Being surrounded by conservative activists in fanciful Panem makeup is the sort of memory that sticks with you. Nine months ago, I found myself at a Hunger Games-themed party thrown by Tea Party Patriots during the middle of CPAC. A ballroom of the titanic Gaylord National Resort—part of a waterfront faux-city built by D.C. suburban wealth and the promise of legalized gambling—was taken over by people dressed as Effie Trinket and Seneca Crane.
Everybody got the joke. Washington, right across the river, was a perfect analogue to the decadent Capitol in the Suzanne Collins books. “While the elites in D.C. prosper and play political theatre, the people of the country live in a reality that is the result of the long-term madness they have created,” wrote Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler in the run-up to the party. “Out here in the provinces, things aren’t going so well.”
Meckler was fairly late to join the textual analysis party. At least since the publication of the final book, and definitely since the first Hunger Games film was released, readers have debated the allegory of impoverished Districts against the Capitol. Is it a Tea Party parable? Is it a Marxist fantasy of the proletariat’s final battle?
In 2013, either theory would do. Americans are rarely in love with our government, but rarely have we despised it like we do right now. A December 5-8 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of us consider “big government” the greatest threat, the highest in 48 years of polling. Even 56 percent of Democrats were on board with the panic. Only 21 percent of those asked were afraid of “big business,” the lowest number in 30 years.
So far this hasn’t put a damper on the CEO bodyguard industry, but it’s given us a new class of black hats in the movies. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is on track to be the year’s biggest-grossing film, overtaking Iron Man 3. The superhero trilogy had been about a capitalist who breaks away from the government defense-contracting racket. That was dropped in round three. It was up to Olympus Has Fallen, the more somber and ridiculous of this year’s two assault-on-the-White House movies, to make a villain out of a Secret Service agent who’d become a—shudder—private contractor. Back in the Iron Man series, the new danger was a jealous madman who can create dangerous super-powers at his think tank.
His plan nearly succeeds—partly because the government commandeers a spare Iron Man suit, gives it to a fairly competent soldier, and then blunders into traps and ruses that let it fall into the hands of terrorists. And they’re abetted by a corrupt vice president. (I’m arguably spoiling a twist here, but the movie makes a common mistake by casting Miguel Ferrer, a character actor who only ever plays weasely villains, as the veep.)
It was like this all over the blockbuster and near-blockbuster charts. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, every threat emanated from a violent government official or botched government project, all in order to fool the people of Earth into militarizing Starfleet. Pacific Rim and World War Z were lessons in how risk-averse, paranoid bureaucrats can ruin everything. In each film, leaders too scared to actually “cancel the apocalypse” build massive walls meant to hold it off.
Does that work? Of course it doesn’t work. Plunging recklessly into suicide missions, avoiding the orders from above—that’s what works. World War Z gave us the added agita of callous soldiers kicking the family of a lost hero off a safe cruiser and into a refugee camp, even though the hope of mankind had been tethered to his quest, and the deal was that his family would be protected. Government: Is there anything it can’t screw up?
Apparently, nope! At the art house, Dallas Buyers Club presented the most meddlesome and accidentally murderous federal bureaucrats since that EPA agent from Ghostbusters. Ron Woodroof, given unforgettable gangly life by Matthew McConaughey, becomes an outlaw smuggling drugs from Mexico and Japan and gets collared by an FDA that’s in the pocket of big pharma.
What really makes the FDA plotline click is the casting. The vindictive FDA agent, McConaughey’s Javert, is played by Michael O’Neill. Google his name: You’ll find a character actor most recognizable from his years as a Secret Service agent on The West Wing. Watching O’Neill try his damnedest to kill AIDS patients, I kept thinking of T.A. Frank’s essay about the “hate-watching” that Washington was now providing Americans in a whole slew of shows: Scandal, Veep, House of Cards, Alpha House. Frank compared them to Aaron Sorkin’s show, which “made public policy fashionable,” and “didn’t hate Washington,” and surmised that this was a unique quirk of the 1990s golden age that we didn’t appreciate until it ended.
But there’s more to it. The West Wing portrayed a Democratic president at merry war with a Republican Congress and conservative country. President Jed Bartlett gave amazing speeches, but never notched up any big domestic policy wins. He won a shutdown and got an assault weapons ban passed, but—and hey, no offense—so did Bill Clinton.
The government has tried to do much more since then. It’s lurched into two wars that went worse than promised, it’s built a surveillance network we’re not allowed to know about, and it passed that 100-year dream of liberalism, the Affordable Care Act. That hasn’t launched well, either. At the moment, more people put this on the government—what a surprise, blowing it again—than on any complications with the private sector. The insurance industry, which was reliably loathed for years, is not being blamed for higher premiums or canceled plans. Government regulators are. They can’t even run a website!
But they can get rich. Articles about the unexpected affluenza of D.C. have popped up and gone viral several times this year. A city previously known for Marion Barry’s security tape and a horrifying murder rate is now hated for its success, which seems unrelated to performance. The movies are following along. In Catching Fire, the champions of District 12 head to an opulent party at the presidential mansion and have more than enough to eat. One of the perfumed handlers offers a pink, bubbly beverage that will let them purge and gorge again.
“People in District 12 are starving,” mutters Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta. “These people are vomiting so they can eat more.” It’s not just Tea Partiers making fun of that.