Did Ferris Bueller Grow up to Work in the Bush Administration?

Why casting Matthew Broderick in the new season of American Crime is perfect.

“Remember when Matthew Broderick was the coolest guy ever?” folks like us, getting along in our years, like to say, stalking the nearby high school, rolling our prescription sticky ickies and contemplating hip surgery. Little whiz boy Matt! Remember when he and that nice girl saved the world from computer generated nuclear destruction? Smart, that kid. Couldn’t keep him in school, he was always up and about, riding fast cars and jumping on parade floats like a real whippersnapper. Yup, yup. And now, like the lamest lame-o to have ever lamed, he’s joining the Bush Administration. Or at least he will be, in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: Katrina, where he will play Michael D. Brown, the man Bush put in charge of FEMA who resigned after over 1,200 people died during or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and who even Republicans like Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, condemned for having “failed miserably in [his] job.” Bush, famously, liked to call him “Brownie.”

But wait a hot Bueller, Ferris Bueller moment here. Wasn’t that Broderick kid all about free spirit, bamboozling the authorities in their pompous suits and mud-wracked shoes? Or was he? There was always something shit-eating about his characteristic grin, the way he would stare down poor Cameron (Alan Ruck), who really just wanted to keep his dad’s darn car out of it. As if keeping anything out of his grasp was tantamount to atrocity. But boys will be boys, is a legal defense I’ve heard, so maybe Ferris was just sowing some fun lovin’ wild oats across picturesque Chicago. There’s a scene in Mike Nichols’ Biloxi Blues (1988), a picture Broderick starred in shortly after, where he plays a fresh military recruit picking up a gun at the tail end of the Second World War. In a Full Metal Jacket-esque training camp, the resident Lee Ermey-type (gamely played by Christopher Walken) asks Broderick if he knows what discipline is. He has no idea, of course he doesn’t, so Walken’s sergeant demands that Brodrick’s greenhorn order his troop lay down a hundred push-ups as a kind of movie training camp power move. And there’s something downright weird how comfortable Brodrick looks, the one man standing in his group, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about the arrangement.

Is Matthew Broderick a nice guy? Or is he a “nice guy”? Jesse Hassenger, in an essay on the characters Broderick has played in all three Kenneth Lonergan movies Broderick has been in, charges that Broderick was “bizarrely miscast” in John Hughes’ ode to Huck Finn-trickery. Broderick’s cup of tea is more “milquetoast men,” Hassenger writes. In the aforementioned Lonergan movies, You Can Count on Me (2000), Margret (2011), and the Oscar-hungry Manchester By the Sea (2016), Broderick plays, respectively, a bumblingly bureaucratic banker, a high school teacher who is a tool, and an evangelical who prays before he eats. This version of Broderick is something of a chump, a nebbish sort who, as in You Can Count on Me, cheats on his wife with an employee and then fires her. But no character exemplifies this version as much as Cooter, a coworker of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), when the latter takes a position in the Bush Administration as Homeland Security Director for Crisis and Weather Management, in the second season of 30 Rock. Here, his ineffectuality is meant as a caricature of a timidly truth-weary administration; the episode aired shortly after Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, had used the phrase “I don’t recall” seventy-two times when called before the U.S. Senate. These sort of roles should strike us, Hassenger assumes, as directly opposed to the character Broderick was so famous for scene-stealing all the way back in 1986. Which begs the question, did we imagine Ferris would become anything else?

Broderick, in his previous role in the in the Bush Administration, as Cooter in the second season of 30 Rock

George Will, one of the few people to dislike E.T. for being too subversive, liked Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He hailed it as “the greatest movie of all time,” applauding Ferris for “liv[ing] out every teenager’s fantasy of subverting authority at every turn.” But what authority, exactly, does Ferris subvert? His parents? They could hardly care less. Society? Hughes’ Chicago practically throws him a parade. Evil ol’ Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is the movie’s only real antagonist and Ferris’ only great act of rebellion is subverting the truancy laws that underline the public education system. What a rebel. Don’t we already have Betsy DeVos for that?

Brodrick’s smarm in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off uncannily predicted the kind of lackadaisically ill-informed authority the Bush-era Republican party would come to represent, the kind of men who, like Ferris, celebrated themselves for making decisions from their gut. What does Ferris know about art history or the tradition of rock and roll music? But in Hughes’ fantasy, Ferris knows all of these things because of his capacity to lie about them with a straight face. Michael D. Brown, before President Bush selected him to lead the federal agency responsibility for natural disaster preparedness, had never been in charge of handling natural disasters in any capacity. He had padded his résumé with the experience of a glorified internship he did in college with the city manager of a small town in Oklahoma. Given the legal nature of last year’s hella-acclaimed American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson, it’s likely that the investigations into Brown’s gross mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina will play a large role in Ryan’s telling of “the story of America’s response to the devastating storm.

And it’ll be good to still have Brodrick’s scrappy and winking Ferris Bueller in mind, as we watch his FEMA director take the stand and argue that no, he did not mismanage what became one of the greatest natural disasters in our living history. Life does move pretty fast, Ferris.