Marked by the system that nurtured them, all movies are political, but Political Movies are a different matter and a separate breed – a very large and prolific breed as it turns out. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, since politics and the movies have a lot in common. Both, after all, are the art of the possible done by committee. In each, money talks, opportunism abounds, spin is rampant, a lot of things can go wrong. And in each, occasionally, magically, something goes just right.
In this part of the world, lately at least, politics are conducted by relatively few viable parties, which speechify differently only to govern similarly. By contrast, political movies are performed across the whole range of genres. In fact, I can think of only one other movie setting as welcoming to every genre as politics – yep, the high-school flick. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us either. Consequently, political films run the gamut from funny to tragic, farce to morality tales, costume epics to romcoms. You can decide where today’s release of The Campaign, a Will Ferrell vehicle, falls on the spectrum. In the meantime, let’s quickly dissect the cinematic political beast into its anatomical parts. Given the creature’s size, best to focus mainly on the Hollywood species, to eliminate the documentary from our scalpel, and to caution that the results are hardly exhaustive.
Elections generally, and American elections especially, keep retracing the same old dialectic: hope and change versus security and entrenchment. The contender is invariably the idealist up against the rotten establishment; the incumbent is the realist wielding the pragmatic sword of office. Dramatically, on the screen, this gets translated into a battle between exalted innocence and corrupt experience. If innocence loses or, more likely, grows corrupt in winning, we have the likes of All the King’s Men, The Best Man, The Candidate, Primary Colors, The Ides ofMarch. In short, we have a tragedy.
If idealism prevails, we have uplift. There are two classics here. All the President’s Men, a more-or-less true story where corruption gets exposed from the outside by the fourth estate, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a polished myth where innocence triumphs from the inside. There, in the land of Capra-corn, the tone is already shifting away from drama towards.…
In Kevin Kline’s Dave, innocence is pushed to the extreme of naiveté, and populism (so dark in All the King’s Men) shows its happy face – hey, in America, even dumb Daves can be President (and have been). This notion may be played for pure, good-hearted comedy or, as in Peter Sellers’s Being There, the knife can be twisted, leading us away from unthinking laughs to.…
The list is long and the flavours are many. The satire can be bald – Dr. Strangelove. Or clever – Bob Roberts. Or trendy – Wag the Dog. Or loquacious – In the Loop. One of my favourites is Election, where the political movie and the high-school flick meet on common ground – hell, they end up in a limo together. Alas, since contemporary politicians do just a splendid job satirizing themselves, this category threatens to become redundant. In that case, the knife can be withdrawn, and the content retreats from satire all the way back to.…
Like The American President, a romcom where the impediment to romance is embedded in the very title – he’s the prez, she ain’t. Complications ensue. In the anatomy of political movies, consider this the appendix – small, unnecessary, removable.
From the appendix to the torso – the body of work here is vast and diverse. The Cold War was a fertile spawning ground for this genre: The Manchurian Candidate;Seven Days in May;Fail-Safe;Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. More absurdly, at adventure’s far extreme, you find Harrison Ford flexing his muscles in Air Force One – the President elevated to action hero. More realistically, in the docudrama mode, you get recreations of actual political crises like Thirteen Days.
In the jaundiced mood of the post-Watergate era, political conspiracies turned awfully black – Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View. And in the embellishing hands of Oliver Stone, they turned Byzantine – J.F.K, Nixon. Off in foreign lands, where totalitarian and autocratic regimes are conspiratorial by definition, European directors have created masterpieces on the topic – Costa-Gavras’s Z, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.
Surprisingly, Hollywood seems averse to straight-up biographies of American politicos. There are relatively few, although our own Raymond Massey did yeoman’s work in Abe Lincoln inIllinois, unfortunately made back in the day before we knew that young Abe hunted vampires. On more saintly terrain, Brit director Richard Attenborough huffed and puffed in Gandhi, a windy panegyric that brings our anatomy to a close with.…
The Costume Epic
British history is the treasure trove here, from The Lion in Winter and A Man for AllSeasons through the many takes on Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth, all the way to the current Liz in The Queen. And don’t forget any adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays. The Bard, bless him, not only invented the political movie but, in so doing, checked off every genre cited above. Bloody tragedy, vile conspiracies, biting satire, Falstaffian laughs, obsessive romance, it’s all there. The man had genius but, alas, no camera – such a tidy reversal of today’s dilemma.