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A Fishy Left-Wing Tale

by Ross Douthat

In the race to win the first Best Picture Oscar of the Trump era, Steven Spielberg enjoyed the kind of unfair advantage that comes with being, well, Steven Spielberg. Just a few months after Trump’s election, he was handed the screenplay that became The Post, a narrative about the court case that allowed the Washington Post to publish some of the Pentagon Papers (the rest having been published by, ahem, my own employer). And because he’s Spielberg, the director wasn’t just able to snap up the screenplay and start production rolling, he was also able to induce Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks to headline as Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, surround them with a great supporting cast, bring in John Williams to supply the score, and turn out a handsome, high-minded movie six months later.

“This wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years,” he told a reporter. “This was a story I felt we needed to tell today.” And so he did, and now he’ll arrive at the Oscars with a seemingly perfect vehicle for any Academy voter looking to use the big award show to speak truth to Trumpian power. A political drama about the press as a bulwark against executive-branch corruption, with Streep’s dynamo female protagonist taking on the Nixon White House — what better way to show the watching millions that liberal Hollywood stands ready to defend the republic once again?

Yet despite strong reviews, The Post is not currently the front-runner for Best Picture. That honor belonged for a little while to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which imagines itself a searing portrait of Trump country, but now it belongs to a stranger movie still: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a gothic “adult fairy tale” about a fish-man held prisoner by the FBI and the mute lady janitor who loves him.

Del Toro’s movie is lovely-to-look-at tripe, but it probably deserves its pole position in the Trump Oscars, since, more than any other contender, it takes the deep sentiments of The Resistance and transmutes them into myth. And it’s especially useful to have it lapping Spielberg’s movie this Oscar season, because in the contrast between them you can see the gulf between two very different kinds of left-liberalism, one that increasingly belongs to the past and one that probably owns the future.

Spielberg’s vision, the older liberal vision, is deeply institutionalist: In the world of The Post, there is nothing wrong with American government that can’t be fixed by high-level American journalism and the Supreme Court and guys who look like Tom Hanks, and there’s nothing wrong with the American power structure that can’t be fixed by letting women like Kay Graham into the boys’ club to shake things up. It’s a movie whose politics are firmly Democratic but whose spirit is meliorist and small-r republican, and it functions as the cinematic equivalent of Mark Lilla’s recent book The Once and Future Liberal, with its critique of identity politics and its nostalgia for a liberalism that imagined itself the custodian of the American experiment rather than just a coalition of the White Man’s victims.

But most younger left-wingers hated Lilla’s argument and book, and The Shape of Water is the movie for them — offering a different sort of solidarity, woke rather than republican, in which identity politics unites rather than fractures because it lets all the lonely and oppressed finally rise against their persecutors.

The main persecutor is an FBI agent played by a glowering Michael Shannon, who acquires the amphibious fish-man (played by Doug Jones in scales and fins and bulging eyes) somewhere in South America and drags him back to a military-industrial facility outside Baltimore, where he intends to vivisect him over the objections of the facility’s scientist, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Since the year is 1962, Shannon’s G-man drives a Cadillac and lives in white-suburban splendor, where he mistreats his wife (mostly with lousy jackhammering lovemaking) and practices some kind of evil white-suburban Christianity. Hoffstetler, meanwhile, turns out to be a Soviet agent — the benevolent kind, but with nasty bosses who won’t help him save the lagoon creature from the G-Man and the military. But the creature finds another savior: Sally Hawkins’s mute cleaning lady, who falls in love with our fish-man through the glass, brings him eggs to snack on, and ultimately breaks him out with the help of Hoffstetler, her gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and her African-American co-worker (Octavia Spencer).

And then, of course, she has hot, scaly sex with him — as one does.

Most of this plays exactly as cartoonishly as it sounds. The Shape of Water bears a superficial resemblance to Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s Spanish-language masterpiece, which also featured a right-wing villain and a political backdrop (the Franco era rather than the Cold War) for its fantasy and magic. But there the fairy tale was separate from the crudely drawn politics: It was a child’s imagined world and therefore a fantastical commentary on the cruelties of the real. Here there’s no such separation, the magic is harnessed for the most unsubtle message possible, and instead of the true fairy tale’s symbolic and allusive approach to sexuality we get lots of nudity and masturbation and comments on the fish-man’s equipment because, you know, it’s for adults.

But if the movie is bad, its mythmaking still has an of-the-moment power. This is what many Americans, younger ones especially, desperately want to hold up as an alternative to Trumpism: not the old civic liberalism of The Post, the boring politics of court rulings and press scrutiny and checks and balances, and not the old economics-rooted class struggle of Hoffstetler’s Communist masters — but a more sacralized politics, a liberalism of transgression and transformation, identity and ecstasy.

So The Shape of Water is both beautiful and laughable, but don’t laugh too hard. The ideas that animate this Oscar season’s favorite will be back in power soon enough.

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