McConaughey falls into another category – a sort of chill-a-lister with a record of Austin civic engagement and a self-parody nonchalance that is regularly used in Lincoln commercials. His party affiliation is unknown, although attitudes towards police reform and gun control suggest that he is a moderate liberal. He has described himself in public as “aggressively centered”. As a politician, he’s an empty book in many ways – but his selection of films gives him a wide range of possible roles to play out of.
And while his dreamy space cowboy on “Interstellar” may be his most overtly heroic role, the rest of McConaughey’s catalog is far more interesting. Here is a political reading of some of his leading roles – and a snapshot of what they could do for him as a candidate.
Movie: Dazed and Confused (1993)
Character: David Wooderson
In Richard Linklater’s classic 1970s teenage film, McConaughey steals scenes as a high school graduate coming back on the last day of school to hang out with the Stoner kids. His situation is objectively embarrassing, but Wooderson doesn’t care or may not know – he exudes confidence and a sense of pride in stasis, and wears a lock of blonde hair and a peach-colored mustache as a badge of arrested development. Everything about him is laconic: his sentences don’t end so much that they drift into nothing. They are reproduced in a typical McConaughey growl. Wooderson is the ultimate anti-achiever – and while that stance gives him a laid back reputation, his disregard for the adult rules occasionally makes creepy territory or worse. “Do you know what I love about these high school girls?” he asks in a brand line. “I am getting older; You stay the same age. ”
But, as recent political history has shown us, this attitude, even if it gets shoddy or potentially criminal, has broad appeal. In a world where anti-politicians are often just as rewarded as aspirants, Wooderson might advocate ignoring norms and raising a middle finger to the establishment: forget your rules, I’ll do what I want, and maybe some interesting guidelines will change. There are a lot of people in America who want something like this – and if he can do it without the many moral and legal imperfections, he may be unbeatable.
Political model: Donald Trump
Disadvantage: Women march against men like this.
Placeholder: What if a candidate finally cast the stoner vote?
Movie: A Time To Kill (1996)
Character: Jake Brigance
When McConaughey first rose to fame for playing the ultimate nihilist, his breakout role was a man consumed with high-minded intentions. In the film version of the John Grisham novel /Kill a mockingbird McConaughey plays Jake Brigance, a young, idealistic lawyer from Mississippi who defends a black man (played by Samuel L. Jackson) for a brutal but morally justified crime. Brigance sees himself as the good guy – he wears billowing white shirts as proof and refuses to have an affair with Sandra Bullock – but he is unaware of the dangers he has created for his loved ones from attacks by the Ku Klux Klan to be terrorized.
Finally, Jackson pushes him from his heroically complex pedestal with a speech “You are not my friend” and calls him to white privileges and performative heroic deeds, decades before these ideas would consume public discussion. Brigance takes criticism, applies it to his final argument, and (spoiler alert) frees Jackson. He is a role model for the politician who is driven by principle, but can be blinded by determination. Even well-intentioned guidelines can lead to collateral damage and unintended consequences current humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border.
Political models: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Tom Cotton
Disadvantage: Communities don’t always want rich whites to save them.
Placeholder: Is it attracting a broad coalition or is it polarizing the electorate?
Movie: Failure to Start (2006)
McConaughey plays Tripp, a handsome, charismatic, employed 35-year-old who inexplicably still lives with his parents. Tripp is happy with his lot, which gives him a number of women and plenty of free time to play paintball with his husband-child friends. But his parents are eager to get him out of the house already. So they hire a professional counselor (Sarah Jessica Parker) to fake romantic interests and drive him into independence. When the two inevitably fall in love, Parker learns the deep, personable reason he cannot commit.
Politically, Tripp is a natural that you can win over immediately. Even a dolphin he meets on a surfing trip swims by as soon as he waves. He’s also a skilled speaker, a fancy boat seller who can wriggle out of any jam. Most politicians would kill for their ability to sell an idea with a winning smile and a barrage of words. But does it have an inner core or just an abundance of outer charm?
Political models: Madison Cawthorn, Sarah Palin and Bill Clinton
Disadvantage: The charm of one voter is the charm of another.
Placeholder: In politics, at some point you have to choose which side you want.
Movie: Lincoln’s Lawyer (2011)
Character: Mick Haller
Imagine Jake Brigance from A time to kill spent the next 15 years as a criminal defense attorney, getting exhausted and decided to put the system to work instead. Mick Haller revels in knowing dark, shady truths about the legal world: the lies that need to be told, the corners that need to be cut, the business deals that need to be done to get things done. His only real concern is to get one indeed innocent customer, the stake has been real since then. But when he saddles with a manipulative client who frames an innocent man, Mick discovers to his own surprise that he does have a backbone.
Mick is the type who can easily work in the halls of a state capital, do business and smear compromises and focus on what is possible. There’s a place in politics for idealists, but there’s also a way for realists who can use a combination of skills, dexterity, and unsentimental playfulness to get things done. Either way, we got Obamacare, the Trump-era tax plan, and various stimulus packages.
Political models: Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer
Disadvantage: This personality screams Washington Insider – not exactly a winning campaign slogan.
Placeholder: Everyone, right or left, hates the system.
Movie: Magic Mike (2012)
As the owner and host of an inexpensive male strip club in Tampa, McConaughey is fearless in this film – usually shirtless, occasionally without pants, panting and pounding and drumming to get an audience to his dancer revue. (McConaughey came up with the drum scene himself, jokingly about a real-life incident: In 1999, Austin police received a noise complaint and found the actor playing the bongos alone, wearing a bong by his side, a University of Texas headscarf, and nothing else.)
With its easy-going plays on stage and anti-establishment conversation, Dallas appears laid-back. But behind the scenes he’s a ruthless and unsentimental businessman. He talks like his dancers are family, but ultimately they’re just props to accomplish his goal: make it to Miami and the major Florida stripper leagues. As a politician, Dallas would be a man with a vision but a self-glorifying one – an exhibitionist who craves the spotlight but who ultimately stays true to no one but himself. Politicians in this style often hit the big time, but they’re also prone to big, messy falls. See New York Governor Andrew Cuomo currently facing widespread calls to resign after his media tour of the pandemic leadership gave way to allegations that he created a work environment characterized by harassment, bullying and abuse of employees.
Political model: Andrew Cuomo, Ted Cruz
Disadvantage: The downfall gets a lot of attention. And the memes can be brutal.
Placeholder: Showmanship works in a campaign that is broadcast.
Movie: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Character: Ron Woodroof
McConaughey won an Oscar for playing the real Texan Ron Woodroof, who became an unlikely hero during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. If he is diagnosed with an illness that was at the time a death sentence, Woodroof, a straight man attracted to rodeos and women, begins refusing. But the brutal truth gives him a drive and creativity that drives him from Wooderson-esque lazy man to accomplished operator. Within a few months he found a way to play the system for his own benefit and the greater good: he smuggles life-saving drugs into the US, sometimes disguised as a doctor or priest, and sells them outside the confines of the medical establishment and clinical slow-motion study. On the way he breaks down deep prejudices: As soon as gays and transsexuals become his business partners and customers, he sees their common humanity.
Woodroof’s call to service calls forth individuals like Lucy McBath, Cori Bush and John McCain who entered politics after personal trauma. And it suggests a way that should appeal to the Texas Democrats to combine the values of the red state and the party’s more progressive sensibilities. Hot button issues like gun laws, immigration, and health care could use someone with Woodroof’s relentless demeanor – and his ability to do business with the other side in a way that paves the way for actual progress.
Political models: John McCain, Lucy McBath
Disadvantage: A “third way” is theoretically easier than in practice.
Placeholder: How Big is the Democratic Tent in Texas?
Movie: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Character: Mark Hanna
As a real-life broker and salesman named Mark Hanna, McConaughey represents the Wall Street ethos of the 1980s with a shock of puffy hair and a lanky, manic energy. He initiates Leonardo DiCaprio’s young, eager protégé over a fancy restaurant lunch, snorting cocaine at the table, ordering several martinis, and setting up a vision for making money based on cocaine and lies. The scene is sung by a caveman singing this was not part McConaughey used it as a real ritual to prepare for filming, and DiCaprio suggested adding it to the film.
It adds up to a character who is impulse driven, unsentimental, and prone to brutal honesty, which even in its corruption possesses an odd integrity; He could blow the rules and kid the little guy, but he’s not exactly hiding his motivations. Real life Hanna spent five years in prison for conspiracy, stock fraud and money laundering – his personal website Remarks that “he served semi-peacefully and for the most part without problems” – and is now making a name for himself as a New Age motivational speaker. The film version, venal as it is, is still intoxicating to look at and even has a strange charm: there won’t be any false piety, triangulation or hypocrisy with this guy. You get what you get.
Political models: Chris Collins, Tom DeLay
Top: Could talk potential donors out of a fortune.
Placeholder: Everyone loves a redemption story.
TV Show: True Detective (2014)
Character: Rust Cohle
In HBO’s dark, aggressively gritty, deeply masculine TV crime fantasy, McConaughey alternates between a sleek, no-frills detective of the ’90s and his future self, a grizzled alcoholic with an unsightly mullet and scruffy mustache. Rust is a prolific speaker who tends to philosophize (a typical line: “We are things that work under the illusion of having a self”). He drives his partner insane with his excessive thoughts, destructively pushes his boundaries, but eventually becomes the key to solving the case. During a drive through the Louisiana woods, Rust even explains what might be a political philosophy under other circumstances: “I consider myself a realist, okay, but philosophically I’m a so-called pessimist. ”(When asked what that means, he replies,“ I am bad at parties. ”) The public is not always open to high-minded lectures or open intellectuals, but the electorate is known to want a smart, skilled speaker gather who sees the world for what it is and occasionally gets something very right.
Political models: Pete Buttigieg, Ben Sasse
Disadvantage: The smartest man in the room is sometimes the least likable.
Placeholder: Have deep thoughts sold a lot of Lincoln’s. Could they also sell laws?
Movie: Sing (2016)
Character: Buster Moon
If you’re looking to apply a grand vision to politics – without too much regard for practicality – there are few better models than Buster Moon, an animated koala voiced by McConaughey. Buster grew up dreaming of becoming a theater mogul, and if his dilapidated theater encounters financial hardship, he isn’t alarmed. He’s just inventing another program to make money by running a talent contest. Then when a flyer-printed snafu gets him to promise more prize money than he can afford, he grows taller in hopes of avoiding the need to tear it down.
Buster is slippery, yes, but he is also always optimistic and appealingly sincere – like a politician who sees the big picture with all its challenges and is not deterred by annoying details. When it comes down to it, he can assemble an unlikely coalition (a pig, a mouse, an elephant and a gorilla) and sell his vision to those who have the means to make it happen, like an elderly sheep who was once an opera diva. With the right showcase, he could change some opinions. And his true believers will always be with him.
Political models: Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang
Disadvantage: Texas needs more than a big idea.
Placeholder: In 2021, moon shots are all the rage.