At Large

David Cameron’s Avatar Problem

Did the Tory shoo-in peak too early?

By 3.10.10

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Toby Young has a great piece about the imminent British elections in the Daily Telegraph blogs titled: "Does Cameron have what it takes to be a leading man? The Hollywood take on the general election campaign." In it he handicaps the election based on the cinematic prospects of the two rival "narratives" of it, one with the incumbent Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as the hero and one with his principal challenger, David Cameron, in that role. Mr. Young sees their contest as a sports movie of the sub-genre -- actually, nearly all sports movies fall into it -- of the David-and-Goliath story.

What's interesting is that, not quite three years ago, when Mr. Brown succeeded Tony Blair as premier, Mr. Cameron was a natural for the part of his namesake. Too natural. As a result, the story told itself and everyone began to see him in advance of the actual election as a giant-killer. He and his Conservative party became the overwhelming favorites to win the election -- which, paradoxically, turned them into the giants. And now, counted out by everyone, Gordon Brown has suddenly turned into the brave little David standing up to those nasty and seemingly invincible Tories and -- who knows? -- perhaps humbling them in the end. After all, it can't be entirely coincidental that the Conservatives' massive lead in the polls of a few months ago has now all but evaporated:

The difficulty for the Tories [writes Mr. Young] is that this narrative is a much better fit with Brown and Cameron's respective back stories. As a son of the Manse, Brown makes a more convincing outsider than the Eton-and-Oxford educated Cameron. Even though Labour have won three successive terms and Brown is an unelected Prime Minister, the Tories' poll lead has enabled him and his strategists to position him as the anti-Establishment maverick up against the heir apparent.…

There's another reason why Brown finds it easier to be cast in the underdog role and that's his "troubled" character. In a typical sports movie, the challenger has a "wound" -- a tragic flaw, if you will -- that he must overcome in order to prevail in the final reel. Andrew Rawnsley's recent revelations, which paint Brown as a tortured soul, constantly at war with his own demons, may well have helped consolidate his outsider status. Cameron's character, by contrast, makes him ill-fitted to play the part of the anti-Establishment hero. I don't mean his privileged background, but the fact that he seems like such a stable, well- rounded figure. He has no obvious flaws, no internal battles he needs to win, and that makes him much more suited to play the Goliath figure in this unfolding drama.

I don't know if Toby Young wrote this with tongue in cheek but, whether intended or not, he makes a serious point. Events are often shaped by the way the media tells the story. The same thing could be said about the Oscar results, as he himself notes: "The lesson of the 82nd Academy Awards may well be that, these days, being the clear favourite is a turn-off. It hurt James Cameron's chances of winning and it could just as easily hurt David's." Another way to look at it, however, is that James Cameron's Avatar peaked too early. If the voting had taken place two weeks earlier, as it did last year, it probably would have won. But the extra time, together with the Academy's and the media's desire to be "historic" (as with Barack Obama) in awarding Best Director to a woman, Katherine Bigelow, for the first time ever, allowed the members to grow tired of assuming that Avatar was going to win and so start thinking in David-and-Goliath terms about The Hurt Locker.

This little drama also had an intriguing subplot in the fact that Mr. Cameron and Ms. Bigelow were ex-spouses. A discarded wife falls as naturally into the David role as the "wounded" or "troubled" Mr. Brown, perhaps. But then it is also true that The Hurt Locker, for all its flaws, was undoubtedly the best of those movies that had been nominated as Best Picture. Somehow, I find it hard to get it into my head that the winner, whether in politics or in the politics of the Oscar competition, could actually have deserved to win and didn't carry away the prize just because he (or she) had the more compelling "narrative."

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.