Movies and Politics: Truth in Fiction

Archive Commentary Talk

“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”—George Orwell

With Election Day right around the corner, the propaganda machines are busily spinning political webs with which the candidates can lure voters. However, no matter how badly Americans might want to believe that those running for office—especially the ones we’re rooting for—are telling us the truth, truth and politics do not make good bedfellows.

Lies, corruption and cheating have long been hallmarks of the American political scene, as our nation’s history over the last 50 years reveals (which saw one president resign and another one impeached). Unfortunately, the rest of the picture is no more pleasant. The nation is drowning in debt, crippled by a slowing economy, besieged by endless wars and a military industrial complex intent on starting new ones, riddled with corrupt politicians at every level of government, suffering from dismal literacy scores despite the fact that we spend outrageous sums on education, and on and on. Despite this, the powers-that-be—the corporations and other members of the moneyed elite—are spending vast amounts of money in an effort to persuade us to buy their particular “product”—the “candidates”—on Election Day.

Yet nothing taking place on Election Day will alleviate the suffering of the American people. The government as we have come to know it—corrupt, bloated and controlled by big-money corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups—will be largely unchanged. And “we the people”—overtaxed, overpoliced, overburdened by big government, underrepresented by those who should speak for us and blissfully ignorant of the prison walls closing in on us—will continue to trudge along a path of misery.

With roughly 22 lobbyists per Congressman, corporate greed will continue to call the shots in the nation’s capital, all the while our elected representatives will grow richer and the people poorer. And elections will continue to be driven by war chests and corporate benefactors rather than such values as honesty, integrity and public service. Just consider: it’s estimated that more than $6 billion will be spent on the elections this year, yet not a dime of that money will actually help the average American in their day-to-day struggles to just get by.

However, with television driving what we know about politics, little in the way of real truth is reaching the populace. Why? Because by way of television, politics has become a form of entertainment, dominated by money and profit, imagery and spin, hype and personality. “Politics is just like show business,” Ronald Reagan once said. And, I might add, our politicians have become astute entertainers. In fact, as professor Neil Postman recognizes in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them to be.”

Much of the deception and corruption involved in politics has been written about in books, novels and in film. Indeed, if one really wants to understand the chicanery behind politics, a good place to start looking for it is in the movies. Not surprisingly, there have been some filmmakers who have tackled the nasty business of politics and analyzed it quite well. So maybe it’s time to turn off the tube and pop in a DVD. The following films are worth watching and studying. At the very least, you may find your time better spent.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): In Frank Capra’s classic film, Jimmy Stewart plays the part of a naive young man who is selected to fill in for an ailing senator, only to find that Washington, D.C. is filled with corrupt politicians. Against all odds and in the face of power and greed, he takes a courageous stand for his beliefs. Idealism, something that is difficult to find these days, triumphs. A fine supporting performance from Claude Rains.

The State of the Union (1948): A multimillionaire (Spencer Tracy) seeks the Republican nomination for president. His estranged wife (Katharine Hepburn) is asked to join him to masquerade as a happy couple. But, not surprisingly, the political machine erodes Tracy’s personal convictions. Again, Frank Capra directs.

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Director Elia Kazan traces the rise and fall of an Arkansas hobo, Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), who becomes an overnight media sensation, helped along by the gullibility of a television-watching populace. More than any other, this film speaks to the problems of politics in a television age. As one of the characters remarks, “Politics have entered a new stage, the television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans—‘Time for a change’—‘The mess in Washington’—‘More bang for a buck’—punch lines and glamour.” Superb performances by Griffith and Patricia Neal.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962): Written and directed by John Frankenheimer, this superb thriller–an adroit analysis of backstage political maneuvering—is one of the best films of its kind. It tells the story of an American Korean War veteran who suspects that he and his platoon were brainwashed during the war and that his highly decorated and heroic friend was programmed to be a political assassin. Loaded with great performances, including Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory and Frank Sinatra, this film chillingly foreshadows the Kennedy assassination, which was less than one year away.

The Best Man (1964): Two presidential contenders vie for the endorsement of the aging ex-president. In the process, personal ambitions and politics mix to trample ethics. There is an adept screenplay by Gore Vidal from his play and fine performances by Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy.

Seven Days in May (1964): Another fine film from John Frankenheimer that was written by Rod Serling. It focuses on an American general (Burt Lancaster) who plans a military takeover of the United States because he considers the president’s pacifism traitorous. This is an important film today in light of the ever-increasing presence of the military in our lives. Great ensemble cast of Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner and Fredric March, among others.

The Candidate (1972): In this film, a young, idealistic lawyer (Robert Redford) who is a product of the sixties is convinced to run for a senate seat in California and soon learns that politics means compromise. This well-written, realistic look at politics and political campaigning is supported by fine performances from Redford, Peter Boyle and Melvyn Douglas.

All the President’s Men (1976): Based on the book by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, this film is the purported true story of the Watergate break-in that eventually led to one of the greatest political fiascos of all time. The reporters slowly uncover the facts that ultimately lead to the criminal indictment of the Nixon Administration. Masterfully shot by director Alan Pakula and with a fine cast, including Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards.

Tanner ’88 (1988): Made for cable television by the legendary improvisational director Robert Altman, this realistic political satire centers on a long-shot politician (Michael Murphy) on the trail of the Democratic presidential nomination. The story is by Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury fame. This film caused controversy because of Altman’s documentary approach to the story. Some who watched it thought it was an actual candidate in a real political race.

Nixon (1995): This bio-epic, directed by Oliver Stone, touches all of Richard Nixon’s public life, while speculating on his private one. Stone’s interpretation of historical events–which caused so much controversy with JFK (1991)–is present here as well. But be that as it may, this movie exhibits fine cinematography, writing, directing and acting. Indeed, Anthony Hopkins is so effective as Nixon that he seems to melt into the former president on the screen. Joan Allen is also fine as Pat Nixon.

Wag the Dog (1997): A Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) is hired by White House personnel to stage a military attack against the United States to divert media attention from accusations that the president fondled a young girl. The film is a satirical look at politics as entertainment. It is also an astute commentary on the essence of politics, which is a continuing maneuver to stay in power. Fine performance from Hoffman.

“Humankind cannot bear too much reality,” T. S. Eliot once said. Perhaps that is one reason we are so drawn to fiction. It is in fiction—such as that found in movies—that we can peer into the mirror of truth. And, after all, isn’t politics about fiction, anyway?

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