My Excruciatingly Painful Movie Date With Francis Fukuyama

Feature: Life Among the Thought Leaders

Francis Fukuyama
Francis Fukuyama / AP

I learned recently that Francis Fukuyama’s favorite film is Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 adaptation of a P.D. James novel about a future in which no children have been born in two decades. In partnership with the New America Foundation, Slate, and Arizona State University, Fukuyama hosted a screening of the movie on Monday night at the Landmark Cinema on E Street in Washington, D.C. I went.

Fukuyama has hosted similar events in the past as part of a project called "Future Tense." According to its website, this self-described "citizen’s guide to the future" exists to "explore how emerging technologies will change the way we live," which is Washington pidgin for "publish blog posts and host talks." One of its many initiatives is a film series "featuring thought leaders hosting their favorite movies."

Like the rest of us, senior fellows at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law have a hard time picking just one favorite flick. Two of Fukuyama’s other selections have also been post-apocalyptic action films, District 9 and The Road Warrior. Whether these choices are a self-aware joke at the expense of his much-maligned Kojèvean thesis about the inevitability of liberal democratic capitalism, or merely an innocent expression of preference, is difficult to say. What I can tell you is that watching Cuarón’s beautiful and exhilarating meditation on the creation of humanity in the image of God with a packed theater full of D.C. 20 and 30-somethings is just about the worst way to spend an evening.

One of the great secrets of the D.C. metropolitan area, now the wealthiest in the country, is that the people who live here are cheap. We will do just about anything for entertainment, so long as it is free and requires advance registration. If there had been a reception afterward with room temperature summer rolls and supermarket-brand Chardonnay, the goodies would have been consumed indiscriminately and immediately. There were none to be had, though the concession stand was open. I didn’t spot a single bag of popcorn or box of Jujyfruits in the audience. Nor did anyone take advantage of the theater’s full cash bar.

Children of Men is one of the best films of last decade. It is a masterpiece of production design, with one of the most vividly realized worlds ever shown on screen. Upon its release it was praised for its supposed topicality—remember when every film involving faintly sinister politicians was about the Bush administration?—and interpreted mostly through a political lens, not very fruitfully in my opinion. No director would go to the lengths Cuarón does just to say, "Fascist dictatorships are bad, mmkay?"

I have always insisted on viewing it as a film about nature, both human and divine: how man responds to the seeming paucity of His favor, and how he reveals Himself in little moments when joy or sacrifice or awe draw us irresistibly toward the mystery of being and its origin. I have also come to see Children of Men as a reflection on the shortcomings of the aesthetic and the ethical modes of life as opposed to the religious. (Think of the haunting car ride to the "Ark of the Arts," where Theo’s cousin indiscriminately hordes Michelangelos and fine wines, set to King Crimson, or the leftist Jasper who, with heartbreaking irony, administers a suicide pill to his disabled wife even as he finds himself prepared to die to ensure the safe delivery of Kee’s baby.) The movie is full of indelible images and winsome touches. (How many times do we see a dog being nice to Theo, a symbol of his good nature?) During this most recent screening, though, I found myself wondering whether I’d missed something huge in all those repeat viewings, namely, that I was watching a comedy.

Do you remember those kids in high school who used to brag that they laughed while watching horror films? The impulse is almost scarier than the movies themselves. Cracking up at The Exorcist is possible only if you agree that jokes are indeed epitaphs on the death of feelings and you don’t mind committing emotional suicide in order to feel aloof and edgy. This is what I thought of when the audience snickered at the moment Kee unbuttons her robe and reveals that she is mysteriously, probably miraculously, pregnant. It was what I thought of when the audience went on tittering and gigging and hooting at dozens of other inappropriate points in the film. The shot of her swollen belly is one of the most beautiful in all of cinema. To laugh at it is like walking into a museum and pointing out the genitalia in Renaissance paintings, or belching along to Wagner at the Met.

The first time I heard unexpected laughter I thought it was a fluke. There are a handful of grimly amusing moments, but no real belly-laugh material in this dystopian drama about the consequences of worldwide infertility. Eventually I found myself wondering whether these people were watching a different film. The only other possibility was that they were sociopaths who had never been to the movies before.

What was I failing to pick up on? Was the acting bad or the dialogue cheesy? There are exactly zero contextual clues to suggest that the director wants us to find anything funny about a man dumping whisky on a woman’s private parts while she is giving birth because no other sterilizing agent is available, or a Romanian immigrant smashing a corrupt cop in the face with a mallet because he might be about to destroy what she regards as a miracle, or an old Orthodox Christian woman playing with the world’s only baby in a bedroom surrounded by icons, or a heroically decent man bleeding to death in a boat.

The lights came on when the credits were about halfway over. A bespectacled man in an understated suit popped up from somewhere in the front.

"Hi, I’m Frank Fukuyama," he said.

He invited us to imagine ourselves in the same situation as the film’s characters.

"What would you do?" he said. "You wouldn’t have to worry about global warming or states like California with unfunded pension liabilities."

It was probably silly of me to think I was not the only person in the audience who has worried about both of these things exactly zero times.

The rest of the evening was given over to discussion. Our salon brought back memories of the film courses I took in college. Some people argued that if the scenario in the film happened in real life the world would be more violent. Some said the opposite was the case. Others complained that the film was misogynistic. Others said it was not. Some called the film "sad." Some insisted it was "hopeful." A gentleman in the back row confusingly referred to Children of Men as "propaganda," on behalf of what government or cause I could not say. No one mentioned religion except Fukuyama.

"Does anyone know where the phrase ‘children of men’ comes from?" he asked.

Not a single hand went up.

Fukuyama smiled weakly and pulled out his phone.

"Let me get my Bible app here."

He explained that it was a quotation from Psalm 90 in the Authorized Edition. "Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men."

Then he asked whether anyone knew what biblical figures Theo and Kee were supposed to remind us of. A few indistinct murmurs arose from the front. None of them sounded like "St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary."

A few moments later a New America Foundation apparatchik walked to the front.

"Unfortunately, they are showing another movie in here tonight, so that’s why there is a hard cut-off. Thank you."

Everyone rose at once. Hands pawed away at smartphones. I could hear more titters as we walked out of the theater and up the escalator together into the darkness, back into the end of History.