Eighteen years before Donald Trump's quixotic attempt to "make America great again," another WWE Hall of Famer stunned the nation with his rapid political ascent. Whether it was shock at his grasp of politics, the staggering rise of a nascent third party, or the fact that a wrestler who was always billed from San Diego but had a thick Midwestern accent actually came from Minnesota, we'll never know, but on November 3, 1998, Jesse Ventura rode the cresting late-90s waves of pro wrestling and Ross Perot's Reform Party into office as the Governor of Minnesota. It was a Y2K and a Jar-Jar Binks away from being the most 1999 thing ever.
The Jesse Ventura Story is terrible, but there is charm to be found in a movie that is so spiteful against sports entertainment and yet so, so earnest about grassroots political reform. It is also currently available in its entirety on YouTube, which makes it a must-watch for those fatigued by 2016's horrible election and excellent wrestling. After some 17 years between viewings, it is even crazier than I remembered.
Longtime stuntman and stunt coordinator Nils Allen Stewart Sr. is Jesse "The Body" Ventura, and is also Jesse "The Mind" Ventura. None of this really matters, though, because Stewart doesn't even try to affect Ventura's one-of-a-kind "rabid dog trying to bark and chew gum at the same time" gruffness. A younger, much less swole actor plays Ventura (real name: Jim Janos) as a teenager, before he joins what everyone calls the Navy SEALs (but was at the time an entity separate from the SEALs, called the Underwater Demolition Team), gets big and tough enough to necessitate a change in actors and becomes the closest thing to a hippie the Twin Cities ever did see. Janos's persona is inspired in part by a young Muhammad Ali, whom he watches beat Sonny Liston on a TV built in the 1980's stuck inside the frame of a TV built in the 1950s. Ventura, along with fellow AWA wrestler Hulk Hogan, would also later "borrow" from 1970s wrestler "Superstar" Billy Graham, who "borrowed" from Ali, who "borrowed" from Gorgeous George, and so on.
The Jesse Ventura Story should not be the first place to turn to if you're looking to learn the story of Minnesota's 38th Governor, and definitely should be your last resource for the history of professional wrestling. The movie uses its creative license like the creative DMV is about to revoke it first thing tomorrow morning. Ventura's father is much more critical of his son's life choices here than in real life, and the real-life seizures affecting his daughter Jade as a baby are mercifully omitted. The script plugs semi-random WCW stars such as Chris Kanyon, Raven and Bill Goldberg into events that rarely strafe what really happened. According to The Jesse Ventura Story, for example, Ventura's first match came in 1975 against Goldberg, who would have been about eight years old at the time. Maybe that's why this TV movie has Ventura going over in a title bout against him.
There is no mention of Vince McMahon or even Verne Gagne, the promoter with whom Ventura was most widely associated before jumping to the WWF in 1984. Instead our heel promoter is a mysterious man known as "Chaney," who jokes after a wrestler gets hurt and forces the timekeeper to "ring the damn bell," like a certain infamous moment in wrestling history that has nothing to do with our hero at all. The Jesse Ventura Story slips The Montreal Screwjob into, um, the Jesse Ventura story, with Raven as the Shawn Michaels to some schlub's Bret Hart. The best part of this whole clusterfuck is that our store-brand Body is witnessing all of this while wearing a cheesehead hat, because what's a movie that insults wrestling fans' intelligence without a cheap prop or two.
So much is stuffed into the 89 minutes of The Jesse Ventura Story that the viewer might be exhausted before even reaching Ventura's gubernatorial campaign, which the movie portrays as being run solely by Ventura, future acting U.S. Senator Dean Barkley and literally just some teen on the internet. Ventura ekes out a narrow victory in the election as the Reform Party candidate. (He also wins a dream sequence in which Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman double-team him in the ring, which surprisingly is not the movie's climax.)
It is amazing to realize that the Reform Party really was a political force in the late 1990s, and how much of its legacy currently rests among those who would rather undermine democracy than actually reform it. Donald Trump, of all people, first contemplated a run for President under the Reform Party banner, with the guidance and support of Jesse Ventura. But by 2000, the party was hemorrhaging support as far-right politicians such as Pat Buchanan and David Duke became its faces. Ventura, Trump, and most other Reform supporters eventually left, and the Reform Party of Minnesota returned to its original name as the Independence Party of Minnesota; until recently it was still considered a major third party in the state.
Much of Ventura's political views, as laid out in his 1999 book I Ain't Got Time to Bleed, were products of their time, from the belief that millennials could afford college without state aid to his laissez-faire stance on Saddam Hussein, but he was ahead of the curve on gay rights, marijuana legislation, and later on, um, 9/11 trutherism. This year, he isn't supporting Trump. He's backing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
I Ain't Got Time to Bleed also touches on the made-for-TV biopic. Ventura writes about being severely disappointed in two people associated with the film (including executive producer John A. Davis, who worked with Jesse on Predator) in making this unauthorized movie, to the point where he threatens to pull the hair plugs off a guy's head. You don't want to do exactly that after watching The Jesse Ventura Story, but you do want to learn more about the actual Body, Mind, and Mouth that is James "Jesse Ventura" Janos. Frankly, you'll also get scared into voting on November 8th, lest we get a terrible TV biopic of Donald Trump, and a lot more, come 2017.
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