oversight, by two departments working from entirely different scripts and purposes–or by a micro-managing Howard Hughes wannabee pseudo-tycoon with fascistic tendencies and extremely bad taste; the kind of wealthy player occasionally found in Hollywood, running a vast operation they’re not in any way qualified to run, and notable because they have no discernable idea what they want to say or, indeed, if they have anything to say at all.
What If promises two possible endings, one of which it heavily implies is nuclear war and, possibly, the end of the world as we know it (even the promotional campaign for Avengers: Infinity War shied away from going that far). What it doesn’t promise is a good time, or an insightful one. If a nuclear wasteland is coming, do your fast-diminishing remaining time on earth a favor, and skip this flick.