Jerry Springer, who died this past week at the age of seventy-nine, might end up being remembered for being a lot of things: the disgraced city councilman who paid for sex with a check; the Cincinnati mayor with a social conscience who once said, “if a man has five bucks that he wants to use to take his wife to a movie, but there’s a poor person out there with a real need . . . it’s a legitimate function of government to reallocate that man’s entertainment money to help out the poor”; the daytime TV talk-show king who was accused, not unfairly, of later exploiting those same people for ratings and entertainment.
What he’s not likely to be remembered for is the little-known 2004 Dolph Lundgren movie The Defender.
That’s too bad. Because while The Defender isn’t anyone’s idea of great cinema, today it’s a fascinating artifact from the George W. Bush years. The film is a rare cultural product that didn’t just sound the alarm about the dangers of Bush’s presidency or the “war on terror” — it dared to suggest that the entire foundation of that war and how it was fought was backward, and then full-throatedly endorsed a nonmilitary alternative.
The Defender, Lundgren’s directorial debut, effectively presents a liberal alternate reality of Bush’s America, one governed by an unnamed president played by, and who for all intents and purposes is, Springer himself. In this world, three years into the war on terror, President Springer has decided that the country’s approach to combating terrorism has hit a dead end and aims instead to pursue a bold alternative: a peace initiative.
“We’ve stood firm and fought strong,” his national security adviser, Dr Roberta Jones — unmistakably this world’s dovish version of fellow PhD Condoleezza Rice — tells a reporter. “But when that effort itself gives rise to a state of fear and deception around the world, what have we accomplished?”
But this runs afoul of a shadowy Deep State faction that views Springer as a “traitor” who is “ruining the country.” That faction is a right-wing cabal that, in a somewhat unsettling parallel to recent history, has its tentacles in the very Secret Service meant to be protecting the president. Of course, it’s not just a matter of ideology.
“War is big business, Lance, and that means a lot of money,” Jones later explains.
The Lance in question is Dolph Lundgren’s stoic Lance Rockford, a loyal, heroic Secret Service agent who’s Seen Some Shit, and ends up the only thing standing between Jerry Springer and a Deep State coup.
He’s got his hands full, because besides the occasional bout of PTSD and the small army of mercenaries sent to assassinate Jones, there’s also the high-stakes pressure and secrecy of Springer and Jones’s diplomatic project.
Jones, you see, is secretly meeting with terrorist Mohamed Jamar, the film’s Osama bin Laden analogue, and if anyone finds out about it, Jones warns Rockford, “the entire credibility of the United States would be destroyed, and with it will go any sense of stability around the world.”
If the risk of assassination weren’t bad enough, the Springer administration also has to contend with an arguably fiercer enemy: a recalcitrant Washington establishment opposed to the president’s initiative, in the form of a hawkish press corps and grandstanding congressmembers lecturing about weakness and surrender. (Europe, on the other hand, is fully on board with the Springer peace plan, viewing it as “the only way forward.”)
“If this goes wrong, it could bring down your entire administration,” an adviser warns Springer.
“Don’t kid yourself,” says Springer. “If this goes wrong, it brings down the entire Western alliance.”
In the end, the forces of peace and restraint prevail, not just because of Rockford’s handiness with a gun and bowie knife, but because of what turns out to be a clever (and somewhat inexplicably successful) trap run jointly by the CIA and FBI — an institutional faith that a little jarringly exposes the film’s fundamental liberalism. Jones wasn’t meeting with Jamar as part of a peace process, it turns out. Jamar and his Middle Eastern–looking handler are actually CIA and MI5, respectively, and the meeting was part of a plan to flush the coup-plotters out.
In the aftermath, the treacherous Secret Service official shoots himself, the plotters are arrested, Congress passes the president’s peace initiative, Rockford gets a medal, and Springer delivers a generic prime-time address about America as an idea.
It doesn’t pay to think too hard about what you’re watching — like the fact that were it not for Rockford’s extraordinary killing ability, Jones would have been effectively condemned to death as part of this plan, given how severely undermanned and under-resourced the team protecting her was.
The movie is, of course, fiction, and to a large extent, liberal Bush-era wish fulfillment. But over two decades on, Bush’s war on terror is still with us — in fact, Afghanistan withdrawal aside, it’s expanded well beyond where it was under Bush, as this week’s failed vote to get US troops out of Somalia reminds us. So is the military-first anti-terrorism logic that Bush sold the country on, which, as Joe Biden’s triumphant announcement of yet another dead terrorist leader exhibits, still has no real challenge or alternative in mainstream discourse.
With this in mind, today it’s somewhat startling to watch characters, let alone a fictional president, unapologetically voice entirely correct antiwar talking points that are almost completely absent from our political vocabulary today.
“Giving concessions, won’t that be called, ‘giving in,’ ‘being weak,’ by a great many people?” a reporter asks the president at one point.
“No, I call it, ‘Giving peace a chance,’” Springer replies. “The war on terrorism is not a conventional war, and it therefore cannot be won by conventional means.”
Meanwhile, for all its low-budget schlock, the film’s portrayal of US foreign policy debate is depressingly true to life. Congress greets President Springer’s peace initiative with “skepticism” and “mixed reviews,” we’re told, while conservative groups call it “irresponsible and un-American.”
“If the president attempts to negotiate, if the president vacillates, then this will be seen by our friends and our enemies abroad as a sign of weakness,” the California senator opposing Springer’s plan (and who, incidentally, ends up being one of the coup-plotters) tells TV viewers. If he was in the president’s shoes, he later says, he wouldn’t negotiate — “not now, not at this moment in time.”
This is hardly brilliant writing. Yet you could virtually cut and paste these lines into the ultra-hawkish discourse regarding US diplomacy and the Ukraine war that we’ve watched play out this past year and never tell the difference. It’s beyond depressing that the actual, real-world nature of US political debate on matters of war and peace strays so little from a straight-to-DVD Dolph Lundgren action flick.
So if you want to pay tribute to the late daytime TV king this weekend, but feel understandably icky about firing up one of his old talk show episodes, you could do worse than spending ninety minutes watching The Defender and marveling at how a twenty-year-old movie starring Jerry Springer is more thoughtful about US foreign policy than most of what happens in Washington. If nothing else, it’s all worth it to watch the man himself sternly admonish the coup leaders: “You messed with the wrong country, and you fucked with the wrong president.”