The thunderous applause for a fellow actor at the Cannes Film Festival wasn't for one who strode the red carpet, but one in a green T-shirt appearing remotely from a besieged Kyiv.
Speaking about the link between film and reality, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy channeled Charlie Chaplin's dramatic final speech from "The Great Dictator." The film, the silent star's first talkie, uses its words well, particularly in its final stirring, stunning three-and-a-half minute monologue that has only risen in cinematic and even historical estimation.
"The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people." Zelenskyy said, quoting Chaplin — who seemed to be speaking as himself, not as his character, in the 1940 anti-fascist film that still inspires.
Zelenskyy was speaking before the premiere of a French farce of zombie films. It was originally titled "Z" but changed to "The Final Cut" after the letter Z became a simple symbol to show support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Such is the Western unity for Ukraine and, by extension, Zelenskyy, who like Chaplin was a comic who could communicate dramatic real life with extraordinary effect.
Zelenskyy's ability to move movie stars (and more prosaic professionals) has not gone unnoticed by not-so-great dictators in the East, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and likely Chinese President Xi Jinping. In fact, in a compelling commentary in Foreign Affairs titled "What is China Learning from Russia's War in Ukraine?," David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that beyond tactical and strategic lessons Beijing may apply to Taiwan, Zelenskyy's "ability to rally the Ukrainian people and international public opinion has shown Chinese leaders the importance of eliminating Taiwan's political and military leadership early in a conflict and breaking the Taiwanese people's determination to resist."
Ukrainians' determination to resist is unquestioned. Continuing it depends on Western military and humanitarian aid. Most NATO nations, among others, have done what they can, especially the U.S., as evidenced by the latest largesse — $40 billion, bringing the total to $53 billion after February's full-scale Russian invasion. But after nearly unanimous bipartisan approval earlier, a wider divide appeared in the form of a Republican congressional split. Eleven GOP members, as well as 57 Republican representatives in the House voted "no."
"There's always been isolationist voices in the Republican Party," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after leading a surprise trip to Kyiv last weekend to meet with Zelenskyy. "It won't create a problem. We'll get the job done," he added.
And indeed he did. This time. But as the midterm elections approach and candidates backed by former President Donald Trump hit the hustings, they may not hustle to push a foreign policy more in line with former President Ronald Reagan than Trump.
Candidates of both parties will tack toward voters' concerns, which lately have more to do with inflation and infant formula than international issues.
In fact, the rise in inflation has itself risen to the top of a new Pew Research Center poll on what Americans consider the country's top problems, as well as Gallup's latest "Most Important Problem" data from April. Inflation tops both lists; Russia/Ukraine doesn't crack Pew's top 10, while Gallup has "the situation with Russia" at 5% — down from 9% in March. In another marker of less attention paid to the war, Axios reports that from April 4 to May 16 the average number of social-media interactions per published article isn't Putin v. Zelenskyy but Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp, with Elon Musk, President Joe Biden and abortion topping "Russia-Ukraine."
While domestic dynamics usually top global concerns, the relatively low ranking of Russia's invasion as a key issue doesn't capture what's really at stake, which is "nothing short of the global order," Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, said in an e-mail interview. "If Putin isn't defeated and rendered incapable of attacking his neighbors, he will keep coming back for a second, third and fourth round."
Crimping the Kremlin's ability to do that depends on the U.S. more than any other country, Haring said. "America's support to the war effort is indispensable. The Biden administration deserves huge credit for getting ahead of the Russian invasion, warning of the impending invasion and building a coalition in Europe. Washington sets the tone on military assistance, sanctions, humanitarian aid. And whether the Biden administration likes it or not, the shape of the global order. Ukraine cannot win without the direct support of its Western friends."
Biden's ability to support Ukraine's democracy is dependent on America's democracy responding to voters who value what's at stake — and how some sacrifice might be needed. But despite Biden, a true transatlanticist, mostly making the right moves internationally, his approval rating just hit an all-time low.
"There's a basic sense that things are not under control, that things are chaotic," said David Axelrod during a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace virtual discussion on Monday. Axelrod, a political strategist most noted for running former President Barack Obama's breakthrough 2008 campaign, added: "And you know, even though I think Biden has handled Ukraine very, very well, we're still confronted with images on the screen of scenes of terrible destruction and loss and suffering. And so there's another stalemate there that we can't quite get under control. And so in that way, it contributes to a narrative."
The negative narrative really took hold during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a military and moral failure that belied Biden's supposed expertise in foreign affairs. Americans may have wanted to end the forever war, but not by forsaking Afghan allies, some seen clinging futilely to the fuselage of departing planes.
The optics were more vivid because it was the first time in years that some Americans actually paid any attention to the generation-long war, which faded from the country's consciousness — just like the war in Iraq — despite U.S. forces fighting, and dying, in each conflict. The war in Ukraine may last long, too. Indeed, like other Russian incursions, it could become a "frozen conflict" — which would sap the focus it's received so far.
This would be bad for Ukrainians and Americans, said Katya Soldak, the Ukrainian-born filmmaker whose documentary on Ukraine and Russia, "The Long Breakup," screened recently at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. At a post-screening event I moderated with Soldak a moviegoer asked what the most important thing U.S. citizens can do to help Ukrainians.
Not let attention fade away, she said.
Back in New York, she elaborated in an interview that "I wouldn't want the issue of the war to create fatigue in the American public and then have them fade out. … The best thing that I think people, each one individually and collectively, can do is not to let important issues slide."
Doing so will require some sacrifice. Not anywhere near what Ukrainians are braving but bracing for continued economic fallout. "It's hard to connect this because not everybody's supposed to understand global affairs, normal people are not supposed to be experts on these things. And when your prices or your gas prices are going up, it's a natural response to isolate themselves, to want them be lower, and not to pay the price for this. But we all are very much interconnected."
"The Great Dictator," Zelenskyy told the rapt Cannes attendees, "did not destroy the real dictator then. But thanks to it, cinematography ceased to be dumb. Dumb in every sense of the word. Cinematography spoke, and it was the voice of the future victory of freedom."
Cinema — and citizens everywhere — need to continue to use their voices and lend their attention and not let Ukraine fade. Doing so will help Zelenskyy deliver on his Cannes pledge that "We will continue to fight" and "I am sure the dictator will lose."