The Lousy Politics Behind ‘Speechless’
The 1994 romantic comedy exhibits many of the same problems as the current debate over unity in the post-Trump era.
In the days leading up to President Biden’s inauguration, he and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were confronted with the question of how they would unite the country following a contentious presidential election in which his rival, former President Donald Trump, refused to acknowledge his victory. Throughout Trump’s only term in office, liberals were similarly tasked with figuring out ways to get along with Trump supporters in their family, at work, or even in their dating lives. The onus of finding common ground frequently fell on the left, even as Republicans repeatedly refused to recognize Democrats as a legitimate governing partner in American democracy.
The media’s obsession with unity following the last two elections seems like a reasonable response to the hyper-polarized climate in which U.S. elections are held. But in 1994, two years after the conservative “blue dog” Democratic revolution brought President Bill Clinton into the White House, the romantic comedy Speechless explored love between two political opposites. For some, the idea of making love work between people from different political parties is imbued with the same multiculturalist optimism as interracial dating. As former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss lamented last year on Twitter, successful romantic relationships between political opposites “were once celebrated” before people began treating politics as a religion, noting the long-time marriage between Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Mary Matalin as an example.
But the problems with Speechless on screen reflect what is so wrong with fetishizing love between political opposites in real life. For one, it’s not entirely clear what political differences exist between the couple and how much their unshared beliefs matter to either one of them. Instead of navigating the difficulties of dating between actual political opposites, Speechless plays out like a tug-of-war between Knopian idealism and lazy cynicism about the political system. And eventually, cynicism wins out. If there is any lesson for the present from Speechless, it is not that love between political opposites is possible, but that men, in love as in politics, seldom live up to women’s hopes and dreams and women are better off grabbing happiness wherever they can find it.
There are reasons to be optimistic about Speechless at first — unlike some politically themed films and TV shows from the 1990s, Speechless does not invent fake political parties or issue positions that do not mirror real life differences between Democrats and Republicans. But for the protagonists, working for two opposing political parties is pretty much where their political differences end. Julia (Geena Davis) is a speechwriter for a Democratic Senate candidate in New Mexico. Overwhelmed by the pressures of her job and the sexism of the mostly male campaign staff, Julia remains highly idealistic about the work she does on behalf of the Lloyd Wannamaker (Mitchell Ryan) campaign. Kevin (Michael Keaton) on the other hand only becomes involved in the race on behalf of Wannamaker’s opponent, Republican businessman Ray Garvin (Ray Baker), as a favor to his ex-wife. His cynicism toward politics is established in the first scene when he checks into a hotel hosting both Senate campaigns and he can’t remember which campaign he is working for.
Kevin first meets Julia at the hotel gift shop while looking for something to cure his insomnia, then again at a diner near the hotel. Perhaps to impress Julia — or perhaps in a revealing act of internalized shame — he introduces himself as a sitcom writer rather than a speechwriter for the Garvin campaign. While they are chatting, Julia overhears a local news report on the Mexico ditch, which she describes as a “barbaric” anti-illegal immigration scheme supported by the “simpleton” Ray Garvin. Kevin defends Garvin by saying he’s better than the “tax and spend” liberal Lloyd Wannamaker, and Julia becomes incensed. But realizing how much she likes Kevin, she stops herself short of responding to his attack on Wannamaker and instead suggests they avoid talking about politics altogether.
To keep the peace between them, Julia even disguises her work with Wannamaker by telling Kevin she’s a reporter covering the campaign. But their true identities are soon revealed when both campaigns decide to send their speechwriters to participate in a career fair at a local middle school and they are formally introduced by a teacher. Feeling betrayed by each other’s dishonesty, Julia and Kevin get into a shouting match at the event and are forced to leave early. But again, they aren’t angry over any political differences they have discovered about each other. They are upset because the nature of their jobs means they can’t trust each other’s intentions.
The superficial nature of Julia and Kevin’s political differences shows up in their campaign work as well. The election issue that receives the most attention in the film is the miles-long ditch at the U.S.-Mexico border preventing undocumented immigrants from crossing over into New Mexico. The morning after her first date with Kevin, Julia goes to her boss with an idea of how Wannamaker can set himself apart from Garvin: he can attack the Mexico ditch both as bad immigration policy and as a moral blight on a country that celebrated the crumbling of the Berlin wall just five years earlier.
Unaware of Julia’s plans, Kevin ends up crafting a similar speech for Garvin in support of the Mexico ditch, rebranding it as the “friendship ditch” that keeps U.S. and Mexico on good terms by keeping out undocumented immigrants. In a disappointing turn for the Wannamaker campaign, the local news channels run with Kevin’s new phrase, the friendship ditch, in every broadcast. Staff inside the Wannamaker campaign are at a loss as to how Garvin got the scoop on their plans to give a speech on the friendship ditch that same day, completely unaware that Julia had mentioned the ditch to Kevin the night before on their first date.
The friendship ditch serves as a plot device to create conflict between Julia and Kevin, but the conflict doesn’t come down to their campaigns’ opposing views on the ditch, just their jobs as speechwriters competing for sound bites on the 6 o’clock news. In other words, who is right and who is wrong about the ditch is never resolved by the characters themselves. The humanity of undocumented immigrants is left up to viewers to decide on their own time.
In one final act that proves Julia and Kevin’s political differences aren’t that meaningful to warrant an entire film, Julia saves Kevin’s job by writing a major campaign speech for him that he is too hung over to finish after the first time they have sex. But by the time Kevin comes to, Julia has left the apartment and Kevin assumes his ex-wife stopped by and finished the speech for him. When Ray Garvin’s shady financial records are leaked to the press, however, Kevin assumes Julia stole the records from his apartment the night before and decides to break up with her.
Garvin’s campaign is unsalvageable by Election Day, and the film ends at a watch party for the Wannamaker campaign. Kevin shows up to try to win Julia back, now realizing she had nothing to do with the Garvin leak and in fact had tried to help Garvin’s campaign out of love for him. But clearly Wannamaker’s victory over his Republican opponent does not align with the film’s consistent downplaying of actual political divisions, so Wannamaker is soon outed as corrupt. In an epilogue news broadcast, viewers learn that Julia is running for office back home in Rhode Island with Kevin as her campaign manager.
Does Kevin become Julia’s campaign manager because she’s his girlfriend or because he now believes in the same things Democrats like Julia believe in? This ought to matter in a relationship between people who intend to date and work toward a common political goal—like winning an election.
But nothing really matters for Julia and Kevin because nothing has to matter for their relationship to work out. They are both young, White, and educated with lots of connections in the media and political worlds. That Wannamaker’s win might produce better policy outcomes for undocumented immigrants than if Garvin had won is irrelevant to the couple, who decide both candidates are equally corrupt and would have equally disastrous first terms in Congress.
Any good rom-com of this era offers viewers a happily-ever-after ending, and Speechless, as a paean to the idea that love conquers all, is no different in this regard. But like so much of the current discourse around unity, Speechless treats political beliefs as nothing more than a series of issue positions arrived at by purely rational means — never by bad faith or bigotry. Or anything that speaks to a person’s character.
As a society the question should not be whether political opposites can have meaningful relationships, but rather what is being sacrificed to make those relationships work, and who is doing the sacrificing. It’s almost always the women.