The Master of (Self-inflicted) Disaster: Mike Nichols's films about escaping catastrophe can guide us in the post-Trump era.

AuthorCortellessa, Eric
PositionMike Nichols: A Life - Book review

The Trump administration was a disaster of our own making. Through decades of laissez-faire policies and a long history of intolerance, our politics managed to elevate a deranged man with apparent authoritarian tendencies to the White House. As a consequence of our collective decision (and skewed electoral system), we were subjected to four years of a remarkably xenophobic administration and extraordinarily incompetent governance. It has been frightening and agonizing in almost equal measure.

To make sense of the horror, scores of people turned to dystopian fiction. After Trump assumed office, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Upton Sinclair's It Can't Happen Here, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America all spiked in sales. It's easy to see why. Never before had the nation elected such a dangerous president, and we were left with totalitarian parables to understand our situation.

Now that the Trump presidency is over, however, what should we look to? One new book makes a strong, if unintentional, case for the work of the legendary filmmaker Mike Nichols. In Mike Nichols: A Life, Mark Harris shows that the director spent much of his career making films and plays about self-inflicted disaster. The Graduate, for example, is about a recent college graduate in the middle of an existential crisis who starts an affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, and then falls in love with her daughter and ultimately destroys their family. Carnal Knowledge centers around a character whose domineering personality and sexual exploits leave him alienated and alone. The Birdcage is about an elaborate plot that a son and his gay father undertake to convince the parents of the son's fiance that the father is a cultural attache from Greece and not the proprietor of a South Beach drag club. (The fiance's father is a conservative senator from Ohio who loves Rush Limbaugh.) Of course, the scheme descends into riotous chaos.

This theme was deliberate. "Disaster can reorder our lives in wonderful ways," Nichols once said. "I passionately believe that in art, and certainly in the theater, there are only two questions ... The first question is, 'What is this, really, when it happens in life?' Not what is the accepted convention ... but what is it really like? And the other question we really have to ask is, 'What happens next?' "

Perhaps it's no surprise that Nichols was preoccupied with disaster; his life was marked by it. But while he spent much of his career...

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