' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Moving Target, or: A Modest Election Night Proposal

Friday, November 18, 2022

Some Drivel On...Moving Target, or: A Modest Election Night Proposal

Though I have a hazy memory of the 1984 American presidential election, the first electoral event I recall with anything like true clarity was Iowa caucus night 1988. Then again, I was ten years old, and so even if I lived in a small Iowa town just a few miles outside Des Moines, it’s not the caucus I remember so much, or even the results, but watching a Jason Bateman TV movie while waiting for the results. Now, I have an active imagination and tend to remember things, events, movie scenes, that didn’t happen, and I wondered if perhaps I mis-remembered this too, if I conflated an episode of “The Hogan Family” with caucus night in my memory. But cursory research confirms that on the same night of the 1988 Iowa Caucus, Monday February 8, that, indeed, a Jason Bateman TV movie called “Moving Target” aired on NBC. “A teenage musician goes on the run from killers and the police,” explains IMDb, “when he returns home to find his home empty and his family gone.” The musician part I didn’t remember, nor that the movie co-starred a pre-Wilson Phillips Chynna Phillips. Really, the one mental image I have is of Bateman’s character laying out a sleeping bag, and Google Images seems to confirm this mental image as correct, though mostly I just remember the collective emotion of the experience, the idea that the Iowa caucus was happening concurrently, but I was watching “Moving Target,” and that even if “Moving Target” was about “a teenage musician…on the run from killers and the police,” there was no need to preempt it until the official outcome of the caucus was safe in hand.

This all came back to me last Tuesday evening, election night here in America, as the various television networks seemed to spend more time not calling winners of various races – because polls were still open, too little info was available, they were too close to call, etc. – than they did calling them. It naturally led a person to wonder what they were doing on the air in the first place. True, the media’s role is, or can be, one of transparency, to explain that all these election results are not complete and might not take some time to properly evaluate, as the invaluable Bryan Curtis explained CNN did on Tuesday night, cautioning people not to draw conclusions from partial or incomplete numbers. But, as Curtis pointed out on his Press Box podcast, CNN would then proceed to “just keep showing” us this partial and incomplete information anyway. “‘No, no, no,’” Curtis said in speaking for all of us, “‘you just told us these numbers are horribly misleading and don’t mean anything right now.’” Of course, as Curtis and his co-host David Shoemaker went on to say, this all stems from the oversaturation of election coverage and subsequent air to fill. But when airtime and the advertising dollars I assume go hand-in-hand with that airtime begin to impede democracy, that’s where we have a problem.

The previous American presidential election, the networks may have explained both in the run-up to and during Election Day that the results were not necessarily going to be in that night (and they weren’t, they really, really weren’t) and yet they forged ahead with their election night coverage despite the slow, inconclusive drip of results, providing a foundation for His Imbecility, POTUS 45, to claim the election was being stolen from him. If these rantings of a fraudulent vote were manifestly untrue, why did so many believe it anyway? “Because (they) saw it on television,” to quote the political operative Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro) of “Wag the Dog.” Indeed, that was the same film where Conrad’s cohorts Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) derided TV for having “destroyed the electoral process.” That movie was released in 1997 but Ames may as well have been predicting the 2000 American presidential election, the one where networks called Florida for Al Gore before rescinding their call, and then called George W. Bush the President-elect before that call, too, came under suspicion, triggering an electoral fiasco that still reverberates as Leon Neyfakh outlined in his aptly titled podcast Fiasco, wondering without being able to determine if television’s seesawing that night influenced the ultimate result. 

That brings me back to “Moving Target.” It’s true that Iowa caucus night is different from election night, the former merely the first step culminating in the latter, meaning comprehensive TV coverage is more necessary the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November. But there was something refreshing, revealing in the networks that February night in 1988 eschewing perpetual faux analysis of results still TBD for a simple TV movie. At some point during election night 2020, the former Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed up on MSNBC and chuckled at the early doom and gloom, at least for us pro-democracy enthusiasts, saying “We don’t know anything yet.” We didn’t! So, what we were doing?! 

It could never happen now, I know, in the streaming age, but I still found myself dreaming about it last Tuesday, the old ABC and NBC Sunday Night Movie reimagined as the Election Night Movie, something to air in lieu of election night coverage that in reality is not covering anything beyond how there is nothing to cover. Now I know this means I’m lobbying for movies as a distraction, a term I generally I don’t like applying to them because I view the film de cinema as something more than commerce and content. But if on Election Day you have gone out and voted, or perhaps already voted early or mailed your ballot in a few weeks before, then you were not distracted; you did your civic duty and can sit down and watch “Moving Target” and when there is something to report, they can report it. And if there is nothing to report, if we still don’t know anything, well, at least we can find out if Jason Bateman and Chynna Phillips are going to escape the mob. 

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