Donald Trump

“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series

We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.

I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.

In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.

BOMBSHELL: the haunted, toothless response to a destructive political culture

Bombshell never lives up the explosive promise of its title.

While satire has caught up with the age of Donald Trump, what with Alec Baldwin’s razor sharp Saturday Night Live impersonations which have infuriated the humourless Bigly-in-chief, cinema has to date struggled with how to capture not just this most divisive of Presidents but also the culture he has fostered in American politics and mass media. Jay Roach’s Bombshell is one of the first significant efforts to explore what this means for a country Hollywood has struggled in since 2016, defined as it is by ostensibly liberal values – even if economically they are far more conservative than they would ever let on.

The doorway opened for screenwriter Charles Randolph, best known for penning Adam McKay’s The Big Short, to detail this fairly recent chapter of American political life following the death in mid-2017 of Roger Ailes, the long-standing CEO of Fox News, as controlled by the global conglomerate under Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Ailes no longer being able to litigate allows Bombshell to tell the story, primarily, of Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host who with previously dismissed host Gretchen Carlson stood up to years of pervasive, institutionalised sexual harassment by Ailes within the Fox News system, triggering a lawsuit that saw Ailes reputation in tatters and cost him his position. Within just under a year, that failure apparently killed him.

Bombshell, therefore, could easily have exploded as such and entirely destroyed Roger Ailes and the broader, Trumpian culture of old, white male abuse in the public eye. So why does it end up so remarkably toothless?