“Politics is downstream from culture,” the conservative journalist and web entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart once said, in a phrase that has become a widely circulated maxim in right-wing circles and has kicked off many a chin-stroking newspaper column. In the years since Breitbart’s death in 2012, especially after the site he founded and named after himself was taken over by the harder-right gadfly, conspiracy theorist, and eventual presidential adviser Steve Bannon, this Zen koan for the Federalist Society set has shifted in both meaning and relevance. With the rise of far-right alternative news networks and social-media-fueled disinformation campaigns, the conservative media has become more of a self-sustaining ecosystem. For a significant portion of the Republican electorate, political news and entertainment, often blended into a single toxic stream of anger-stoking falsehoods, now come from the same source, often on the same platform. There is no upstream or downstream, only an ever-flowing ouroboros of frenzied speculation and self-contradictory propaganda. Does what circulates in that fetid loop qualify as fact, fiction, or something in between?
This week, as Bannon turns himself in to New York State authorities on fraud charges, Breitbart Media makes its first foray into feature film distribution with the release of My Son Hunter, a lurid satire about the alleged international shenanigans of the current president’s wayward second son. The scandal of “Hunter Biden’s laptop,” long the source of amusement on the left and furious what-abouting on conservative cable TV, is now a major motion picture, or at least a motion picture shot in Serbia on a crowd-funded budget of $2.5 million. “This is not a true story,” announces Gina Carano, playing a Secret Service agent fond of addressing snarky asides at the camera, in the movie’s hectic opening moments. “Except for the facts.”
Carano’s name may unfortunately be most familiar because of her 2021 firing from the Disney series The Mandalorian, rather than because of her memorably raw performance in the Steven Soderbergh action thriller Haywire or her earlier career as a pro mixed martial arts fighter. Like several other cast members of My Son Hunter, Carano is now a self-announced victim of “cancellation,” cast out of mainstream entertainment for her controversial comments about vaccine mandates, Black Lives Matter protests, and the, in her view, illustrative analogy between the Jewish genocide of the Holocaust and the silencing of conservative voices.
Carano’s fed-up Secret Service agent is far from the central character of My Son Hunter, which takes place mainly over one debauched night in 2019 in the hookers-and-blow-filled Chateau Marmont suite of the prodigal younger son. For the first 40 minutes or so, the protagonist seems to be Hunter himself, a drug-crazed, sweat-glazed, pitifully self-deluded but not entirely unsympathetic figure as played by the nothing-if-not-all-in Laurence Fox. Fox is a British actor, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who appeared in supporting roles in Robert Altman’s 2001 drawing-room mystery Gosford Park and the long-running ITV detective show Lewis, but who has become better known in recent years for his crusades against “extreme political correctness.” He has caused controversy for his remarks about COVID lockdowns and casting diversity, and he ran for mayor of London last year on the ticket of his own self-founded “Reclaim Party,” winning just 1.9 percent of the vote. Fox has said he prepared for this role by listening to Hunter Biden’s own audiobook narration of his memoir, Beautiful Things, and his Hunter, as feverishly imagined by the screenwriters Brian Godawa and Phelim McAleer, is the closest thing to a complex character in a film otherwise populated solely by glowering villains and noble whistleblowers. This Hunter is an abject failson in the mode of Donald Trump, Jr., contemptibly loyal to his corrupt father’s twisted vision of family honor.
Joe Biden himself, played by John James of the 1980s soap opera Dynasty, is a secondary character in terms of screentime, but his behind-the-scenes machinations are what drive the plot. In this movie’s vision, our 46th president is at once a doddering fool and a global puppetmaster, a man who holds his cellphone upside down and struggles to communicate simple ideas in conversation (at one point he begs his son to do all he can to help with the upcoming “erection”) while playing international superpowers off one another like so many casino dice. My Son Hunter is not above getting a laugh or two out of Biden’s well-documented speech impediment: The old man’s rendering of “quid pro quo” comes out as “quick pro crow”—a malapropism whose hilarity is underlined by flashing the words onscreen in all capital letters.
Such narrative interruptions are frequent in My Son Hunter: animated speech bubbles, freeze-framed “fact check” breaks, unannounced swerves into various characters’ fantasy lives, even an exchange between a high-on-crack Hunter and a wise long-haired chihuahua named Shirley. This fluffy sage shows up on the lap of one of the freeloading guests at Hunter’s wild hotel-room party and counsels him, via nonverbal psychic communication, that “these people aren’t your friends.” Director Robert Davi (another outspoken conservative, best known as a bad guy in ’80s films like The Goonies and Licence to Kill) seems intent on copping from the playbook of Adam McKay, who used a similar patchwork approach in movies like The Big Short and Vice. The effect of these constant disruptions, combined with the convoluted conspiracy theories My Son Hunter traffics in, is to experience an attempted red-pilling in real time: So you thought this was just the story of a depressed drug addict ranting in a fancy hotel room? Well, what if he was also the tormented scion of the world’s most nefarious crime family? Ever consider that possibility, genius?
In the viewer’s journey down the rabbit hole, our proxy is a fictional character, a stripper named Kitty (Serbian-British newcomer Emma Gojkovic) who starts out as a progressive activist at a Black Lives Matter demonstration and, after a long night spent listening to Hunter’s stories at the Chateau Marmont, emerges as a whistleblowing crusader against the evil Biden empire. At one point in the evening, Hunter’s bodyguard Tyrone, the movie’s only Black character (played by the Nigerian soccer player Franklin Ayodele) encourages her to abandon the mainstream media and research the family’s doings on alternative right-wing sites. When she notes the irony that someone of his race is promoting conservative media channels, he sarcastically calls himself “the Black face of white supremacy,” borrowing a line used last year to describe failed California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder. Whatever disturbing content Kitty may encounter on her descent into the alt-right internet, this exchange implies, it must all be OK: Her Black friend Tyrone sent her there. In a similarly neutralizing move, My Son Hunter takes pains to distance itself from Donald Trump, who is mentioned only rarely and often in a negative context: “I despise the man,” declares Kitty when asked by a reporter whether she is exposing the Bidens as an act of support for Trump. If anything, obsession with the 45th president is mocked as a liberal foible; at one point Hunter, anxious that the damning intel found on his laptop is about to go public, expresses relief that the only topic of interest to the mainstream media is the perennial headline “Orange Man Bad.”
My Son Hunter is not the only recent incursion into feature films by a conservative media company: Last week, Fox News’ entertainment streaming service, Fox Nation, premiered its first original movie production, the largely apolitical romantic drama The Shell Collector, and the conservative site the Daily Wire has distributed three features so far in 2022, one of which similarly stars Carano. The ideal intended viewer for fictional narratives like My Son Hunter appears to be someone who already subscribes to the belief system they spring from: As much of the GOP has decided over the past decade of governance, there is no longer any need to win new voters over to their side, only to keep the ones they have confined in a well-maintained media bubble. My Son Hunter ends with a frankly counterfactual dream sequence, an alternate history in which Rudy Giuliani’s reveal of the lost laptop results in an exposé of the Bidens’ international influence-peddling schemes and a successful 2020 re-election campaign for Trump. “Maybe in the end, the truth itself became the fairytale,” purrs the stripper-turned-justice-crusader into the movie’s oft-perforated fourth wall just before the credits roll. Maybe it did—and maybe that’s just the way the right-wing media wanted it all along.