Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 The Queen of Versailles brilliantly recounted a fabulously rich Florida’s couple’s extravagant effort to build one of America’s largest mansions. It is in a similar vein that Greenfield, dubbed “America’s foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy” by The New York Times, takes aim at Imelda Marcos, wife of the deposed tyrant and U.S. puppet Ferdinand Marcos, who was president of the Republic of the Philippines for twenty-one years.
Greenfield, the The Kingmaker’s writer, director, and producer, makes use of archival footage and photos to tell the story of how the beauty pageant winner hitched her wagon to the politically ambitious Ferdinand. Elected in 1965, Marcos was supposed to be limited to two terms, per his country’s constitution, but in 1972 got around that by infamously declaring martial law and imposing a brutal, bloody crackdown in a nation that had been a U.S. colony and remained home to large U.S. military bases.
Under the Marcos’s “conjugal dictatorship,” he and Imelda, often referred to as “co-presidents,” looted the impoverished nation, living lavish lifestyles in Manila’s Malacañang Palace, while millions subsisted in shantytowns (as seen in the film’s opening sweeping aerial shot of the country’s capital). Greenfield interviews people who suffered torture and shows vintage footage of opposition leader and ex-political prisoner Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino aboard a jet on a fateful flight in 1983.
Knowing what was about to happen, I wanted to shout at the screen: “Ninoy! Turn the plane around and go back to America!” I wept, watching how, on Aquino’s arrival at Manila Airport, shots ring out and he is seen lying on the tarmac in a pool of blood—to this day an “unsolved” assassination.
The Kingmaker goes on to recount the heroic efforts of the People’s Power revolution that overthrew the Marcos regime. Poverty-stricken crowds storm Malacañang and are outraged by the rulers’ opulence—including Imelda’s infamous “archive” of 1,000 shoes. Claiming they were “kidnapped,” Ferdinand and Imelda fly to exile in Hawaii in 1986 and Ninoy’s wife, the unassuming Corazon “Cory” Aquino, becomes president.
Greenfield’s incisive doc is much more than an excursion into the past. Indeed, she tells a story most Americans likely know little about: Imelda’s improbable return.
Older viewers may recall these tumultuous events, but Greenfield’s incisive doc is much more than an excursion into the past. Indeed, she tells a story most Americans likely know little about: Imelda’s improbable return, General MacArthur-like, to the Philippines in 1991. Here Greenfield’s film kicks into high gear, featuring original interviews with Imelda and covering the unlikely “comeback kids”—her daughter Imee and son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
The first Ferdinand died in 1989, but all three remaining family members managed to be elected to high office in a country many believe they plundered. Kingmaker chronicles their campaign to insinuate themselves back into political power, culminating with Bongbong’s 2016 run for the vice presidency. (In the Philippines, the presidential and V.P. candidates do not run on the same ticket.)
Throughout much of the film a question hovers like a cloud: Did Ferdinand and Imelda really create a kleptocracy, stealing the Philippines blind?
Greenfield interviews Andres Bautista, who as chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government was hot on the Marcos trail, seeking to return the family’s ill-gotten gains to the Philippines’ coffers.
Of course, they all deny enriching themselves at the expense of their developing nation’s wretched population, and the film shows Imelda and others in her circle handing out pesos to children, street vendors, and the “riff raff” at campaign rallies. Yet Imelda Marcos purportedly tried to sell for $32 million a Monet canvas that disappeared during the collapse of the Marcos regime.
Tellingly, after being elected president of the Republic of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte publicly admitted that the Marcoses substantially financed his campaign. (The PBS Frontline documentary about the Philippines’ current strongman, On the President’s Orders, which theatrically opened a week prior to Kingmaker, is a perfect companion piece to Greenfield’s film).
Kingmaker bears witness to the gross excessiveness of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, a leitmotif of luxury gone bonkers. Following a 1976 visit to Kenya by the globe-trotting Imelda, President Jomo Kenyatta gave her permission to import over a hundred wild animals to the Philippines. The First Lady sets up an exclusive safari park on the isle of Calauit, after cruelly evicting its 200-plus human inhabitants. Greenfield interviewed displaced residents for Kingmaker.
In this day and age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” Kingmaker is a cautionary tale.
I lived in the Western Pacific in the 1980s, and distinctly remember how during her “exile” to Honolulu, Imelda would blatantly lie to the Hawaii press corps. I had the impression she was unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. Indeed, onscreen she tells Greenfield: “Perception is real, and the truth is not.” The heavily made-up, puffy-cheeked, ex-beauty queen is shown fussing before going on camera, wondering if her “tummy” looks too big.
In this day and age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” Kingmaker is a cautionary tale. We learn that human rights lawyer Leni Robredo, who edged Bongbong out in the 2016 vice presidential race, is facing a court challenge by the power hungry former dictator’s son on sedition charges. Meanwhile, Bautista, who became chairman of the Commission on Elections, now lives in exile due to death threats.
Greenfield mentions only in passing the strategic importance of the Pentagon’s Subic Bay Naval Base, Clark Air Base, and other U.S. military installations in the Philippines. But there’s only so much a filmmaker can do in 100 minutes. The film shows Imelda, now ninety, lamenting the loss of her mom when she was eight, and how she was trying to compensate for this early loss in becoming the “mother of the nation.”
Yet the vision of Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker is that of a woman attempting to smother a democracy, restore her crime family to the pinnacle of power, and reaffirm the “nasty” in “dynasty.”
The Kingmaker theatrically opens November 8.