Politics and the Movies: A Brief History on an Historical Evening

In life as in cinema, the stories of yesterday are remarkably similar to movies of today, as if the scenes were spliced from the same film – one sepia, one color – for dramatic effect. In the book Reelpolitik: Political Ideologies in ’30s and ’40s Films, Beverly Kelley and her co-authors Jack Pitney, Craig Smith and Herbert Gooch, explore competing political ideologies (e.g., fascism, communism, objectivism and populism) as expressed in eight films from the time between the First and Second World Wars. The films, and the questions they raise, could just as well have been shot between the war in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most famously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington chronicled the rise of the everyman, who sought to fight the money grubbing corruption in the capital for the benefit of the boys back home. In the nineties, Eddie Murphy took to the capitol as a conman turned Congressman with a conscience in Distinguished Gentleman. Last year, the everyman was played by Robin Williams, who ran for President in order to renew the government’s commitment to the people, who have been neglected by professional politicians and fooled by flawed electronic voting systems – no joke. The movie, Man of the Year, did not quite fill the seats, but it certainly tried to stuff the ballot boxes with pedantic populism one month before a real election.

This year’s take on populist as savior was Swing Vote, which had Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper throwing back beers and shooting skeet all to sway Kevin Costner’s last and final vote to single-handedly choose the president. It strangely mirrored the Hillary/Obama boilermaker and bowling contest to appeal to blue collar voters in the Democratic primary. The McCain camp even turned to Joe the Plumber to try to plug the holes in its sinking ship near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Today the everyman is the President himself. Obama’s campaign was extended beyond the walls of the traditional. While volunteers and donors make campaigns possible, they have never been so essential to the political machine itself. His campaign is truly of the people: 1.5 million volunteers and millions of contributors. Just as a million people came to celebrate at Grant Park; thousands spontaneously gathered on the Ellipse in front of the White House.

But the stories aren’t only about glory. There is the ever present cinematic exegesis on war. All Quiet on the Western Front chronicled a band of German soldiers who came to discover that the reality of war are quite different than the jingoistic calls to battle that got them there. The parallels to modern cinema are too many to list. Take your pick: the horror of Apocalypse Now, a blow to the head in Full Metal Jacket, Barnes shooting Elias in Platoon, Black Hawk Down followed by a President ordering retreat at the first sign of battle.

Or more recently, Jake Gyllenhall in Jarhead begging for the chance to shoot his sniper rifle just once, to register a kill during 100 hours of non-combative combat in the first Gulf War. Or there’s Rendition, featuring a CIA analyst who questions his assignment after witnessing an “unorthodox interrogation.” In Stop-Loss, Ryan Phillippe is fighting orders to return to Iraq, questioning the war and his personal and military commitments. All these movies have been harshly critical of war, just as most movies today are also brazenly negative about the President and presidency.

The all but forgotten film “Gabriel Over the White House” was a movie about a Lincolnesque president who disbands Congress in order to restore a nation to greatness. It was so popular at the time that many in the political establishment were calling on FDR to take on the role of a benevolent dictator in order to sort out the dire straits of the Depression.

Here’s Gabriel: ffwd to 2:33 for the start. The whole movie is on YouTube.

This is perhaps where modern movies differ the most. Today, movies rarely call for the President to take on more powers in order to protect the people. American Dreamz portrayed the president as a ventriloquist dummy appearing on America’s favorite TV show. Love Actually had the president as a lecherous cowboy who scoffed at the British Prime Minister even as he propositioned his assistant. Dave dared to ask whether the country was better off with an everyday doppelganger at the helm. In Murder at 1600 the President was actually complicit in a murder at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Not to mention Michael Moore’s movies, which in no uncertain terms portray the actual president as a real life super villain.

We have to turn to science fiction to find a heroic president – Bill Pullman as the fighter pilot in Independence Day. And the only reason he was allowed to be heroic was because we were being attacked by aliens bent on destroying the entire human race.

As Democrats solidify their control over Congress and take the White House; and as Barack Obama becomes the first African-American president, it will be interesting to see whether the politics of cinema will change as well.

The portrayals of black presidential figures in American cinema have been far from positive. Chris Rock’s presidential character in Head of State – Mays Gilliam – was a failed alderman who was handpicked to run because the party thought they would certainly lose the election. Eddie Murphy’s Thomas Jefferson Johnson was a con man who won a Congressional seat, found his morals and eyed the presidency as a redeemed man in The Distinguished Gentleman. Morgan Freeman as Deep Impact’s President Tom Beck oversaw the possible end of human life. 24’s President Palmer was a great man who was plotted against and ultimately shot and killed.

Cataclysmic events, con men and cagey characters: so has been the portrayal of black presidential figures in American cinema. Will we see a different tone in the years ahead. Will the real life economic and financial crises that we face be reflected on-screen? Will the president become the super-accountant in chief (financial meltdown isn’t quite as sexy as asteroids, so probably not)?

Will there be more great presidents: Palmers not Gilliams? Let us hope. Let us see. Let us write the future to be.


~ by montelutz on November 5, 2008.

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