29 October 2008

Tis the Season For Political Films, Tra La La La La La La La

Not sick of politics yet? (Seriously, after months...what am I saying, two years of this political campaign you're not sick to death of it? What, you been in a cave all this time?) Or if you'd just like a less reality based view of U.S. politics, how about a movie? Hollywood has churned out scads of films that depict our political process.

Some of these films are downright educational in their depiction of political campaigns or the workings of government. Some are morality tales (morality, in politics?) revealing the dark or bright sides of homo sapiens entrusted with a power.

Good political films can enlighten and entertain. Here are some of the best.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) For the two decades I taught U.S. History I always followed our study of the Constitution by showing Frank Capra's Mr. Smith. The only American film I hold in higher esteem is The Godfather (1972). Invariably many students would initially groan at being subjected to an old black and white movie. There would also be some who had trouble with the slang and idioms of the late Thirties. But by the movie's end classes would often break into applause and sing its praises. I even managed to convert some students into fans of classic cinema. Mr. Smith succeeds because of the power of its twin messages: 1) Elements of our government can be controlled by dark forces seeking power and wealth through corruption and manipulation that subvert our democratic process and even our freedoms of speech and press. 2) Our government contains within it the all that is necessary to rid us of such influences and one person can make a difference. Of course, many critics of the film only see the the first message and miss the more important and inspiring second message. Interestingly, Mr. Smith was banned by both communist and fascist countries. The movie is not completely accurate in its depiction of a filibuster but does give viewers a sense of how the senate works, how laws are made and how certain protocols are important. It includes brilliant performances by Jimmy Stewart as Smith, Claude Rains as a morally conflicted senator and Edward Arnold as the ultimate political bad guy. The cast also includes Jean Arthur, whose character’s transformation from cynic to believer is one of the film’s highlights, and Thomas Mitchell as a hard bitten old reporter. Smith’s valiant effort to save his fledging career and expose corruption through a one-man filibuster is a cinematic masterpiece.

The Candidate (1972) Absolutely, positively the best movie about a political campaign yet made. It's 36 years old and not a bit dated. Michael Ritchie directed this story of an idealistic young attorney picked to run a supposedly doomed campaign for the US Senate. Redford was the perfect choice for the part and was excellent in the lead role. However it is Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield who really shine as the savvy insiders who run his campaign. Melvyn Douglass appears as the candidate's father, a former governor. Also noteworthy is Don Porter as the Ronald Reagan-Like incumbent. He spouts platitudes and bloviates about nothing in a style characteristic of post Eisenhower Republicans. Its an easy but empty charm. The Candidate has at times a documentary feel to it as it follows Redford's campaign to whistle stops, debates, and the boudoir. The movie includes one of the great closing lines in all of film.

The Contender (2000) A flawed film but nonetheless interesting take on high power politics. Joan Allen stars as an appointee to replace a deceased vice president. She would be the first female vice president and seems a reasonable choice. But a powerful senator played by Gary Oldman (damn, he's good) wants to derail her appointment in favor of the governor of his state who supposedly attempted to rescue a drowning woman and is thus a hero. Or is he? There's a lot of intrigue mixed in to the Contender turning what could have been a rather pedestrian story into a thriller. Viewers can decide for themselves if it all works. I think there's little doubt that the film does explore political gamesmanship at the highest levels. Jeff Bridges is wonderful as a Clintonesque president. The real mystery of the movie is why he didn't feature more.

Advise & Consent (1962) This time the new appointee is for Secretary of State and Henry Fonda stars. At two and a quarter hours it packs in a lot, a helluva lot, about political maneuvering. It's an excellent primer on American government and features a terrific cast. Besides the aforementioned Fonda, Paul Ford, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton and Peter Lawford are senators. Franchot Tone is the president and Lew Ayers the veep, Gene Tierney, Will Geer, Burgess Meredith and a young Betty White all appear. Otto Preminger provided the workman like direction. While The Contender sacrificed steak for sizzle, there's certainly a lot of meat to Advise and Consent. There was even a subplot about homosexuality (in 1962?).

The Great McGinty (1940) Any movie list is enhanced by a Preston Sturges film. Here's the story of a mendicant (Brian Donlveay) who earns a few bucks on election day by repeatedly voting at various polling stations -- for the same slate, of course. Next thing you know the machine hires him as muscle. Lo and behold its not long before he raises to the position of governor with stops along the way to serve as an alderman then mayor. But wouldn't you know it? The machine's dirty dealings are found out and he an his cronies have to take it on the lam. The usual wonderful Sturges company appears and here includes Akim Tamiroff as "The Boss." He couldn't be better. This marvelous story flies by in under an hour and half. One of Sturges' six great films.

W. (2008) You can't rent this on DVD -- yet, but it's still theaters. An all star cast led by Josh Brolin as the current president feature in Oliver Stone's take on the rise of George W. Bush up to the first year of the war in Iraq. It's a fascinating look at how a seeming failure and spoiled rich kid can become president. There's also a lot about how decisions are made at the highest levels, who makes them and why. How W. will be perceived in years to come is anyone's guess but right now its an important look at how a the USA got in such a fine mess.

Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932) Lee Tracy plays Button Gwinett Brown (seriously, that's the character's name) a freshman Congressman out to rid Washington of corruption. The Depression is in full swing and the Bonus Army still camps in the capital providing a powerful backdrop to our story. Not surprisingly our hero runs up against opposition (what, you thought cleaning up Washington should be a snap?). His unwillingness to compromise his principles and his brutal honesty are refreshing if not politically prudent. It's an intelligent story, lacking the scope of Mr. Smith but worthy in its own right.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) Why not a little 19th century American History too? You could do a lot worse than director John Cromwell's look at Honest Abe from Kentucky rail splitter to president elect. Raymond Massey is just fine as Lincoln and Ruth Gordon (especially given her later work) is fascinating to watch as Mary Todd Lincoln. Gene Lockhart was an interesting choice for Stephen Douglas, but he makes it work. So much of American politics is informed by the story of Lincoln that this modest effort deserves a look. It's fairly accurate and Massey is a more than passable Lincoln.

Bullworth (1998) And now for something completely different. Warren Beatty directed and starred in this offbeat look at a powerful but suicidal politician who adopts hip-hop culture to express his disillusionment with the political status quo. Halle Berry co-stars (a strong selling point in itself). The crazy thing about Senator Bullworth's transformation is that he starts doing what no real politician can do -- speak the truth as he sees it. The movie is thus able to give an unflinching and revealing look at the failure's of our political system, it's hypocrisy and failure to meet the needs of the neediest.

The Last Hurrah (1958) Director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy combined for this study of a politician on his last legs. Like great athletes, even mediocre politicians sometimes don't know when enough is enough. The power and the glory are too intoxicating. Tracy plays an incumbent running for another term as mayor of an unnamed U.S. city. It's a surprisingly cynical film for Ford, made fairly late in his own career. Donald Crisp, James Gleason, and Pat O'Brien help give The Last Hurrah an authentic Irish American political machine feel. There's humor and insight in this somewhat dark film.

Others To Consider: Dave (1993), The Dark Horse (1932), State of the Union (1948), The American President (1995), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), and Primary Colors(1998).

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