As we enter the home stretch of the 2008 presidential race and brace for the endless “I approved this message” tags, it may seem cruel and unusual punishment to consider a raft of political films. However, a review of some standouts offers a useful primer on politics American style—the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.
Movies and politics have always crept hand-in-hand—from President-in-the-making Ronald Reagan’s 1951 star turn in Bedtime for Bonzo to Presidential-hopeful John McCain’s cameo in Wedding Crashers (for which he took some heat from the family-values crowd).
From the start, the screen has been a political battlefield, with the small screen the site of its ugliest skirmishes. Miles from the soft-pedaled “I Like Ike” spots of the 1950s are such ad gems as the anti-Dukakis Willie Horton fear-starter and the anti-Kerry Swift boat siege. Of course there is also the most infamous of the lot—the devastating 1964 anti-Goldwater piece, in which a little girl pulls petals from a daisy while counting down to a mushroom cloud. (Subtle, it wasn’t. Effective, it was. People are still talking about it almost half a century later.)
On the big screen, the dramatic possibilities of all things political are ageless. After all, politics has yielded a rich vein for dramatists from antiquity onward; throw in a sex scandal and you have a continuum that runs from Oedipus to Striptease, where Congressman Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds) savors quality time at the Eager Beaver strip club.
But beyond the obvious timeless nature of political themes, there is something unique about American political films: The myth of populism, for better or worse. The “common man” is both celebrated and exploited. On the one hand the common man is the enobled Mr. Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, on the other he is the dangerously ambitious Willie Stark of All The King’s Men.
In the end, the humble, self-educated, man-of-the-people Honest Abe of Young Mr. Lincoln remains America’s idealized politician, and candidates continue to vie for the honor of being regular folk—despite Ivy League credentials. This political season you can bank on plenty of photo ops of candidates striving to look comfortable with Joe and Jane Six-Pack, while insults assailing opponents as being “elitist” or “out of touch” are almost guaranteed. The next time you hear a populist barb, consider Stark’s incendiary exhortations to his “hicks” in 1949: “Here it is, you hicks! Nail up anybody who stands in your way!”
The following is a sampler of American political movies. The films at hand reveal lessons forgotten and then re-learned each election cycle, and even some valuable reminders about what really matters when it’s time to pull the lever or you stop to consider those pesky hanging chads.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Director: John Ford
Criterion Collection, $39.95
Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is a rarity among political films—a preamble of things to come, with hints of impending greatness strewn throughout. Henry Fonda, replete with platform shoes, towers over all as we follow Lincoln’s rise from store owner to sharp-witted lawyer with a gift for memorable verbal jabs. Within the standard plot of courtroom heroics that save a pair of innocent brothers, there’s Mary Todd, the future Mrs. Lincoln, who casts an ambitious eye on the future president. Her portrayal, interestingly, is ambiguous at best; she seems to shrewdly size up Lincoln’s prospects. Ford also sets the stage for the budding rivalry with archrival Stephen A. Douglas, which culminated in the now famous debates. There’s more than a hint of sadness about Fonda’s Lincoln, a youthful, doomed romance hangs over the picture and, in the end, Lincoln takes a walk—alone—into the hills, background thunder booming as if from a cannon.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Director: Frank Capra
Sony Pictures, $27.95
The quintessentially simple, honest man taking on corrupt Washington. Picked as a patsy to finish a dead senator’s term, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) wants nothing more than to pass a bill granting land to the “Boy Rangers.” Unfortunately, the land in question is needed for an unneeded dam project, and chicanery unfolds—culminating in Smith’s marathon, voice-scorching filibuster. As it begins, the Speaker of the Senate asks, “Will the Senator yield?” Senator Smith answers, “No, sir, I’m afraid not, no sir. I yielded the floor once before, if you can remember, and I was practically never heard of again.” In the end (after all, it is Capra) decency prevails, in the form of Claude Raines’ rediscovered conscience. Tellingly, the film wasn’t embraced by all circles upon its release. Newspaper correspondents were shocked at the drinking, and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, that model of political virtue, was concerned that the film would harm “America’s prestige in Europe.” By the way, for those seeking a political slant, the film mentions neither Republicans nor Democrats—Jefferson Smith’s state isn’t even named.
The Great McGinty (1940)
Director: Preston Sturges
Universal Studios, $59.98 (Contained in Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection, with Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, Hail the Conquering Hero, Christmas in July and The Great Moment)
Sturges takes aim at political machines in his directorial debut. Told as a flashback, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) makes a name for himself by voting 37 times for the candidate picked by The Boss (Akim Tamiroff). McGinty further secures his place in politics by demonstrating an uncanny ability to collect debts—the next step is to run for mayor as, in a moment of cynical genius, the reform candidate. A show marriage which predictably transforms itself into love ensues and, as the governor’s mansion beckons, a moment of conscience negates McGinty’s final victory. Despite the latent decency, this is a black view of the party hackery. (A good double feature with Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero, which considers the nature of heroism and ambition.)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Turner Home Entertainment, $26.98
Before Gary Hart’s cruise on the Monkey Business, before Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, before Eliot Spitzer at the Mayflower, there was candidate Charles Foster Kane’s famous indiscretion. In American politics, there’s no surer career bonfire than the sniff of a sex scandal. The future looks bright for Kane, who speaks at Madison Square Garden, a giant campaign poster in the background. In the wings, political rival James Gettys looks on. Kane’s political ambitions come to a decisive end in his love nest, with his wife, song-bird mistress and Gettys in attendance. Given the choice of bowing out quietly or being outted, Kane unleashes an ill-conceived, delusional torrent of abuse on the bemused Gettys, who calmly walks away. Screams Kane, “Don’t worry about me, Gettys! Don’t worry about me! I’m Charles Foster Kane! I’m no cheap, crooked politician, trying to save himself from the consequences of his crimes!” The polls close; in the end it’s jigsaw puzzles for the mistress and brooding for Kane in the oppressive halls of Xanadu.
All the King’s Men (1949)
Director: Robert Rossen
Sony Pictures, $19.94
The flip, dark side of the populism of Ford and Capra. Rossen’s film, taken from Robert Penn Warren’s novel, is a thinly-veiled retelling of Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s rise and violent ending. Broderick Crawford’s long-inspired Willie Stark shrewdly emerges from obscurity to become governor. But the movie doesn’t simply present Stark as a decent man corrupted by the system: There’s something darkly ambitious just below the surface in Stark’s early scenes as a decent, bumpkin candidate. When that ambition is finally unleashed, Stark’s drive is almost feral. As he discards his wonkish speech for the lowest common denominator, he fastens his future on the “hicks.” Grasping the microphone he finds his voice and roars, “Now shut up! Shut up all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time I’m going to fool somebody. I’m going to stay in this race. I’m on my own and I’m out for blood.” Footage of rabid crowds and Stark illuminated by torches follows. The rest is debasement.
Seven Days In May (1964)
Director: John Frankenheimer
Warner Home Video, $19.98
Beginning with Saul Bass’ title sequence that turns White House fencing into missiles, Seven Days In May rapidly unfolds as a penetrating look at the uneasy relationship between the military and elected government. Frankenheimer, who took a look at some of the darker corridors of government in The Manchurian Candidate, gives us a U.S. president (Fredric March) interested in dealing with the dreaded Reds. As General Scott, Burt Lancaster puts together a coup to unseat “the traitor,” while Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas) unveils the perfidy. Interestingly, the film imbues television cameras with as much power as guns—a key component of the coup is the seizure of the television networks. Information is power.
The Candidate (1972)
Director: Michael Ritchie
Warner Home Video, $19.98
Ritchie’s film doesn’t take the easy road of portraying an idealist co-opted by an evil system. Candidate Bill McKay’s road to office is a bit more complicated than that. In his humble legal aid offices, McKay (Robert Redford) announces his Senate candidacy. Political operative Peter Boyle has told McKay that he can run his sure-to-lose campaign his own way, so his sideburns are shorn as he takes to the campaign trail with program specifics. But just as Willie Stark learned in All The King’s Men, McKay discovers that stats don’t sell. As the polls improve, McKay’s message changes, and herein lies the film’s strength, not only because of corrupting influences but because of McKay himself. He slides easily, with limited hesitation, into the role of consummate politician. As his ambitious wife notes at one point, “He has the power,” and he learns to wield it on the stump. As the campaign unfolds, McKay masters the rhetoric, evasiveness and memorable one-liners and in the process becomes more divorced from the original message. Simply put, he’s adrift. As the film ends, Senator-elect McKay is mobbed by supporters. He tries to shout above the crowd to Boyle and asks, “What do we do now?”
All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Warner Home Video, $26.98
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) journalistic takedown of a president arrived on the big screen in 1976—a political thriller with telephones and typewriters in place of guns. Never before or after has the newspaper profession looked so noble. An important reminder of the role that the much-maligned fourth estate (when was the last time you heard those two words?) is supposed to play—a role often forgotten in the current political landscape with accusations hurled about by the right and the left. Somehow the movie restores faith in free speech while exposing a very compromised underbelly.
The War Room (1993)
Directors: D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus
Universal Studios, $14.98
A backstage pass into a modern campaign and a study in styles: The buttoned-down shirts of George Stephanopoulos and the LSU T-shirts of James Carville help to win the Presidency for nominee Bill Clinton. The inclusion of segments with Republican strategist Mary Matalin, Carville’s then-girlfriend and now-wife, ushers the film into “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” territory. From cobbling together commercials to convention choreography, it’s all about packaging, as candidate Clinton periodically enters the frame. The film is most notable for what’s missing: Any meaningful discussion about the issues. Rather, it’s about what will sell; the reality of the men behind the curtain.
Director: Oliver Stone
Walt Disney Video, $14.99
From the opening haunted house shot of a very dark White House, Stone takes a grim look at a grim period in American politics. Nixon is Stone’s take on the most Shakespearean of modern politicians, Richard Nixon. It’s all here: Political genius, grotesque paranoia, internal corruption. Anthony Hopkins wisely avoids the easy caricature throughout this chronicle of Nixon’s complex political career. The familiar gang makes its shadowy entrances: Kissinger, Haig, the plumbers, Hoover, scary anti-Castro Cubans… What Stone does bring to the table is an interpretation beyond the familiar film clips. Nixon has always been a character quick to dismiss and vilify. Stone takes a crack at presenting the former President in all his complexity.
Wag the Dog (1997)
Director: Barry Levinson
New Line Home Video, $14.98
It’s no small accomplishment to be the most cynical of the films under consideration. Consider the premise of Wag the Dog: Got a sex scandal? Start a war. In this case, with the magic of Hollywood, over-the-top producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman sporting Bob Evans-esque glasses) does a bang-up job manufacturing atrocities via blue screen. So, with the help of Johnny Dean’s (Willie Nelson) “Old Shoe” ditty, the U.S. goes to “war” with troublesome Albania. Alas, manufacturing a war isn’t particularly new. Remember William Randolph Hearst’s apocryphal quote when considering the Spanish-American War: “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.” Or as Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean says here, “What difference does it make if it’s true? If it’s a story and it breaks, they’re gonna run with it.” From Swift boats to spurious draft letters, so it goes.
Director: Warren Beatty
20th Century Fox, $9.98
Imagine the possibilities of a burnt-out politician freed from the tyranny of trying to stay atop the polls. Reduced to taking a contract out on his own life, emancipated Senator Bulworth (Warren Beatty) eliminates his inner editor and the results are spectacular. The esteemed senator tells a black audience, “If you don’t put down that malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind someone other than a running back who stabs his wife, you’re never going to get rid of somebody like me!” From there, Bulworth adds rapping to his repertoire and manages a measure of redemption. Just imagining a candidate breaking into an obscene rap this fall may help one make it through another pre-programmed debate.
13 Days (2000)
Director: Roger Donaldson
New Line Home Video, $14.98
With all of the real-world caterwauling about symbolic banalities such as the importance of wearing American flag lapel pins, 13 Days offers a sobering reminder of what really is at stake in the White House. Donaldson’s film offers a compelling look at the pressure a president can face, in this case whether or not to invade Cuba when missiles are discovered. Faced with terrible options and potentially catastrophic consequences, John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and crew are confronted by hawks eager for war. JFK, no softie on the godless Reds, desperately seeks an acceptable political solution. A back channel plan is worked out. Donaldson’s intelligent film shines a light on the pressures of the highest stakes of diplomacy.
The Fog of War (2003)
Director: Errol Morris
Sony Pictures, $14.94
Looking for your political lessons on a platter? Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is your man. If you think Rumsfeld was controversial, take a look back at McNamara—Vietnam policy architect extraordinaire, with victory always just around the corner and the dominoes always about to fall. McNamara was one of the most public faces of the war, as he succinctly states, “A lot of people think I’m a son of a bitch.” In some ways The Fog of War was McNamara’s attempt at rehabilitation, but to his credit he doesn’t deny errors, rather he offers lessons from the experience. Unfortunately those lessons are a bit late. Fortunately they are available to leaders today. Following the lessons is another matter. As McNamara notes in lesson number two, “Rationality will not save us.”
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Director: Michael Moore
Weinstein Company, $14.95
Michael Moore follows the money and lets film roll and roll. Creating some disquieting moments, he looks at the lead-up and fallout from 9/11 as only he can. Provocative? Yes. Bold-faced propaganda? Yes. Manipulative? Yes. But also terrifying and maddening. There’s little new in Moore’s film, but it’s the presentation in one package that’s the most troubling. The litany of damning handshakes speaks volumes. And just letting the tape run offers some mind-bending moments. Watching President Bush’s reaction to news of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center is about as painful as it gets. Finally, Moore’s stunt of trying to get Congressmen to sign up their children for the military is the director at his comic, inflammatory best. Some might argue that it’s a cheap shot and unfair; but, hey, that’s politics.