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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Conventional wisdom II

Okay, so I was totally, completely wrong. Again.

Five weeks ago I lamented that I couldn’t find a way to watch the Democratic National Convention on television. “I don’t get C-SPAN,” I whinged. Since then I’ve realized that I do get C-SPAN. Well, it turns out that I can get the UK equivalent of C-SPAN, which is called BBC Parliament and is beamed by satellite free-to-air across the British Isles. Mostly, this channel broadcasts boring British speeches but, when they finally run out of boring British speeches, they fill their extra air time with (guess what) boring American speeches. And where do they get boring American speeches? That’s right, they broadcast C-SPAN. Which means, of course, they are providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican National Convention.

So, where I watched the DNC filtered through various cable news channels and National Public Radio, I have been getting the RNC unfiltered. This makes a huge difference. For example, instead of having to watch Bill O’Reilly debate Michael Moore with a convention going on in the background, I now get to watch John McCain (at the podium) belittling Michael Moore (sitting the press box). Also, by watching the convention unfiltered by the mass media, I pick up information not reported by the major outlets. For example, did you know that the Republican nominee this time around is George W. Bush? One observation: Is it me or did the Democrats keep lifting lines from Ronald Reagan while the Republicans keep quoting Franklin Roosevelt?

I am struck by how much of a role movies have been playing in the current election campaign. The most prominent example, of course, is Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the express purpose of which is to review in the most scathing manner possible the record of President Bush, at the very time when voters are making up their minds about whether to re-elect him. But Moore’s is not the only campaign-oriented movie out there and, coincidentally or not, most of them seem to be, if not pro-Democrat, then certainly anti-Bush. Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob do a hatchet job on key Bush adviser Karl Rove in Bush’s Brain, Austrian filmmaker Andreas Horvath paints an unflattering portrait of middle America and its support of the war in Iraq in This Ain’t No Heartland, and Paul Alexander burnishes John Kerry’s war hero credentials in Brothers in Arms: The Story of the Crew of Patrol Craft 94. And when these new political movies aren’t attacking the president or his supporters, then they take aim at media that aren’t overly critical of him, as with Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which undertakes to discredit the journalistic standards of Fox News. Admittedly, my monitoring of this wave of movies isn’t exhaustive, but I am aware of no movie playing in the cinemas this season that could be described as pro-Bush. So, what we have always suspected is indeed true: while right-wingers prefer to listen to AM radio, left-wingers like to go to the movies.

All of this got me wondering if a movie had ever actually had a demonstrable effect on election results in the United States. Timely political literature has been around for quite a while now, and at any given time there are a bunch of books with a political axe to grind, both left and right. And low-budget political films have been around for quite a while, although, until now, not that many people would get a chance to see many of them. Even the current crop, with the notable exception of Moore’s film, are largely confined to audiences in urban areas or university districts. If you want to see Outfoxed, you pretty much have to buy it on video. Clearly, Fahrenheit 9/11 is the first film of its kind to be seen widely enough to have an effect on public opinion at large. Given the closeness of the two candidates in the polls, it might even make the difference in the outcome.

And what about bonafide Hollywood feature films, as opposed to clearly partisan “documentaries” or, as I like to refer to them (in what I think is a fair and neutral term) advocacy cinema? Has any of them ever had effect on an election? You could argue that Ronald Reagan’s political career got a boost from the name recognition he acquired from appearing in movies during three decades. But it’s not too likely anyone actually voted for him because of his movie career. (It wasn’t that good.) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie career was technically still ongoing when he ran for and won the governorship of California. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines had been in cinemas earlier in the year and the remake of Around the World in 80 Days had yet to be released. And Schwarzenegger was not timid about playing on his movie star persona and popularity. You can definitely make a case that Schwarzenegger’s movies made the difference in his election, although you could also argue that Schwarzenegger had been pretty successful at everything he has tried his hand at, and he may well have been successful in politics even without a movie career.

But what about movies where none of the stars was a future politican? Has one of those films ever influenced such an election? Personally, I can only recall one case where it was thought that such a film might give a candidate a boost. When Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff came out in 1983, there was much speculation about whether it might give a huge boost to Ohio Senator John Glenn in the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries. This was a case where a politician was not an actor or former actor but actually a character in a movie. Actor Ed Harris played Glenn in the movie, which recounted the early days of America’s space program. If nothing else, the film would remind everyone that Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth and, perhaps, if the movie turned out to be blockbuster, it might give Glenn an extremely high profile, for taking on President Reagan. As it happened, the film was quite good, but it wasn’t a runaway commercial success and, by the height of primary season, it and Glenn had largely submerged below everyone’s political radar level.

And is there any Hollywood movie out there that might have an unexpected effect on this year’s election? Probably not, although I have to say that I am intrigued by Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate. John Frankenheimer’s original made a shrewd, if satirical, political observation by having its rabid anti-Communist politician (read Joseph McCarthy) turn out to be more of a danger than the Communists themselves. As I understand it, the new villain in the update is a thinly disguised version of Halliburton. Hmmm, where is the wryness in that? Anyway, the movie hasn’t arrived in Ireland yet, so I haven’t seen it. But I have seen a trailer for it, and I was struck particularly by the clips of Liev Schreiber in the Laurence Harvey role vis-à-vis Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra role. There was a virtual debate going on between them about whether the politically ambitious Schreiber was really a hero in the Gulf War, as the record showed. Following the plot of the original, everyone has obviously been brainwashed so that the rising politician can benefit from his war record. Oh dear. What was clearly meant to be a jab at Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney has inadvertently provided echoes of the current obsession with sorting out the fog of war in John Kerry’s Vietnam. Add to this the fact that Schreiber is bankrolled by an extremely wealthy woman (Meryl Streep, in the role originated by Angela Lansbury and with a hairstyle that makes her look strangely like Hillary Rodham Clinton), and the trailer starts to look eerily like a Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad.

Could this be the one movie of the season that might actually help Bush? Don’t hold your breath. The parallel will probably be lost on most moviegoers who, as we observed above, are mostly left-leaning. Now, if the film could be adapted as an audio play to be broadcast over AM radio…

-S.L., 2 September 2004

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