For a long time, nobody thought of Robert De Niro as an American thinker, great or otherwise. For over a quarter century, however, he was unquestionably a great American artist – a remarkably versatile and extraordinarily compelling actor who created immortal characters in such films as The Godfather, Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino. He was nominated for several Oscars, and won two. In short, a cinematic treasure.
In recent years, however, De Niro has become what some uncharitable observers might describe as a sellout. You might have gotten a few laughs out of Analyze This and Analyze That, but nobody will ever confuse them with The Godfather, Part I and II. You can say one thing about those two comedies – they look like Preston Sturges masterpieces alongside Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers. And the movies have just gotten worse and worse: The Intern, Dirty Grandpa, and The Comedian gave new meaning to the word lightweight. He’s obviously decided to stop going with the best scripts and instead grab at the biggest paychecks.
Of course, he’s entirely within his rights. What’s interesting to us is that while De Niro the artist has shriveled, another creature has risen up from the murk: De Niro the political commentator. In 2012, he spoke at an exclusive Obama campaign event in New York – attended by such left-wing showbiz luminaries as Harvey Weinstein and Whoopi Goldberg – at which he put race at the heart of the matter. “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney,” he said. “Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?” It was obviously meant as a joke, but what’s the joke?
But that was nothing. In October 2016, a month or so before the presidential election, he made headlines by releasing a video in which he urged the electorate not to vote for Donald Trump. “He’s so blatantly stupid,” De Niro said, appearing to channel one of his gangster characters. “He’s a punk. He’s a dog. He’s a pig. He’s a con.” It went on – and got nastier from there. “He’s a national disaster. He’s an embarrassment to this country.” De Niro concluded by saying he’d like to punch Trump in the face.
The video was notable for its utter lack of anything resembling a serious argument. It didn’t so much as touch on a single real issue. It was pure name-calling. Days later, while in Dubai to promote investment in Antigua and Barbuda, where he was involved in a resort development (could it be that he and Trump have more in common than he realizes?), De Niro told an interviewer that Trump “does not have a clue about what goes on in the rest of the world.”
He was still at it this past January, when, standing at the lectern at the National Board of Review awards ceremony, he delivered what one news source accurately called “an expletive-filled rant” about Trump. “This f***ing idiot is the President,” De Niro said, and went on to call Trump a “f***ing fool” and “the jerkoff-in-chief.” Once again, he had nothing of substance to say about Trump. Once again, it was just name-calling – which he (quite mistakenly) appeared to consider amusing.
The other day, De Niro was back in Dubai, this time to attend the World Government Summit. He was there “to help combat climate change.” In a speech at the summit, he unfavorably compared the U.S., which he called “a backward country,” to the United Arab Emirates, which he described as “an example to the rest of the world.” Under Trump, he charged, Americans were suffering from “temporary insanity.”
Reading his remarks, one wondered who, exactly, was insane; who, exactly, was an embarrassment to his country; who, exactly, was clueless “about what goes on” in the world. There he was, praising as a role model a country that’s governed under sharia law – a country that denies its citizens many basic human rights, that carries out floggings and stonings, that restricts freedom of speech and of the press, that punishes apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality with death, that permits men to beat their wives, and that treats not rapists but rape victims as criminals.
Two pieces of advice for Robert De Niro. Go back to making good movies. And stick to the words in the script.