"Halftime in America" is a punchier version of Wag the Dog's reelection slogan, "Don't Change Horses in Midstream". They might have tried, "The Best is Yet to Come", but Bloomberg already took that one.
You can't really blame Chrysler for trying to preserve its Motor City brand,
even if it's with a commercial that wasn't actually filmed in Detroit. It's
much easier to put together some inspiring scenes of a Detroit recovery if you
shoot it in Los Angeles, a place that has its problems, but which is much more
likely to have cheerful couples waking up in apartments that seem to be
entirely made of glass.
The Motor City brand is one of those things that doesn't mean a whole lot
anymore, but still stirs up sentimentality, like the immigrant experience or
freedom of speech. That Detroit is as real today as the Chicago depicted in
Sandburg's poem which served as the hog butcher, tool maker and wheat stacker
to the world. Today Sandburg might have called it a food stamp scanner, scammer
and welfare taker instead.
American industry is a ghost of that former vigor, its hog butchering, tool
making and wheat stacking done in by the progressive vision of a
post-industrial society. Today it's Shanghai that might qualify for a Sandburg
poem and it's also the only place to find that kind of aggressive industrial
growth, but Halftime in Shanghai doesn't sound the same even if Shanghaiing
American industry is the name of the game.
Chevy, another government bailout recipient, eschewed the phony clip show
patriotism and cut right to showing that their truck could survive an
apocalypse. Unlike Halftime in America, that ad could have been filmed in
Detroit, which has major apocalypse potential. If you have to choose between
trying to convince Americans that Motor City is back or convincing them that the end
of the world is near but that the right truck can help them make it out alive,
go with the second one.
But Chrysler needs the Motor City brand, because it doesn't exist anymore.
After a brief two year period of being an American company again after its sale
by Daimler-Benz, it is now owned by Fiat, which is as All-American as its CEO,
Sergio Marchionne, who does not sound very much like Clint Eastwood. It needs
that image of American industry, even if it's an Italian company still
employing some American workers and an American brand.
Everyone needs their myths, even if it's the myth of a booming Motor City
created in Los Angeles, starring a California movie star by a company
headquartered in Turin, Italy. It beats the tawdry reality of Detroit. It's not
as if anyone confuses myths with reality, or commercials with substance.
Some of Eastwood's most famous Westerns were actually filmed by Italian
directors in Italy. If Sergio Leone could give us Eastwood staging six gun
duels in the Apennine Mountains off the Adriatic Sea, then why can't Sergio
Marchionne give us Clint Eastwood pacing around an LA stage and breathily
pontificating on how hard it is to keep the people and car companies of Detroit
We needed the Westerns at a time when the frontier was closing, and if
toward the end they were ugly vicious little tableaux of unredeeming violence
being filmed in Spanish ghost towns, no one really cared anymore. As the
American car company goes the way of the Wild West, we have spaghetti car commercials
instead of spaghetti Westerns reassuring us that we are still the same people
we used to be. Strong, resilient and capable of recovering from anything with
enough bailout money.
Halftime in America didn't explicitly set out to promote Obama, but it didn't
need to. Its theme was hope. Its purpose was a defense of widely unpopular
policies. It didn't need to mention him by name, any incumbent would have done.
Its come on is the same one used in every casino and by every street corner
three-card monte dealer. "Don't stop now. Sure you may be behind, but if
you throw it all in, you'll double your money."
Halftime in America depends on the metaphor of halftime to convince us to
discount the past and embrace hope and change all over again. Forget how badly
we fumbled the ball and believe that this time we'll make the
But the right metaphor isn't a closely fought game where the lovable
underdogs are behind and they just need one golden moment to make it all
worthwhile. It's a game where the quarterback has spent most of the game
playing golf a 100 miles away, where the players are angry people who can't
play football but sued their way onto the team, and the coaching staff only
knows how to incite the home crowd to assault the opposing fans, but has no
idea how the game is played and thinks rules are for suckers.
Cheering for a comeback for that isn't for halftime, it's for halfwits.
There are baseball and football teams who can never win, but still command
passionate followings because they keep losing. The more they lose, the more
passionate their fans are about them someday winning. But there's nothing of
the lovable underdog spirit about the people who ran this country into the
ground. Instead of projecting the humility of those who tried and failed, they
project the arrogance of winners even as they show off a track record that even
losers should be ashamed of.
Their folly isn't that they tried and failed, it's that they never cared
about the game, only about the money and the cameras. They never accept defeat,
because they never accepted the rules. They don't believe in limitations.
Theirs is the assertion of the motivational speaker that there are no limits
but those you impose on yourself. Or as Aleister Crowley put it, "Do what
thou wilt, that is the whole of the law."
Obama and his merry band of pranksters have been doing what they will. They
have made countless rules for us to follow, but there are no rules that apply
to them. And facts, like rules, are things that apply to other people. Their
postmodern Sheenseque world is one where the assertion of winning matters more
than achievement, where being entertaining counts for more than being right.
Where it doesn't matter what the economy actually is, it only matters what it
The gap between Halftime in America and the reality of Motor City is
positively narrow compared to the chasm that stretches between the actual
economic situation of the United States and the one set out by Obama in his own
halftime in America speeches. We are not recovering, things are not getting
better, they are on the verge of getting worse. Rather than making adult
decisions, the administration has been as greedy, vicious and corrupt as the
former indicted mayor of Detroit.
But Eastwood's rasping narration was right about one thing. Detroit is
showing us how it can be done. Not through gumption, hard work, determination
and a little spit-- but through government handouts that can't keep the city
together, but can help pay for commercials to encourage us to do it all over
Instead of fully compensating America for the nearly 2 billion in losses
that we took on the Chrysler bailout, the company has spent the money on Super
Bowl commercials touting its comeback. This is like the crook who gets out of
jail and instead of compensating his victims, spends the money to take out an
ad that boasts of how well he's doing now. The average cost of a Super Bowl
spot is 3.5 million for 30 seconds and with a 2 minute running time, that comes
out to 14 million dollars. And that's not counting Clint Eastwood's fee.
Sure that's less than 1 percent of the money we're out for the cost of
salvaging Chrysler and turning it over to Fiat, but it might have been nice if
instead of spending all that money on an LA ad about how hard the people of
Detroit are fighting for a recovery, it had gone to the people who lost their
jobs to cover the higher taxes that fund bailouts like these.
At the New York Times, Paul Krugman, the ideological champion of massive
deficit spending, cheered the ad as the beginning of a new Democratic optimism,
their very own Morning in America. The problem with that analogy is that it
actually was morning in America in 1984 or at the very least a balmy afternoon.
Reagan could sell optimism, because there was something to be optimistic about.
When Obama and his backers try to peddle optimism, the only thing they have
to be optimistic about is themselves. It's not America that they are optimistic
about, only their own prospects for victory. They were pessimists in 2008, now
they're eager to be optimists because the oil tank is half empty when the other
guy is driving, but it's half full when you're at the wheel.
Halftime in America has that same empty optimism, a working class ethos as
can only be imagined by a poet from Portland, who wrote the text, and the director
of Your Highness. It isn't patriotic, it invokes the working class romanticism
that you can still see in Social Realism art or North Korean posters on behalf of
a billion dollar corporation. It champions some vague struggle for progress,
without defining what that might be. It tries to connect the plight of Detroit
to America, but if that's so then we're already doomed.
When your enterprises are desperately struggling to survive, then you can
either try to romanticize the struggle or ask what is really wrong with them.
The same goes for a government that can't fix the economy, but can issue forty
press releases a day attaching the blame to someone else. Halftime for Chrysler
is also Halftime for Detroit and Halftime for Obama. None of them actually want
people to ask what is really wrong, instead they want us to emotionally and
financially invest in their struggle. And if we do that, then we lose the game.