Star-Crossed Lovers Done Right: How the First Presidential Debate Saved the Rom-Com

By Samantha Liu:


There was perhaps no event of greater controversy last fall than the first Presidential Debate, yet I might be the first to venture this honest opinion: for a romantic comedy, this film was absolutely brilliant.

Of course, I was just as dubious when I first heard of the leading stars Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I thought both actors, over seventy years old, were outdated, almost to the point of irrelevancy. And yet, it is exactly this antiquity that adds a beautiful vintage lens to the film. Indeed, with both stars' caucasity, wealth, masculinity, and reputations as sexual deviants, viewers will find themselves drowning in nostalgia, whisked back into the iconic fifties. Complete with a propensity for women's domesticity and racial homogeneity, it's hard not to remember this truly better time for our country. And although Joe Biden's debilitating memory loss may seem a bit awkward at first, it's actually a clever nod to fellow politician turned Hollywood starlet Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, which is, of course, one of the greatest rom-coms of our time.

Despite the film’s quietly wistful demeanor, there is also bold, progressive representation vested in these two rich white men. Indeed, both Trump and Biden serve as torch-bearers in the emergent movement of diverse casting and body positivity. Say goodbye to the unrealistic beauty standards set forth by Channing Tatum and Ryan Reynolds—in these 90 minutes, there is not a hint of a six-pack, non-grey hair, or chiseled jawlines.

"I've always felt really insecure about being underrepresented on-screen," said Chad, a self-dubbed "frat bro" at Rutgers University. "For the first time, seeing average white males like Don and Joe on-screen, I realized I don't have to look like Young Leo to be happy."

Moreover, the chemistry between the stars was palpable. Trump has clearly mastered his smoldering gaze, which, combined with a passionate and permanent squint, never left Biden's face. But the show’s hero was his co-star, formerly only serving the role of "chill sidekick who eats ice cream and falls down stairs for comic relief." I was skeptical of how Joseph might handle an emotionally-charged monologue alongside the more mature responsibilities of a lead actor. And yet he blew me away entirely, improvising even beyond the script, to beseech tearfully and cathartically in the climax: "Will you shut up, man?" Their romantic tension was immaculate and will surely shape the enemies-to-lovers trope for the next decade.

As far as plot, I found myself hooked on ninety minutes of slow burn angst and turmoil. In a classic star-crossed lovers conflict, we meet the Democratic and Republican Parties, whose everlasting feud seems determined to match that of Shakespeare's Montague and Capulet families. Allegedly, they are sworn enemies determined never to cooperate (admittedly, it is plot hole that both parties unanimously join forces and attack libertarianism, communism, laborism, rationalism, anarchism, atheism, monarchism, tribalism, terrorism, extremism, Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mexicanism, millennialism, and the like, but audience members can suspend disbelief to forgive this).

Of course, the largest criticism of the film is that "nothing actually happens." They might be right—we never witness an ardent embrace or conclusion, and not a single conflict is resolved by the ending. But these critics fail to realize that that is the point. It's a brilliant, poignant, Epicurean-inspired social commentary: Joe and Donald don't need to solve life's largest problems or lead a social revolution. They simply need to make the most out of their average lives, with witty one-liners and Twitter memes, just like the rest of us. Because, in the twenty-first century, what else can we expect from a politician?

Too long has the rom-com genre been scorned by film critics, snubbed at award shows, and rejected by diehard movie fans. Yet the first Presidential Debate will change that, as its artistry already puts it alongside the likes of Tarantino, Eastwood, Spielberg. C-SPAN has truly outdone itself.