Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Vote for me; I'll set you free: American politics in film

By Steve Evans

The U.S. campaign season has blessedly come to an end. No more promises. No more accusations. No more stump speeches and other rhetorical tedium.

While waiting for the polls to close, here we have a baker's dozen uplifting film suggestions to maintain perspective and get us through Election Day. Truth may be stranger than fiction, although fiction often conveys a greater truth:

All the King's Men (1949)
Broderick Crawford famously portrays Willy Stark, a rural Louisiana politician whose ambition causes him to lose his innocence and eventually his mind. Based on the life of Huey “The Kingfish” Long, a Louisiana governor, U.S. Senator and would-be presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1935.

All the President's Men (1976)
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) risk their careers – and, it is implied, their lives – to unravel the Watergate Cover-up that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Hal Holbrook is Deep Throat, nicknamed after a porn film popular at the time.

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Andy Griffith delivers his best dramatic performance as a charismatic musician who gains fame and power, gradually revealing himself to be venal, utterly corrupt and probably sociopathic. You’ll never look at Mayberry the same way after watching Elia Kazan’s powerful and eerily prescient film on the power of the media to catapult a hick to the forefront of public adoration. Predates Sidney Lumet’s Network by 20 years (and Rush Limbaugh by 30 years), while covering similar thematic territory.

The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford runs for a U.S. Senate seat in California, only to suffer a crisis of conscience as he discovers no real issues are ever discussed; there are only carefully choreographed sound bites.

The Manchurian Candidate (I prefer this 1962 original over the 2004 remake)
Director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axlerod set the standard for paranoid political thrillers in this odd (and darkly comic) film about a Communist conspiracy to plant a subversive politician in the White House. Lawrence Harvey’s bland acting style found the role of a lifetime in Raymond Shaw, the brainwashed assassin. Frank Sinatra stars as the army captain determined to crush the conspiracy.

Seven Days in May (1964)
Hawkish military man Burt Lancaster attempts to overthrow a presidency, stage a coup d'├ętat and fight Communism on his own radical terms, even if it means nuclear annihilation. Another great Frankenheimer political thriller co-starring Kirk Douglas as a man of conscience and a powerful, late-career performance by Frederic March as the president.

The President's Analyst (1967)
James Coburn stars as a psychologist picked by the U.S. Secret Service to serve as the president’s secret psychoanalyst in this swinging-sixties satire. Coburn soon becomes caught up in a conspiracy to render the phone company obsolete through Matrix-like brain implants in all citizens. Remember, this was 1967.

The Parallax View (1974)
Newspaper reporter Warren Beatty investigates the mysterious Parallax Corporation, which seems linked to a series of political assassinations. Beatty begins to wonder if Parallax may actually be running a puppet government by proxy. Shades of Halliburton, anyone?

The Dead Zone (1983)
Adapted from a Stephen King novel, this film by David Cronenberg lingers on the supernatural aspects of a man (Christopher Walken at his haunted best) who is gifted with the power of seeing into the minds of others whenever he makes physical contact. When he shakes hands with a presidential candidate (Martin Sheen) he discovers the politician’s true agenda, setting him on a course reminiscent of the Manchurian Candidate.

Bob Roberts (1992)
Tim Robbins stars as the titular character, a candidate for U.S. Senate who holds far greater aspirations. Candidate Roberts sings folksy Dylanesque songs that belie a self-serving and borderline Fascist message. Robbins also co-wrote and directed this, his first feature film, and his proselytizing can be ham-fisted at times. Still, this is a riveting example of “politics as theater” and a cautionary tale of what happens when news media present an unfiltered message without benefit of critical thought.

The Ides of March (2011)
George Clooney is a morally corrupt politician screwing interns and covering up the aftermath of his affairs. His junior campaign manager (Ryan Gossling) learns a harsh lesson in the reality of modern-day politicking, leading to inevitable disillusionment with a life squandered on political promotion. A great supporting cast features Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

The War Room (1993)
Famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker received unprecedented access to then-candidate Bill Clinton’s political strategists. Film focuses mainly on the machinations of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who sculpted their baggage-laden candidate and maneuvered the media to court popular favor and win the presidency.

W. (2008)
Oliver Stone’s surprisingly restrained biopic of President George W. Bush promotes the none-too-surprising thesis that “Dubya” was basically a decent and simple man – emphasis on the simple – who was in way over his head. Josh Brolin turns in a credible performance as the oft-confused president, though Richard Dreyfus steals the film as Vice President Dick Cheney, shown here as the real brains – and the main problem – of the Bush Administration.

And if you can't appreciate irony, then just watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Frank Capra directed Jimmy Stewart in this 73-year-old classic, made when people actually harbored optimism in their hearts for the political process. It’s still a good film.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.