The King’s Gambit
Actors have been politicians many times over; Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of the few to do his own stunts.
Feb 28, 2022
It is astonishing on every level: In a matter of days, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has gone from political character actor to worldwide heroic leader, with all the Internet pomp such a trajectory must entail: memes, clips, hearts, hashtags, retweets, remixes, and online bravado of every kind. Ukrainian flags rampant, sunflowers everywhere, an insurgency rising, a dictator reeling.
All this, because one man, a former television star, comedian, and yes – reality-show contestant – actually stood up to the world’s most dangerous man in real life, in real time, in solidarity with real people. After weeks of saber-rattling, preening and posturing, the Kremlin criminal gave the order to invade a sovereign nation, with the world watching. In a world accustomed to cynicism, individualism, and apathy, no one expected a hero to rise.
Zelenskyy’s initial speech, defiantly standing his ground as the invasion began, went viral. He vowed to do the unthinkable: renounce his privilege to stay and fight with the people against an imperial aggressor. Performative yet deeply authentic, equal parts bold and humble, Zelenskyy struck a note of a Henry the Fifth on the eve of the battle of St. Crispin’s Day – and in doing so, reinvigorated the entire idea of the hero for our time.
Political theater may sound frivolous, but as Zelenskyy is proving with every passing moment, it’s a force multiplier that changes history. Actors have been politicians many times over; Zelenskyy is one of the few to do his own stunts.
By putting himself on the line, physically and politically, Ukrainian solidarity crystallized outward. Newlyweds went from exchanging vows to brandishing rifles, outraged grandparents fearlessly upbraided Russian soldiers, and a farmer stole a tank with a tractor as another citizen disposed of a mine with his bare hands.
Most importantly, these crowdsourced acts of courage stiffened the spines of allies in the West, who realized they could not stand by as Ukrainians taking to the streets to defend themselves. While his countrymen slowed the invasion with sabotage and street fighting, Zelenskyy worked the phones, persuading wary allies to send weapons and invoke sanctions before it was too late. “This may be the last time you’ll see me alive,” he told them – and his gambit worked.
By displaying moral courage and physical bravery in the moment of truth, Zelenskyy instantly redefined leadership for a world steeped in moral compromise and endemic corruption.
The mythmaking was instantaneous. Family man, folk hero, comedian, dancer, statesman, soldier, king: Zelenskyy’s persona expanded to include it all. And why not? Never has a generation been so starved of positive, powerful role models.
As Tom McTague pointed out in his recent essay in The Atlantic, a senior-level European defense official brought this very topic up in the context of Zelenskyy’s leadership style. The official noted that modern movies and television rarely depict a heroic visionary, but “only a never-ending struggle for supremacy.”
That may be the view of the jaded elite, but the passionate populace is quite ready to celebrate deeds of valor if given the chance – and the Internet is there to oblige. In our digital age, there’s no need to wait for bards, poets, or film directors to get involved. Now, as social media keeps the cameras rolling in a constant stream of outrage and engagement, politics and show business have now converged totally, creating a new [and yet unnamed] form of social art.
A hybrid entertainment form, this new medium relies on ancient mythmaking combined with the most advanced technology, a worldwide casting call, thousands of writers, directors, and editors, and millions of film critics, shitposters and superfans. History is no longer drafted; it’s filmed live in front of a studio audience and instantly uploaded to the hive mind.
This new art form already has already taken shape, most notably the rickety, racist ‘Birth of a Nation’ style storyline of the 2016 election; followed by the rise of a new kind of screen goddess in AOC, whose media savvy and political genius galvanized a new generation of young leaders.
This current story is one of the first battlefield narratives this new and decentralized mythmaking apparatus has produced, an on-the-fly epic of good versus evil that celebrates shared sacrifices and doomed romanticism. The Ukrainian resistance is already Casablanca by way of Top Gun, complete with iconic 80s dialogue. It may have been scripted or spontaneous, but when Zelenskyy laid down the defining line of the action movie unfolding in real time – “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition” – you could hear the sighs of a million Facebook moms swooning over their phones, even as legions of edgelords bemoaned the inevitable Lin-Manuel Miranda musical on Reddit.
No one know how this particular experimental blockbuster will end, but this strange new media art is just getting started. Multiplayer games and multiplex movies have nothing on this emotional experience we’re all suddenly sharing. From love stories to disaster flicks, we’re all making movies, on location – and there are plenty of other storylines beside Apocalyptic Defeat.
The Ukrainian resistance has captivated the world and applied defibrillator paddles onto our own moribund body politic. Suddenly, our real-world choices matter – not just the colors we light up our buildings with, or the emojis we put in out bio – but whether or not we can forgo a little comfort for the greater privilege of being on the right sight of history, and possible helping it along.
We have been reassured that, far from being deprived of all agency, our choices do matter – whether to side with righteousness or anesthetize ourselves with propaganda, or profit from the immiseration of others; or to avoid confrontation by pretending all options are equally acceptable. No one can hide or equivocate: If the Ukrainians are ready to die with their boots on, then the world’s major economies had better be ready to pull the financial trapdoor out from the entire Russian economy, deal with high gas prices, and blow up Nord Stream.
The stakes, as they say in the movie business, have been raised. We have been reminded that we are the authors of our own stories, and the owners of our fates. Zelenskyy’s recent video post on Sunday addressed this very theme: “Each of us is the president. Because we are all responsible for our state. For our beautiful Ukraine. And now it has happened that each of us is a warrior... And I am confident that each of us will win.”
Win they may – or go out a legend. Despite the showbiz fizz of the resistance, reality is far more sobering. The Ukrainians, however brave, could die at any moment, painfully, terribly, tragically. But with Zelenskyy calling the shots, they’ve already created a blockbuster in the box-office of public opinion. The reviews are in: People still need heroes, hate villains, love a good story – and quote the best lines.
As Scarlett O’Hara once said: Russian warship, go fuck yourself!