Hollywood tells us that cleaning up Washington depends on the integrity of those we send there. But that’s only part of the story.
Soon the 2008 presidential campaign will be over, and the airways will be free of electoral promises and polls, for a few months at least. During this brief hiatus political junkies who can’t get their daily dose of campaign stories and scandals from the “real TV” we call network and cable news will have to rent movies about the drama and comedy of electoral politics.
For the idealistic and optimistic viewer, there’s Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia Pictures) and State of the Union (Universal), or Aaron Sorkin’s An American President (Castle Rock) and NBC’s The West Wing series. More cynical and disillusioned folks might prefer Robert Redford’s The Candidate (Warner Bros.), Warren Beatty’s Bullworth (20th Century Fox), Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (Dramatists Play Service), or the last three seasons of David Simon’s The Wire on HBO. And for anyone who likes their political drama inspired by true stories, Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (Warner Bros.) and Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors (Universal) take us inside the second Nixon and first Clinton campaigns, while both versions of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (Harvest Books) take their inspiration from the rise and fall of Louisiana governor and senator Huey P. Long.
Whatever their mood or factual content, most Hollywood films view politics as a slightly sordid affair and portray the American political system as corrupt or broken. At the movies politics is normally the sport of knaves, taken up by ambitious and corrupt or corruptible candidates who get elected (and re-elected) by pandering to special interests and abandoning the ordinary folks who voted them into office.
In this populist view our political system is broken because it is run by wealthy and powerful insiders who have lost touch with the common folk, and the only real solution is to find some decent salt-of-the-earth Joe who will get things back on track by throwing the bums out.
Because Hollywood movies subscribe to this heroic vision of the candidate as redeemer, political films focus their attention on the character of those running for public office. In hopeful and idealistic films like Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and State of the Union, upstanding and virtuous guys like Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy withstand the forces of corruption and bring hope of justice and redemption to Capitol Hill and the White House.
In grittier and darker tales like The Candidate, Bullworth, and The Best Man, Redford, Beatty, and Cliff Robertson play candidates and incumbents who give away their soul to get elected. Either way, the lesson is the same: All that stands between us and a corrupt political system is the idealism and integrity of the candidate.
So movies about elections create dramatic tension by placing twin moral obstacles in the path of our supposedly idealistic candidate. The first challenge is to get elected without getting in bed with the party machine or selling out to special interests. The second is to win the election without cheating or slinging mud at one’s opponents. In both cases the object is to cross the finish line on Election Day with one’s soul intact.
In Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men sodbuster and schoolteacher Willie Stark starts his odyssey to the statehouse full of high ideals and good intentions, but by the time he moves into the governor’s mansion, Stark has sold every ideal and voter down the river.
In The Candidate Redford’s idealistic community activist has swallowed so much political spin and spouted so many clichés he no longer knows who he is or what he stands for.
And in Bullworth Beatty’s aging liberal senator has toed the special interest line so often he no longer believes a word he says. The system remains broken because the candidates who were supposed to fix it have gotten in bed with the bums.
But candidates also sin by stooping to conquer, and in All the President’s Men and Primary Colors, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton’s stand-in Jack Stanton lose their integrity (but not their elections) by running dirty campaigns. Nixon’s handlers, as we know, were responsible for Watergate and a host of Donald Segretti’s “dirty tricks,” while the fictionalized Clinton outs another philandering governor to advance his own campaign.
In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Cliff Robertson’s character wants to publish his opponent’s psychiatric records. Every candidate may promise to run a clean campaign, but the temptation to “swift boat” is a political steroid few can resist.
These tragic tales of fallen political heroes tell us important things about the temptations of our political process, but they miss the larger picture by paying too much attention to candidates and their character.
If politics is all about heroic or villainous candidates, ordinary citizens are reduced to consumers who purchase a blue or red ballot. If the only solution to our corrupt political system is to replace the bums with a saintly candidate, a citizen’s only job is to vote for the white knight or lone ranger and let the candidate do all the heavy lifting.
s consumers we are encouraged to solve every problem by buying a new product instead of changing our behavior or addressing the root causes of our difficulties. As voters (something a good deal less than an active citizen) we are promised this new candidate will eliminate political corruption and paralysis and lead us like Moses into the Promised Land.
This summer Kevin Costner’s little political comedy Swing Vote (Touchstone) suggested that the problem with the political process may not be the politicians, but the voters who keep expecting Hollywood and Washington to send a redeemer over the Hill to solve all our woes.
Costner plays an underachieving citizen who gets the sort of politicians he deserves, and discovers only that citizenry, like gardening and parenting, is a full-time occupation, and that the system will always be broken if most of the people only show up at work for a few minutes every four years. You never get anything done or fixed that way. Remember that the day after election.