2019 Film Essays

We Are Our Media: ‘Assassination Nation’ and Pop Art Society

Every day, when I wake up, I check my phone — just to turn off the alarm. Then I actually use it, and keep it on the entire day. I keep the phone in my pocket so I can trace how many steps I take. In the past, I’ve obsessed over body image and used my phone as a pedometer; a healthy middle ground. I’ve been doing this for a year and a half.

I take my phone out of my pocket whenever I arrive somewhere — not because I’m interested in sharing my location, but because I want to see where I’ve been, and how many times. I fear forgetting where I’ve been or what I’ve done. I like to plant a digital flag on where I go, and I’ve been doing this for over six and a half years.

I know I can find it something if I forget it, but I also know anyone else can find it, too. I know there are a camera and microphone pointed at me at all times. It’s been like this for me since I got my first smartphone seven years ago, and I have become another piece of media.

But it might have always been this way. Humankind is a social species that vilifies “antisocial” behavior and prides itself in social media. It’s a necessary expression of ourselves that can teeter into the abyss at any moment, and such is the central conceit of Assassination Nation.

“I live for this type of scandal, to be honest,” touts Em (American singer Abra) in Sam Levinson’s satirical thriller. She, Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) have just learned that their mayor’s (Cullen Moss) private texts and photos have leaked. He’s spent his entire career denying queer people their rights but has been outed as a cross-dresser who solicits male escorts and cheats on his wife. After the town freaks out, he kills himself. It’s hilarious to some and perverse to others, and whether or not the anger is justified doesn’t matter. It’s that the anger has been there forever, and it’s finally about to bubble up in a way most people thought would never happen.

The hacker then targets the entire town, just to push an already-scorching society into the inferno. Within the blink of an eye, the cyber history of 17-thousand people is free for the picking. It first exposes people’s true opinions on sexuality and questions some kids’ self-righteous progressivism; a few kids see it as just another extension of their blasé universe. Soon enough, Salem devolves into a grindhouse hell scape, and that hell scape is a physical manifestation of the internet. A modern-day witch-hunt then brews against Lily and company, leading up to a real-life war between Tumblr and 4chan. And the scariest part? This satire feels like it’s right around the corner.

The issue, though, isn’t the loss of privacy, but the indistinguishable line between people and the media they personify themselves with. It’s become so saturated — so pantheistic — that it’s indistinguishable from real people and real morals. Media of the past has led to media of the present, which is just like how humans evolve. It’s just that now the two entities seem interchangeable.

People are social, just like media. So is there any difference between the two? Most of Assassination Nation operates on the type of moral compass associated with the tail end of the millennial generation and Generation Z, and these worldviews are largely encapsulated in the forms of the four main characters. They’re never positioned as “real” people but more as siphons to reject the vitriol of everyone surrounding them, and even though the gymnastics of Levinson’s script strikes a chord in how these people think, each interaction is repackaged to play out like an internet exchange. What matters is that these characters have solid chemistry. Hell, I like to think I have solid chemistry with people I talk to online, but that doesn’t mean we actually know each other.

In Salem, no one really speaks. They post out loud instead. Conversations unfold like chess matches between tweets, status updates, reblogs and texts. Characters dole out references from pop culture to cultural fads, from social media to social justice. All the while, aesthetics reveal an infatuation with older movies — namely the impressionistic lighting and triptych editing of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) — and revamp its more seminal inspirations into the overstimulation you’d find on a Tumblr gif set.

Even the major plot points are rooted in previous media. The editing references early-to-mid 20th century filmmaking, but Assassination Nation’s narrative is reminiscent of mid-to-late 20th century media. The main hacking incident brings to mind Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Courbeau (1943), only to reorient its focus away from the mystery of the hacker’s identity in lieu of its consequences. The focus isn’t on the whodunit but on the explosion of emotions that follow.

This shows itself early on with Mayor Bartlett’s suicide during a live newscast, in a manner clearly allusive to Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) —  of which is eerily similar to the real-life suicide of news anchor Christine Chubbuck in 1974. Antonio Campos dramatized Chubbuck’s death in the 2016 film Christine, and this yin-yang between media and humankind proves to be self-powering in Assassination Nation.

The oversaturation of pop culture is also ingrained into Assassination Nation’s hyper-stylized dialogue, which brings to mind the gleeful obnoxiousness of films like Heathers (1988) and Jennifer’s Body (2009). Assassination Nation even reaches points where its dialogue is purposefully distant from its own characters — again, that’s because it sees them as social media avatars. (Later in the film, one line even references Iain Softley’s Hackers (1995), which these characters may have not even seen or heard of.)

It all swirls together in a cauldron until it feels like a pointedly overstuffed graveyard for pop culture and social media. It’s the internet as a movie, and its climax between Gen-Z feminists and toxic fuckboys brings a whole new meaning to the term “flame war.” We aren’t just living alongside media; we are the media, and it’s just a matter of time before our today is eradicated in favor of its tomorrow. 

However, it’s not just media personified. It’s 2018 as well. And since the past year seems synonymous with the internet, it adds to the gravity of the film. I’ve seen people call Assassination Nation far-fetched, and I’ve seen the last 35 minutes be called a “ludicrous turn into Purgeville,” but I have to respectfully disagree. The reason Assassination Nation had such an effect on me is because modern day culture isn’t just politics, or social anxiety, or even social unrest. It’s all of them at once, and then even more on top of that. Logic doesn’t apply, and the film, just like life itself, is an emotional explosion that precludes rational thinking. Part of me expects something as grandiose as Assassination Nation to happen in real life, and that’s what’s especially terrifying.

The denial of evil — or the cognitive dissonance that our most righteous members of society feel after it rears its head — is synonymous with history, but Levinson’s film obviously has mid-to-late 2010s America on its brain. Remember two years ago when the establishment thought that Donald Trump was too stupid to ever get elected? Remember when Saturday Night Live had him on as a host, further normalizing him as a harmless buffoon who was nothing more than another online joke? Remember when people thought Trump wouldn’t get into the White House, and then he did?

Just think about it: our President is far more of a semi-sentient shitpost than an actual leader. All sorts of social anxieties, including but not limited to those involving sexual misconduct and glorified violence, are dismissed as ludicrous until they actually happen to the majority in power. And the majority feels like a comments section that’s come to life and is trying to murder everyone who’s not straight, or white, or cisgender, or a man. We’re drowning in a time when satire writes itself. And you know what? Maybe Assassination Nation isn’t a satire. Maybe it’s reality.

But just because it’s reality doesn’t mean we can’t fight it.

By the end of Levinson’s film, viewers have seen murders, attempted rapes, slut-shaming, an attempted transphobic lynching, Bush-era waterboarding as the natural next step in high school bullying, hyper-stylized gun violence and even more depravity. When Lily, Bex, Em and Sarah finally survive the night, the film segues into a call-to-action the former has recorded and uploaded. “This is your world. You built this. Don’t take your hate out on me; I just got here.”

She continues: “Your world’s broken? Your rules are too strict? Then tear it the fuck down.”

Her final words aren’t conveyed in person or through someone else. They’re conveyed through media, which all of us are in the process of becoming. After all is said, done and survived, we really are the media we create: the sum of others’ creations; the sum of past films; the sum of our posts; what we’ve made as a collective.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Assassination Nation belongs in the pantheon of Napoleon, Le Courbeau and Network, and I’m not going to pretend that it’s perfect. But something so gloriously messy that manages to be both of its time and so situated within the ever-evolving pop culture continuum is something to be cherished.

The movie knows this too. After the dust has settled and the credits begin to roll, a seemingly unrelated scene plays over the curtain call: a lone cheerleader, wearing a Purge-like mask and decked out in otherworldly Americana, dances freely through the ruins of her country. Suburban houses line her path. Cars, totaled and billowing smoke, trace back to the sunrise. All the while, the Salem High marching band follows the cheerleader and plays Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.”

Everything is a disaster right now, but it’ll be okay someday.

Matt Cipolla (@cipollamatt) is a film critic and essayist for hire who has worked with the FilmMonthly.com, WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Crooked Marquee and more. He has also co-recorded a historical commentary track for Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, due to be released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in 2019.