If the Republican National Convention, held in Cleveland last week, was a shabby Shakespeare production—put on by a cast that was past their prime and, frankly, not always super committed to the script—then the Democratic National Convention is a slick, big summer blockbuster.
Come in from the summer heat, the Dems beckoned. Prepare to be wowed by stars being just like you—but better: preternaturally pretty and unrumpled despite the crush of hundreds of other hot and tired convention-goers. Also, they wanted you to know, we are not crazy.
Wednesday's showing brought out longtime superfans of the Democratic Party franchise as well as young, new devotees. On one of the packed subway lines making its way to the theater, one particularly ardent fan filmed a live Facebook stream of the crowd, asking why they were here—"to see the President!"—not unlike the long and highly Instagrammed lines leading up to the premiere of "The Force Awakens."
Former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and presidential candidate (oh, yeah) Martin O'Malley received the loudest applause of the early portion of the extensive program—which came as a surprise to these Baltimore reporters, who are more accustomed to seeing this guy greeted locally by boos. And then, seeing him give his fist-pumping speech, the warm reception made sense: those arms, those puppy eyes, dat boi. He's the Clooney of the night.
Then there was a seemingly endless stream of actual star faces: Sigourney Weaver, Angela Bassett, Star Jones, Lee Daniels, and Lenny Kravitz, who performed a rousing number. Spotted in the audience were Bradley Cooper, Bryan Cranston, Sonja Sohn, and Lance Bass, among others. But one of the most highly concentrated celeb moments was the Broadway star performance of "What the World Needs Now" by the likes of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Audra McDonald, Debra Messing, Rosie Perez, and about a dozen others fighting over a few mics and attempting to out-belt each other.
The climax came with the changing of the guard. Tim Kaine will replace the affable, loveable, scrappy Joe Biden character. We know that Biden is scrappy because the audience is given signs to remind us that he’s from Scranton, and also he uses the word "malarkey."
Kaine used the occasion to flex his other superpower: Spanish. "Somos Americanos todos!" he shouted, to many "oohs" and "ahs." Less impressive than the bilingualism was Kaine's two-word Donald Trump impression—a puffy "believe me!"—which got a few laughs the first few times, but wore thin after the fifteenth time.
Then, there was our wizened hero, President Barack Obama. His time is over. He is ready for retirement, but he has a replacement. This was one of his last, great public appearances and he was ready for it.
He was preceded by a high-drama introductory video, directed by Davis Guggenheim, also responsible for "An Inconvenient Truth." It was one of many big-name directed short films shown throughout the night, and illustrated the how Obama has led us through the last eight years. By the time he finally made his appearance, the crowd, even the journalists, were putty in his hands. "Yes, we can," the audience chanted, reviving the president's campaign catchphrase.
"Tonight, I'm here to tell you that yes, we still have more work to do," he told the crowd. "More work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a decent retirement; for every child who needs a sturdier ladder out of poverty or a world-class education; for everyone who hasn't yet felt the progress of these past seven and a half years. We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer; our homeland more secure, and our world more peaceful and sustainable for the next generation. We're not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed—that all of us are created equal and free in the eyes of God."
Hillary Clinton, who appeared onstage to hug Obama tightly and wave to the roaring crowd, would be the one to keep that work going. Only she, he said, was the hero who knew how to keep this party's progressive ideals moving forward.
Throughout the night, the superhero focus turned to the supervillain, Donald Trump, to great effect. Even the few remaining Bernie-or-Bust protesters were absorbed by the production's treatment of the fearsome Trump character—because he was hardly a character at all. He was too real. Words like "fascist" and "demagogue" came up frequently in reference to Hillary’s nemesis, and none of these were hyperbole. This is no Magneto, Doc Oc, or Lex Luthor, capable of ending the world with his superpowers, advanced technology, or heightened intelligence (definitely not that)—just a lot of money and a lot of people behind him who only grow more loyal as he becomes more extreme.
But more real than the looming shadow of Trump was the presence of survivors of gun violence and the family members of its victims: Charleston massacre survivors Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard; Tuscon shooting survivor former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly; Erica Smegielski, whose mother Dawn was the principal shot and killed defending her students at the Sandy Hook tragedy; and Christine Leinonen, mother to Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, who was killed at the Pulse attack in Orlando along with his boyfriend.
Filmmaker Lee Daniels also spoke of losing his father, a police officer, to gun violence when Daniels was 15. In fact, these speeches weren't really a part of the movie at all. There was no illusion, only a brutal reminder of the lives are at stake and have already been lost due to inaction. These people's appearances may have been engineered by the high-end production company the Democratic National Committee, but, like the Mothers of the Movement who spoke the night before, they transcended both the stage and the screen.