EDITOR’S NOTE: This is from the March 24, 2003, issue of National Review.
If there is anyone more sanctimonious than The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, it’s the moralizing old ham who plays him. But prissy, preachy Martin Sheen wasn’t always this way. There were times, back in the depths of the wicked, whacked-out 1970s, when today’s straitlaced star was a boozer, a three-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day man, and who knows what else. It was also the decade when he gave two of the greatest performances in the history of American cinema. As the restless, murderous Kit Carruthers, Sheen was an astonishingly convincing guide to the beauty, brutality, and strangeness of Terrence Malick’s hypnotic Badlands. In Apocalypse Now, he took audiences on a different journey, this time deep into a heart of darkness so profound that it engulfed not only the character he portrayed but also, ultimately, Sheen himself.
The making of Apocalypse Now was — like the war it described — a chaotic, prolonged nightmare, with the tropical heat of its Philippines location only adding to the pressure on an actor “interiorly confused” and also busy partying far, far too hard. By the end of filming, Sheen had suffered a heart attack so severe that he was given last rites. But the “white light” that was, reportedly, a part of his near-death experience seems to have had an effect roughly equivalent to that more famous light seen on the road to Damascus. He cut back on the drink, reconnected with the Catholic Church, and, in the ominous words of a profile in the London Daily Telegraph “took up politics.” While his movie career seemed doomed never to regain its former heights (forget Damascus, the road from Apocalypse Now to Beverly Hills Brats can’t have been easy), when it came to politics, Sheen shone.
He has opposed Star Wars (Pentagon, not George Lucas), excessive violence in movies (probably not George Lucas either), sanctions against Iraq, the proposed invasion of Iraq, and, a little belatedly, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He’s campaigned for the homeless, pacifism, migrant workers, Bill Clinton (a “hero”), Janet Reno (also a “hero”), Al Gore (heroic status unclear), animal rights, and the environmentalist movement. Gerry Adams, the murkiest of Northern Ireland’s politicians, was yet another “hero,” although there was to be some subsequent (rather muddled) backtracking. The Contras were not heroes. They were “obscene assassins.” Cop-killer Mumia, on the other hand, is an “incisive critic of our criminal-justice system” and a “voice for the voiceless” — except, presumably, when they are murdered Philadelphia policemen.
His authority reinforced by the fact that he portrays a president on an upscale soap opera, Sheen uses celebrity status to push his causes (fair enough — it’s our fault, not his, if we take an actor seriously just because of the roles he plays). But “Jed Bartlet” has not been his only taste of office, either on screen (he has played other presidents and at least two Kennedy brothers) or off. In 1989, Sheen was named honorary mayor of Malibu. Naturally, His Honor marked his appointment with a decree proclaiming the area “a nuclear-free zone, a sanctuary for [illegal] aliens and the homeless, and a protected environment for all life, wild and tame.” Interviewed more than a decade later by Hispanic magazine, Sheen relived the moment with obvious pleasure: “The reaction was what I kind of half-expected, and it wasn’t favorable. I was considered a radical who sold out the city. It just shows you the power of words and the power of someone’s convictions. It just scared the hell out of them.”
Well, not really — it just shows that people don’t like having a loopy mayor. But no matter: If Sheen had become a St. Paul, the rest of us were, to him, like so many Galatians, an errant people to be hectored, lectured, and generally harangued.
And that’s the best way to understand his politics — as an extension of his deeply held religious beliefs. Sheen’s political views may be wrongheaded, but, despite all the controversy, they are hardly that unusual. Yes, they show strong traces of what Sheen once referred to as the “radical way of the cross,” a version of that 1960s Latin American “liberation theology” which in the end proved to be neither liberation nor theology (it’s no surprise to discover that Sheen enjoyed a long friendship with those “activist” priests, the Berrigan brothers, both of them, you guessed it, “heroes”), but they are not so far removed from the more mainstream market-skeptical, leftish strain of thought often found within Catholicism. Even his vocal opposition to an invasion of Iraq (which has, most recently, included filming a commercial for Win Without War) looks less exceptional when seen in the light of the Vatican’s obvious discomfort with the direction of U.S. policy in the region.
That said, so what? That Sheen’s numerous crusades may have religious roots should not exempt them from criticism, nor should the fact that the actor is, by all accounts, “sincere.” When it comes to an agenda like Sheen’s, sincerity in and of itself is no defense.
His lawyers might wish it were. One of the hallmarks of Sheen’s activism is the number of times he has been arrested, around 70 at the latest count, often carefully choreographed for photogenic spectacle, which might include, say, prayer (yet another Nagasaki protest, this one at Los Alamos in 1999) or, for real excitement, fake blood (Fort Benning, same year).
There is another way in which these martyrdoms have been a touch theatrical. None were likely to have serious consequences. Now that there’s a chance that they might, Sheen has seemed to shy away. Following a conviction for trespass at a demonstration at Vandenberg Air Force Base, he is on three years’ probation and is taking care to avoid the police, handcuffs, and the judiciary. As he explained to Newsday last fall, “If I get arrested for anything now, I go right in the slammer.” The actor’s taste for martyrdom clearly includes neither the big house nor the loss of hundreds of thousands in dollars from his appearances in Aaron Sorkin’s fake White House (Sheen reportedly earns around $300,000 for each episode of The West Wing, not so much less than the $400,000 that George W. Bush makes for a year in the real thing), but it’s telling that it has taken this, rather than any change of heart, to stop — at least until his probation expires — the seemingly endless run of arrests.
To get arrested once is unfortunate, to get arrested 70 times looks rather more like arrogance. We live in a democracy, a system that, for all its flaws, does offer a legal mechanism for peaceful change. It’s called voting. But in a democracy no one, not even Barbra Streisand, always gets his or her way. Most people accept that they have, at least temporarily, to live under some laws with which they may profoundly disagree. In his repeated recourse to (let’s be euphemistic) “direct action,” Sheen appears not to — an approach that is, at its core, undeniably undemocratic.
Sheen’s justification would, doubtless, be that much-vaunted “morality” of his. It’s a morality that may be commendable in the context of his private life, but applied in the public sphere, it has clearly led him to the belief that he is entitled to ignore the ground rules of a democratic society. In breaking the law to make a political point, he is, in effect, saying that his morality trumps your vote.
Revealingly, when the law and his own notions of what is right coincide, Sheen is only too happy to don the jackboots. For example, driven in part, doubtless, by one son’s painful battle with substance abuse, he was a leading opponent of a California ballot initiative designed to allow certain low-level drug users to receive treatment rather than jail. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Sheen is a zealot: a man so convinced of his own rectitude that, for him, any compromise becomes a sin. Needless to say, such moral absolutism usually comes with a profound disdain for the points of view of those who disagree — to Sheen, I suspect, their opinions count for no more than their votes.
And when it comes to disdain, Sheen wins the Oscar. For a man supposedly dedicated to Christian values of reconciliation and love, Martin Sheen has a very sharp tongue indeed. George W. Bush, he says, is a “thug,” “dull,” “dangerous,” “a bad comic working the crowd,” a “moron,” and a “white-knuckle drunk” in denial about his past difficulties with alcohol.
There’s not a lot of humility either. Interviewed last year by Time Out, the actor explained how his commitment to “social justice” had helped win him the role of Jed Bartlet:
“It gives the character a level of credibility that somebody who didn’t take a stand on issues of social justice wouldn’t have projected. And it isn’t anything I’ve done overtly, it’s just who I am. I cannot not be who I am, regardless of what part I am playing.”
Translation: “My goodness shines through.”
— Mr. Stuttaford is a writer living in New York.