Magazine | May 15, 2017, Issue

The Celebrity We Need

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson unites in a time of division

There are cinematic moments that define a career. For Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, that moment occurred before wildly cheering fans on April 3, 2015. The fans were packed into movie houses worldwide. The Rock was onscreen, playing diplomatic-security-service agent Luke Hobbs in the movie Furious 7.

The movie was approaching its climax, a pitched battle in the streets of Los Angeles between the movie’s supervillain and the makeshift “family” of heroes, led by Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Conner, played by the late Paul Walker. The Rock is sidelined, in the hospital with his arm encased in a cast. He sits next to his daughter when he spots a distant explosion and fire.

What follows is peak Rock.

He stands, gazes outside with a look of fierce determination, and then says, “Daddy’s gotta go to work.” Keep in mind that he knows nothing at this point about the explosion and fire. He just sees flames and knows. It’s time. So he flexes his enormous biceps, and the cast explodes off his arm. He tears away the remnants, gives his daughter a fist bump, and gears up for combat.

Moments later, he commandeers an ambulance and races at breakneck speed to the scene of a battle between a heavily armed aerial drone, a stealth attack helicopter, and Toretto’s beleaguered squad. Just as the drone flies through a tunnel and seems to achieve a deadly missile lock on a hero’s car, The Rock’s ambulance busts through a concrete barrier, collides with the drone in midair, detonates, and falls to the pavement below.

Is this the end of The Rock? Did he meet his doom in a valiant kamikaze attack to save his friends? Of course not. He emerges from the wreckage, unscathed, flexes his muscles (he does that a lot), picks up a minigun from the drone’s wreckage, and strides off to take on the attack helicopter in single combat. As he leaves, he has an Oscar-worthy exchange with co-star Michelle Rodriguez:

Letty (Rodriguez): You bring the cavalry?

Hobbs (The Rock): Woman, I am the cavalry!

Cue the wild cheering in theaters stretching from Columbia, Tenn. (where I was front row, center), to Los Angeles, to London, to Beijing. It was absurd. It was over the top. It was funny. It was oddly inspiring. It was The Rock.

It would be easy to say that The Rock is having a pop-culture “moment.” He’s coming off a 2016 in which he was the highest-paid movie star in the business, he was named People magazine’s sexiest man alive, and he was even floated as a future presidential contender. He’s charged into 2017 with another star turn in the Fast and the Furious franchise, with the latest installment, The Fate of the Furious, enjoying the largest opening weekend in global box-office history. We’re weeks away from The Rock’s reboot of the Baywatch franchise, this time on the big screen as a summer blockbuster comedy, and he’ll be returning soon to HBO for the third season of Ballers, the channel’s highest-rated comedy when it debuted two years ago.

And that’s just the start. He’s formed his own production company (called “Seven Bucks Productions” because that’s all the money he had when he launched his entertainment career) and has a dizzying array of projects in the works. Add all this to a dominant social-media presence (he has almost 100 million more followers on all platforms than Donald Trump), and it’s clear that The Rock isn’t just enjoying a “moment,” he’s building a juggernaut. Arguably, he’s in the process of becoming the world’s biggest celebrity.

And that’s a very good thing indeed.

To understand why, and to understand the cult following he’s gained with young conservatives across the land, it’s important to track his career arc and to define the persona that he’s developed through a two-decade march into public consciousness.

Dwayne Johnson was originally supposed to be a football star. He was recruited to play for the Miami Hurricanes at the peak of that university’s football dynasty, but he never achieved stardom. Overlooked by the NFL, he was cut after a brief sojourn with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Out of money, his football dream dead, he turned to the family business — professional wrestling.

Though he had a pedigree — both his father and his grandfather wrestled — Johnson was no overnight success. It took years to become “The Rock.” He started as “Rocky Maivia,” as an homage to his father’s and grandfather’s wrestling names — his father wrestled as “Rocky Johnson” and his grandfather was “High Chief” Peter Maivia — and audiences largely rejected him, famously chanting “Die, Rocky, die!” It took time (and a brief turn to the dark side as a wrestling “heel”), but he eventually carved out the niche that he occupies to this day — The Rock is the “People’s Champion.”

For a generation of wrestling fans, The Rock was an electrifying, entertaining, and heavily muscled version of Andrew Jackson. He expressed amused skepticism with the arched “people’s eyebrow.” He finished off opponents with the legendary “people’s elbow” — a blow to the chest of a prone opponent delivered only after stoking the crowd to a high-decibel frenzy. His insults (including “Know your role” and “It doesn’t matter”) leaked into high schools and colleges across the country.

Like a number of WWE stars, The Rock had his eye on Hollywood. Unlike most, his movie success far exceeded any of his exploits in the ring. But again, it took time. There were hits, there were busts, and there were some plain ol’ bad movies (I’m looking at you, Tooth Fairy), but by 2011, he seemed to have figured it out. He joined an already-successful Fast and Furious franchise and helped catapult it into the financial stratosphere.

The numbers don’t lie. The fourth movie had a worldwide gross of $363 million. The fifth movie, his first? $626 million. And the numbers kept climbing. The sixth movie hit $788 million, the seventh movie pulled in a whopping $1.5 billion, and the eighth is already on pace to gross close to the same amount.

The Rock’s other movies also hit box-office highs. San Andreas, a disaster movie that featured The Rock as a rescue-helicopter pilot facing down an earthquake and a tsunami, raked in $473 million. Central Intelligence, a buddy action comedy with the diminutive Kevin Hart, made $216 million. Disney’s Moana, in which he voiced a Hawaiian demigod, has grossed $639 million. The Baywatch premiere awaits later this summer, and he has potential future blockbusters planned or in production from now through 2019 (at least).

But why should we care? Why is this a good thing?

Because, simply put, in our hyper-polarized age, The Rock has become the celebrity America needs. He’s doing celebrity the right way, and he’s one of the few people in public life who have truly learned to thread the needle — leading to rapturous coverage in both BuzzFeed and the Federalist. (Conservative writer Sean Davis amusingly tweeted last summer, “There are two kinds of people: those who are on the 2020 Dwayne Train, and filthy terrorists.”)

Until the GOP jumped with both feet onto the Trump Train, there was an emerging schism in the political approach to celebrity. With Hollywood overwhelmingly liberal, Democrats urged celebrities to “use” their popularity for the sake of social justice. If audiences loved Meryl Streep on the silver screen, wouldn’t they be receptive to her views on women’s rights? Conservatives, sick of the celebrity moralizing, responded with a simple retort: “Shut up and sing” or “Shut up and act.” Don’t use your fame to preach your politics.

Now, as polarization brings with it the politicization of everything, celebrities are expected to toe their respective political lines. The GOP has a celebrity in the White House, he brings in celebrity friends for photo ops, and, outside the White House gates, progressive celebrities spew vitriol at their hated former entertainment-industry colleague.

The Rock, however, has followed a different path. Rather than self-seriously viewing his career as secondary to his activism, Johnson clearly aims to entertain. He understands a core truth: that there is nothing wrong — and a lot right — with sheer, unmitigated fun. Not everything has to have a Message. Not everything needs to reveal Larger Truth. Sometimes a man has to shoot down an attack helicopter with a minigun. Not for social justice and not for individual liberty — but because it’s a cool thing to do.

At the same time, Johnson is keenly aware that he’s come a long way. He’s an unabashed patriot, and his Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of expressions of gratitude to his country and his fans. He constantly reminds fans that he was once broke and struggling. He blesses his family with the fruits of his labor. And in his own turn, he seems to positively delight in bringing joy to others. His Instagram feed is full of small incidents demonstrating his love for “the people,” even the smallest admirers of The Rock. If young girls hold up a sign on his route to work, asking him to stop for a picture, he stops for a picture. If a two-year-old asks him to play patty-cake while he’s on the set of Hercules, he plays patty-cake. And when it comes to veterans, he’s extravagant with his praise and his time.

Part of the legend of The Rock is this May 1, 2011, tweet: “Just got word that will shock the world — Land of the free . . . home of the brave DAMN PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” He tweeted this at 10:24 p.m. It was not for another 45 minutes that major networks began reporting Osama bin Laden’s death, and it was 11:35 p.m. that night when Barack Obama formally announced the successful raid. How did The Rock know in advance? He had a cousin in the SEALs, but he won’t confirm his source.

These family military connections have led The Rock to be among the foremost celebrity supporters of the military. In December 2016, he hosted a “Rock the Troops” event at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam in front of 50,000 service members, veterans, and family members. His YouTube feed is full of tributes (and gifts) to vets. He diligently and enthusiastically honors American heroes.

And that brings us to inspiration — one of the animating purposes of The Rock’s public persona. When he “uses” his public platform, he uses it to promote the value of hard work. As he tweets (and constantly states), “Blood, sweat, and respect. The first two you give, the last one you earn.” The mantra is constant. And it accompanies every aspect of his personal story. Without hard work, you can achieve nothing. As a basic cultural message — particularly to an entitled generation — it’s hard to beat.

Since it’s 2017 — and since a less popular celebrity made it to the White House — the question has arisen: Will The Rock bring the people’s eyebrow to politics? Will we see the rhetorical equivalent of the people’s elbow delivered to the solar plexus of his political opponents? Questions that once seemed crazy to ask are now a normal part of American political life. And indeed, Johnson seems to enjoy thinking through the possibilities.

Last June, the Washington Post ran a piece by Alyssa Rosenberg exploring whether he could run and win. The Rock responded in an Instagram post, concluding with this: “I care DEEPLY about our county [sic] . . . and the idea of one day becoming President to create real positive impact and global change is very alluring. Buuuuut until that possible day, the most important thing right now is strong honest leadership from our current and future leaders of this country. Thanks again Washington Post.”

The Rock is a registered Republican, and he spoke briefly to the 2000 Republican National Convention (as part of a WWE get-out-the-vote initiative), but his precise political positions are undefined. He’s been friendly with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. After the 2016 election, he took issue with the Under Armour CEO’s statement of support for Donald Trump but refused to distance himself from the company itself. We know The Rock loves America, but we can’t begin to guess where he stands on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Rather than speculating about whether The Rock could run and win, let’s ask a different question: What is his highest and best purpose as a patriotic American? Is it really in politics? Or is it in expanding a public platform that combines an enormous amount of pure fun with outspoken patriotism, love of his fellow citizens, and evangelism for hard work and perseverance?

Those of us who write about and study both politics and pop culture are keenly aware of the truth famously articulated by Andrew Breitbart: Politics is downstream from culture. Indeed, more alarming than the political polarization of the nation is its increasing cultural polarization. Red and Blue Americans live in different places, watch different shows, and increasingly adopt different manners and mores. We seem to be growing apart.

The Rock is one of the few culturally unifying figures in American life, and he’s a culturally unifying figure with a message of gratitude and hard work that also happens to be culturally edifying. If he moves into the naturally polarizing world of politics, where he’ll have to take positions on issues great and small, will he be forsaking a larger unifying role for the lesser polarizing path of public policy? At the risk of sounding corny: At this time in American life, we need points of agreement, and right now tens of millions of Americans on both sides of the political divide agree on The Rock.

In Fate of the Furious, The Rock arguably tops his Furious 7 minigun scene. In the midst of a climactic chase on a field of Siberian ice, a nuclear submarine bursts from the depths and launches a torpedo straight at The Rock and his fleeing friends. As the torpedo surges past The Rock’s vehicle, he leans out and physically alters its path with his bare hands. Yes, in his career, he’s graduated from wrestling people to wrestling 6,000-pound Soviet-era munitions.

If The Rock steps down from film to promulgate regulations and appoint judges, who will take his place on the ice? Who will shoot down drones with stolen ambulances? For now, we want him behind that minigun. We need him wrestling torpedoes. The Rock is the right celebrity for our polarized time. The politics can wait.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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