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Scott Larson





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Building façade in Cannes, France

Conventional wisdom

Like all of you, I have been glued to the television set this week, watching every minute of the Democratic National Convention. Okay, only a few of us are actually watching any part of it. Okay, I’m not watching it either.

But I have an excuse. I am in the wrong time zone. And we have had an awful lot of houseguests since we got back from the States. I will pull an all-nighter to watch the Academy Awards, but I’m sorry, I am not going to stay up to 3 in the morning to watch Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean. Besides, I don’t even know how to watch it. I suppose C-SPAN is broadcasting it, but I don’t get C-SPAN. And all the news channels I get by satellite in Ireland just show the usual gang of commentators and analysts commenting and analyzing. So I have given in and am just letting the media tell me what happened. Surprisingly, the so-called liberal media and the so-called conservative media agree on all the main points. Everyone from NPR to Fox News says that Bill Clinton is a great speaker, Barack Obama is up and coming, everyone is nervous when Teresa Heinz Kerry opens her mouth, and John Edwards has to be careful not to be more appealing than John Kerry. There, I’ve just saved you a week’s worth of newspaper reading and TV news watching.

When I was a kid, I was taught that one of the reasons the Soviet Union was bad was because dissent wasn’t allowed. The proof of this was the Communist Party’s congresses, where everyone agreed with each other and the results of all the votes were preordained. Ironically, now the Soviet Union is gone, and the United States has the pro forma party conventions—although at least we have two parties instead of one. Personally, I am old enough to remember when, at the beginning of a party’s national convention, you not only didn’t know what was going to be in the platform, you sometimes didn’t even know who the presidential nominee would be. But, fortunately, there is just enough inconsistency in the various speeches this week to show that the Democrats haven’t completely turned into obedient robots. On Tuesday Barack Obama told us there is only one America, and on Wednesday Jesse Jackson said it was time to bring the troops home. Later on Wednesday, John Edwards told us that there are two Americas and that President Kerry will send more troops to Iraq and win the war.

Of course, the only true way to understand a topic as vast and as important as campaign politics is to turn to the source of all wisdom and knowledge, i.e. the movies. So, what do the movies tell us about American politics? As far as I can tell, movies that focus on politics seem to fall into two categories: those that purport to throw light on the political process and those that seek to give us a fuzzy, warm feel-good glow.

The preeminent example of the former category is probably Otto Preminger’s 1962 adaption of Allen Drury’s novel, Advise and Consent. This film was actually shown in my high school as part of the civics curriculum because it worked a lot of the features of the U.S. Constitution into its plot. Henry Fonda plays a nominee to the post of Secretary of State, who has been accused of being a Communist. Don Murray plays a senator who is blackmailed because of a single past lapse in his otherwise tightly repressed homosexuality. Franchot Tone is the president, and Charles Laughton (in his last role) is a flamboyant Southern senator. Advise and Consent is pure melodrama, but it still gets at some truths about how the American system works, sometimes in spite of itself. Michael Ritchie’s 1972 movie The Candidate gave us a satiric view of how political campaigns work. Released in a pivotal year (when Richard Nixon was elected by a seriously divided country during the Vietnam war), this Robert Redford vehicle fed our sense of cynicism about politics while, at the same time, giving us the kind of ideal candidate we crave but rarely get. The attractive Redford starts out with idealistic intentions but is inevitably corrupted by the process. The Candidate caught the mood of the times and, in a strange way, foreshadowed the notion of the politician as sex object. More recently, Mike Nichols adapted Joe Klein’s (initially anonymous) roman à clé about the Clintons, Primary Colors, in 1998. John Travolta and Emma Thompson were the campaigning couple, and Billy Bob Thornton verified what we all suspected: that he was born to play James Carville. Unfortunately for the movie, the whole Clinton connection was distracting, and anything it actually had to say about politics or the process was either missed or quickly forgotten.

As for the feel-good political movies, the granddaddy of them all is, of course, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. What American can watch Jimmy Stewart standing up to the corrupt power establishment, filibustering the Congress with his last ounce of strength, and not get choked up. Stewart’s homespun character, Jefferson Smith, has become a political prototype. He didn’t originate the persona of the fellow with country roots who can see through all the bull and tell right and wrong, but he definitely planted it into the American consciousness, and every politician has tried to emulate him ever since. Indeed, everyone elected to the Congress since this movie has tried to cast himself in the Jimmy Stewart role. And presidents too. It is no coincidence that the country keeps going for presidents who sound like they just got off the train from some small town after leaving a Boy Scout meeting. Think about it: Carter, Reagan, Clinton. Even George W. Bush learned early in his political career in Texas that it didn’t pay to sound too educated. He lost his first election because he was seen as “the educated one,” and he has never let that happen since. In the end, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a fantasy. Politics is rarely as black and white as it is portrayed in the movie. Still, it expresses an optimism in the face of cynicism that is uniquely American.

Also in the feel-good category would be Ivan Reitman’s 1993 comedy Dave, in which Kevin Kline plays a dual role inspired by The Prisoner of Zenda. Released at the dawn of the Clinton administration, it told of a chief executive whose presidency is undone by sexual shenanigans. Miraculously, he is replaced by a look-alike, who stands up to the bad guys (who always seem to get jobs as political advisers) and does all the right things. In hindsight, this can actually be seen as a prescient portrait of the two Bill Clintons who simultaneously inspired and repelled the American populace. Five years later, Warren Beatty gave us a different spin on the politician who says and does the right thing. In Bulworth, he played a Democratic senator who becomes disgusted with how far he has strayed from his liberal principles and hires a hit man to do him in. With no future to worry about, he finally has the freedom to say and do what he really thinks, and it goes over really great. (Possibly because he is hanging out mostly in South Central Los Angeles.) The film was probably cathartic for political liberals as a what-if fantasy, but one still has to contend with the fact that the only thing that makes it possible for Beatty to espouse his true politics is the fact that there is no future to worry about.

Another sub-genre of the political movie is the political thriller. The best example of this is probably John Frankenheimer’s 1962 movie, The Manchurian Candidate which, as it so happens, has been remade and updated for release this summer and will star Denzel Washington. Playing on the era’s paranoid fears over worldwide Communism, Frankenheimer’s film has Laurence Harvey playing a returned Korean War hero, who is the son of a right-wing senator. It emerges that Harvey has been brainwashed to murder people who stand in the way of a nefarious plot to take over the country. The main villain in the piece is Angela Lansbury, as Harvey’s fanatically Communist mother. Her performance probably set back the image of political wives several decades and may be why they were expected to be demure and soft-spoken for years afterward. Frank Sinatra, who plays Harvey’s wartime commander, had the film, which came out a year before the Kennedy assassination, suppressed for years because of the unfortunate coincidence that the climax involves sniper Harvey attempting to kill the president with a rifle.

Despite its utterly fantastic story line, the original Manchurian Candidate made some potent observations about political life in America. It remains to be seen whether the new version does so as well or if it just turns into an exercise in escapist action. That seems to be the trend anyway. This is exemplified by the 1997 movie, Air Force One, in which Harrison Ford plays a president of the United States who personally takes on terrorists who hijack his plane. President as action hero? Was Air Force One actually a harbinger of the political rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger? In the 1990s anyway, this seems to be the kind of president that people were longing for and maybe still are. In three months, we will see what kind of all-too-real and all-too-human president they will settle for.

-S.L., 29 July 2004


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