RETROSPECTIVE: The Swimmer in the Age of Trump

‘When you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?’

So runs the poster tagline of Frank Perry’s sunny, psychologically fraught 1960 melodrama. While it’s true the film’s themes do have, if you’ll pardon the pun, a certain currency, they do seem particularly relevant in this; the so-called Age of Trump.

The shadow of the 45th President of the United States, a man whom Spy Magazine once labelled a “short-fingered vulgarian”, looms large over modernity. The allusions are everywhere, or at least inferred, in culture new and old – from The Boss Baby to Julius Caesar. The think-pieces are endless and, on the whole, tenuous.

That being said, allow me to read into this ’60s melodrama, the same self-entitlement and self-delusion that now infects the White House and, by extension, the whole of America.

The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster as Ned Merill, a middle-aged athlete, fit and tanned, who lives in a boozy, affluent suburb in rural Connecticut. Well-liked and seemingly successful, he seems to be all the things that Trump presents himself as being. It’s only once Ned sets out on an impulsive – or perhaps compulsive – odyssey, a gay lark to swim home via his neighbour’s pools (with a bit of potaging in-between), that we get a peek under the perfect façade.

Trump may lack Ned’s physical attributes – a fact that allows for easy, but all-too non-substantive commentary in the press – but, in every other way, the parallels are remarkable.

Ned, too, is selling an image; an image that, for the most part, those around him are quick to buy into. He may have been out of circulation for a couple of years, but there are hugs, and handshakes, and kisses aplenty for this returning friend.

Not everyone is glad to see him, though: some of his neighbours are less than happy about his clear sense of entitlement to make use of their pools, or else respond with simple hostility; as with an elderly woman whose son Ned seems to have betrayed or else let down. Ned always responds with genial confusion. His memory, it seems, is conveniently faulty.

Still, as long as he keeps moving, wandering along those county lanes in naught but his swimming trunks, gliding gracefully across those stretches of water, pausing no longer than to have a cheery, non-committal chat and take a drink, then all is well.

There are whispers, though, and often looks askance, whenever Ned discusses his wife Lucinda, a frequent person of enquiry, or else his two young daughters, whom he claims adore him. However, Ned’s view of himself as the embodiment of American exceptionalism – he says as much to a perfect stranger (one played by Joan Rivers no less) – is slowly eroded by the people he encounters.1

For Ned, it’s his clear physical supremacy, his energy and vitality, that act as a shield between him and reality. After all, surely someone in such great shape must be thriving in the other areas of his life, too?2 Trump’s shield, of course, takes a different form: that of a certain section of the American public who are willing to condone his continued political influence no matter the outcome – or lack thereof.

Ned is a man of charm and magnetism, at least superficially speaking. As his embittered former mistress Shirley (Janice Rule) remarks, everything came easy to him. His former babysitter, twenty-year-old ingénue Julie (Janet Landgard) now confides – all relationships to Ned seem to be held in the past-tense – she once had a crush on him; an attraction to which he was seemingly oblivious.

Ned’s reaction is both angrily possessive and creepily paternalistic – with a Trumpian dose of sexual ambiguity thrown in for good measure. He seems unable to grasp that people exist beyond his limited understanding of them. Then again, Ned’s not exactly the paragon of self-awareness; hale and hearty though he may be.

In this, The Swimmer could well make for an interesting double bill with Citizen Kane. Kane is at least, in some regards authentic; in that he’s an authentic purveyor/inventor of yellow journalism (in much the way that Trump is a circulator/re-enforcer of it.

What Kane in the early 1940s, what Ned Merill in the late 1960s, and what Trump does, some fifty years later, is highlight the breach in what we perceive the American dream and what it truly is.

The dream, American or otherwise, has always been predicated on the notion that if you believe something strongly enough you can make it true. Ned’s ideology in The Swimmer – one which he clings to like a drowning man – is that if you believe something strongly enough it literally is true; no intermediate stage required. This is post-truth; reality defined by desire; the aspirational become delusional.3 No matter how improbable the likelihood of success was before, it at least was tangible, measurable.

Ned never becomes truly hateful, however; if only insofar as, for all the hearts he’s broken and debts he’s run up, his failures are largely personal (as opposed to, say, played out on a national or even global scale).4

Indeed, as time goes on and blue-skied summer seems to give way to hazy shades of winter, Ned grows progressively weaker. Nevertheless, he perseveres in his attempt, as though his returning home by this route might give him a home to which to return.

John Cheever took inspiration for his original short story from the myth of Narcissus, who drowned while staring at his reflection in a pond. Trump’s elaborate comb-over certainly bespeaks a similar level of self-obsession; if not quite, perhaps, the desire outcome.

In any case, The Swimmer doesn’t grant Ned the same fate that befell Narcissus; instead leaving rain-lashed and hammering on the door of his former home, long since shuttered and abandoned; the extent of his delusions now made clear to him.

Beyond the simple matter of political disagreement, in terms of both efficacy and ideology – on the Paris Accords, the Muslim immigration ban, and banning of transgender soldiers from serving – Trump simply doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent of the ill will against him. As, initially, with Ned, he seems confused, or else ready to brush it off as bad press (Ned, presumably, does not have a Twitter account).

Ned’s eventual self-realisation is, in the context of the film, inevitable; a Greek tragedy. Trump’s, whatever the outcome of his Presidency, seems sadly unlikely; a tragedy in the literal, if not literary, sense. Ned dwells in the past, on past loves, past successes, but we know there can be no future based on this. Trump promises a grand future grounded in the past, the promise to Make America Great Again.

Even were its “greatness” not dubious5, even if they could return, they would find that greatness a mausoleum; like Kane’s Xanadu.

A trail of pools is not a river. The pledge to build a wall is not in itself a wall. Words are not actions. Belief is not reality.

If you were to free Trump to watch The Swimmer would he see himself? Probably not. His supporters might find something to learn from it, though: at a certain point, no matter how blue and inviting it seems, you have to get out of the water.

Thanks to the BFI for having me along to this as one of their Big screen classics. You can buy tickets for future screenings of The Swimmer here.6

  1. It’s a lot like running for public office that way.
  2. Lancaster’s hair game is not quite so strong, though the water can at least be partly blamed for that.
  3. When Ned’s former contractors – those whom he has failed to pay – mock his shortcomings to his face, you half expect him to denounce it as fake news.
  4. Ned’s actual politics remain unknown, but, with only a year to go to Nixon, you can probably extrapolate.
  5. If only socially speaking. Rich coming from a Brit, I know. Next up: a piece on the career of Nigel Farage as it relates to Naked Lunch.
  6. Shameless pluggery aside, I highly recommend you do. Even ignoring any possible Trump commentary, it’s a superb work of cinema.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

One thought on “RETROSPECTIVE: The Swimmer in the Age of Trump”

  1. Great piece!

    The Swimmer is a wonderful nightmare and Burt is perfect in it. He was terrific at using his amazing looks and devastating charisma to emphasise something truly malevolent, wasn’t he? JJ in Sweet Smell of Success is appalling because he is so powerful, and powerful in service to absolutely nothing. As Stroud in Birdman he is a compelling and dedicated maverick, but also a truly despicable criminal. And as Elmer Gantry he is pretty much exactly how you would picture the Devil – his monumental charm and charisma there solely to manipulate and deceive… He had a wonderful eye for complicated, challenging roles that only seemed to be heroic…

    Lest we forget: “You’re an asshole, Happer! You love it! Craphound!”

    Thanks for posting this piece…

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