Evan Wil­liams votes on movies about pol­i­tics

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IN Felix Holt, the Rad­i­cal , her great novel of pol­i­tics, Ge­orge Eliot gave us, by my reck­on­ing, the first full ac­count of a par­lia­men­tary elec­tion cam­paign in English fiction. Fas­ci­nated by the fer­ment of 19th- cen­tury po­lit­i­cal re­form, Eliot wrote vivid de­scrip­tions of ri­ots, protests and demon­stra­tions, even a lengthy man­i­festo ( pub­lished sep­a­rately) for her lead­ing char­ac­ter.

One scene, in which a farmer ex­presses his con­tempt for the new rad­i­cals, could even pro­vide a ser­vice­able text for John Howard. ‘‘ They want us to be gov­erned by del­e­gates from the trade unions, who are to dic­tate to ev­ery­body and make ev­ery­thing square to their mas­tery.’’

If Eliot had lived in a later age she might have adapted Felix Holt for a film, per­haps a television minis­eries. It was a great love story, af­ter all. But the world had to wait an­other 40- odd years be­fore the cin­ema was in­vented and, with it, the whole au­dio­vi­sual era that would rev­o­lu­tionise pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment as surely as it would change the na­ture of po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ing.

When Aus­tralia’s first fea­ture film, The Story of the Kelly Gang , ap­peared in 1906, one of our found­ing fa­thers, our sec­ond prime min­is­ter Al­fred Deakin, had done much to unite the war­ring anti- labour fac­tions as a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal force. It may not be stretch­ing things too far to say that our two- party sys­tem of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy ar­rived, fully pack­aged, with the movies. But if pol­i­tics and films were made for each other, it wasn’t un­til 1939 that Hol­ly­wood pro­duced its first clas­sic film about a politi­cian.

Jef­fer­son Smith, James Ste­wart’s newly elected con­gress­man in Mr Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton , was a hero for his time. The New Deal was fresh in me­mory, Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt was a pop­u­lar hero and au­di­ences were ea­ger to em­brace Frank Capra’s charm­ing cel­e­bra­tion of corn­ball ide­al­ism.

Mr Smith took on the forces of evil, rep­re­sented by Claude Rains, on Capi­tol Hill and be­came the first Hol­ly­wood politi­cian to em­body, with­out irony, the tra­di­tional Amer­i­can val­ues of un­com­pli­cated de­cency, good­ness and gen­eros­ity.

All this was to change af­ter World War II. Hol­ly­wood no longer felt it­self un­der a pa­tri­otic obli­ga­tion to por­tray politi­cians in a kindly light. And one could ar­gue that the cin­ema, with its fo­cus on glam­our and larger- than- life per­son­al­i­ties, saw politi­cians as nat­u­ral ri­vals. Like Hol­ly­wood stars, politi­cians thrived on adu­la­tion, and for stu­dio moguls per­haps it was only proper that films should cut them down to size.

Of course there were plenty of re­spect­ful his­tor­i­cal biopics, Abe Lin­coln in Illi­nois ( 1940) be­ing the best ac­count of the ca­reer of the great Repub­li­can. But when Spencer Tracy sought re­elec­tion as a vet­eran New Eng­land mayor in The Last Hur­rah ( 1958), to be de­feated by age and chang­ing fash­ions of me­dia im­age- mak­ing, pol­i­tics was en­ter­ing a new era. John Ford’s film was among his last and sad­dest works, a vale­dic­tory trib­ute to old- style flesh- and- blood pol­i­tick­ing.

The first Amer­i­can best­seller to ex­ploit a pop­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion with Wash­ing­ton wheel­ing and deal­ing was Allen Drury’s Ad­vise and Con­sent , filmed in 1962. Two years later Gore Vi­dal, that most mor­dant ob­server of Amer­i­can ve­nal­ity and sleaze, wrote the screen­play for The Best Man, a dis­en­chanted peek be­hind the scenes of a US elec­tion cam­paign.

In the Ste­wart role we had Henry Fonda, by then es­tab­lished as Hol­ly­wood’s stan­dard per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of lib­eral val­ues, who found him­self pit­ted against a mean- spir­ited and de­vi­ous Cliff Robert­son. The film bris­tles with good lines. Asked how many in­te­grated schools there are in his state, the south­ern sen­a­tor replies: None, thank god, but we’re mak­ing re­mark­able progress.’’ Or to put it in an­other way, familiar to vot­ers in the last NSW elec­tion: There’s more to be done, but we’re mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion. The age of spin had ar­rived.

The Best Man was an odd film to ap­pear dur­ing the hey­day of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism. I saw it as a re­ac­tion to the age of 1960s en­light­en­ment, John F. Kennedy’s ap­peals to na­tional al­tru­ism and the Great So­ci­ety rhetoric of Lyn­don B. John­son. The mood of lib­eral con­sen­sus had been faith­fully caught in John Franken­heimer’s two great po­lit­i­cal thrillers, The Manchurian Can­di­date , about a brain­washed pres­i­den­tial as­sas­sin, and Seven Days in May, in which a group of mil­i­tary dis­si­dents plot the over­throw of the US gov­ern­ment. But be­fore its re­lease came Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion, then the whole bruis­ing and sour­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of Viet­nam and Water­gate. Hol­ly­wood no longer had room for nice guys or ide­al­ists. Ev­ery film about an elec­tion cam­paign or a po­lit­i­cal con­test be­came an ex­pose of the su­per­fi­cial­ity and self- serv­ing op­por­tunism of the po­lit­i­cal process.

The most fa­mous prod­uct of the new cyn­i­cism was the 1972 Robert Red­ford film The Can­di­date , writ­ten by Jeremy Larner. Here was a cool in­sider’s view of the US elec­tion­eer­ing process. Larner was a for­mer speech­writer for the 1968 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Eu­gene McCarthy, and Red­ford’s ea­ger, fresh- faced Bill McKay, com­pet­ing in a Cal­i­for­nian Se­nate race against a creepy Repub­li­can, is se­duced by the prospect of high of­fice and celebrity. The TV de­bates be­tween McKay and his op­po­nent were said to fore­shadow those be­tween Bill Clin­ton and Ge­orge H. W. Bush in 1992.

It’s a smart, rather shal­low film, not be­cause Red­ford’s char­ac­ter is un­be­liev­able but be­cause the film tells us noth­ing we don’t sus­pect and some­how leaves the im­pres­sion that all politi­cians are the same. The no­tion of the cor­rupted

ide­al­ist, a vic­tim of his suc­cess and the aphro­disiac ef­fects of power, was taken fur­ther in The Se­duc­tion of Joe Ty­nan ( 1979), in which Alan Alda’s dy­namic young sen­a­tor jeop­ar­dises his friend­ships and fam­ily ties in the pur­suit of po­lit­i­cal glory.

With cyn­i­cism and dis­il­lu­sion­ment on the rise, satire wasn’t far be­hind. In Bri­tain, John Cleese and Peter Cook com­bined their comic tal­ents in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rim­mer , about an ef­fi­ciency ex­pert who takes over an ad­ver­tis­ing firm, has him­self elected to par­lia­ment and even­tu­ally be­comes prime min­is­ter.

In such films it was un­clear which party a politi­cian be­longed to. It seemed to be a rule that party af­fil­i­a­tions weren’t men­tioned, pre­sum­ably to avoid of­fend­ing at least half a given au­di­ence. We knew the hero of The West Wing was a Demo­crat, but I watched Yes, Min­is­ter for years with­out dis­cov­er­ing whether Jim Hacker was a Labour man or a Tory. If I had to guess I’d say Blairite Labour ( or, in those days, Ted Heath- style Tory), but it said much about the ide­o­log­i­cal con­form­ity of mod­ern party pol­i­tics that Hacker’s words could cred­i­bly be ut­tered by a min­is­ter from ei­ther side. I think au­di­ences loved Yes, Min­is­ter for that rea­son.

It may be ev­i­dence of our calmer po­lit­i­cal cli­mate that Aus­tralian film­mak­ers have rarely shown in­ter­est in elec­toral dra­mas. David Wil­liamson’s play Don’s Party ( filmed by Bruce Beres­ford in 1976), gave us a bunch of left- lean­ing mid­dle- class booz­ers lis­ten­ing with gath­er­ing de­spair to the 1969 elec­tion re­sults and the de­feat of their idol Gough Whit­lam. But it’s hard to think of an Aus­tralian fiction film in which a prime min­is­ter or a pre­mier has ap­peared. Bille Brown played an un­named prime min­is­ter ( pre­sum­ably John Gor­ton) in The Dish and in 2003 we were given an ami­able par­ody of pop­ulist pol­i­tics in The Honourable Wally Norman , about a meat- packer in an Aus­tralian coun­try town who is ac­ci­den­tally nom­i­nated to run for par­lia­ment.

When I started mak­ing a list of films for this piece my first thought was of Nashville , Robert Alt­man’s bril­liant al­le­gory of mod­ern Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, seen through the prism of the coun­try mu­sic busi­ness. But who now re­mem­bers Hal Phillip Walker, the un­seen politi­cian who cruises Nashville in his van, broad­cast­ing his slightly sin­is­ter mes­sages in his bid for elec­tion?

Walker’s van turns up re­peat­edly through­out the film, link­ing its var­i­ous seg­ments, and makes its fi­nal ap­pear­ance be­fore an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt at an open- air con­cert. Walker is a char­ac­ter whose pol­i­tics are vaguely rem­i­nis­cent of Pauline Han­son’s. He leads the Re­place­ment Party (‘‘ New Roots for the Na­tion’’), com­mit­ted to purg­ing Congress of lawyers and in­tel­lec­tu­als. Ac­cord­ing to one the­ory, he stood for pop­ulist south­ern gov­er­nor Ge­orge Wal­lace, a third- party con­tender for the pres­i­dency in 1968 ( and the tar­get of an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt in 1972).

As­sas­si­na­tion con­spir­a­cies be­came a re­cur­ring theme in po­lit­i­cal thrillers af­ter the death of Kennedy. Among them were two fine films, The Par­al­lax View and Ex­ec­u­tive Ac­tion , the lat­ter a drama­ti­sa­tion of Mark Lane’s the­o­ries about the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion as ex­pounded in his book Rush to Judg­ment ( the ba­sis of a 1967 doc­u­men­tary di­rected by Emile de An­to­nio). War­ren Beatty took the as­sas­si­na­tion fan­tasy a stage fur­ther in Bul­worth ( 1998), a satir­i­cal thriller in which a sold- out Demo­cratic sen­a­tor, Jay Billing­ton Bul­worth, up for re- elec­tion, takes out a con­tract on his own life.

Dis­il­lu­sioned with glad- hand­ing and empty sound bites, Bul­worth re­cov­ers some­thing of his will to live by ex­press­ing his hon­est opin­ions, telling it like it is. Whether his hi­lar­i­ously provoca­tive views on ev­ery­thing from race re­la­tions to in­equal­i­ties of wealth are enough to re- elect him, we never know. It was the old truth serum joke in elec­toral guise.

Per­haps the most fate­ful elec­tion vic­tory re­mem­bered in a film was that of Har­vey Milk. Milk was a real per­son, a gay ac­tivist elected to San Fran­cisco’s equiv­a­lent of a city coun­cil in 1977, and said to be the first US gay politi­cian to out him­self. His sights were set on the mayor’s job, held by Ge­orge Moscone. Milk and Moscone were as­sas­si­nated in 1978 by a for­mer coun­cil mem­ber, Dan White, who had lost his seat and was tar­get­ing the pinko Left for re­venge. Robert Ep­stein’s 1984 film, The Times of Har­vey Milk , won an Os­car for best doc­u­men­tary.

But no real- life politi­cian has in­spired more films than Clin­ton. For a time Hol­ly­wood was ob­sessed with him. You didn’t see him in per­son, but his spirit walked abroad in the ’ 90s when Clin­to­nian shad­ows and look- alikes were turn­ing up in all sorts of White House come­dies and do­mes­tic dra­mas. The sil­li­est of them was First Daugh­ter , in which the pres­i­dent’s re- elec­tion cam­paign is threat­ened by the an­tics of his daugh­ter at col­lege.

Once it would have been un­think­able to de­pict a serv­ing pres­i­dent in a film. Then John­son ap­peared in For­rest Gump and Mike Nichols gave us Pri­mary Col­ors , based on Joe Klein’s novel, a thinly veiled ac­count of Clin­ton’s cam­paign for the 1992 Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, in which the fic­tional con­tender is plagued with al­le­ga­tions of adul­tery, draft dodg­ing and im­preg­nat­ing teenage girls.

Clin­ton’s real cam­paign was mem­o­rably dis­sected in The War Room, a doc­u­men­tary by D. A. Pen­nebaker and Chris Hegedus that fol­lowed a cou­ple of spin doc­tors, James Carville and Ge­orge Stephanopou­los, as they plot­ted the vic­tory of the

come­back kid’’. The War Room was a land­mark. There has been no more re­veal­ing film about the re­al­i­ties of mod­ern elec­tion­eer­ing and you have to won­der how two such in­tru­sive film­mak­ers were al­lowed free rein in the Clin­ton en­tourage. ( Carville is cred­ited with the line, ‘‘ it’s the econ­omy, stupid’’.)

Where does Hol­ly­wood go from here, now that all lines of pri­vacy, of pres­i­den­tial dig­nity, have been crossed? The bound­ary be­tween fact and fiction was breached in Dave , in which a pres­i­den­tial look- alike took over the White House, and in Wag the Dog, where a war is man­u­fac­tured on television to boost the re­elec­tion chances of a be­lea­guered pres­i­dent threat­ened by an im­mi­nent sex scan­dal.

In Alexan­der Payne’s Elec­tion ( 1999), set in a US high school, Reese Wither­spoon’s pert schemer, seek­ing elec­tion to the stu­dent coun­cil, pro­vides a cor­rupt par­ody of the whole po­lit­i­cal sys­tem ( if not a mi­cro­cosm of US so­ci­ety), with Wither­spoon’s char­ac­ter a faint im­age ( in some minds) of Mon­ica Lewin­sky.

We have come a long way since Jef­fer­son Smith went to Wash­ing­ton with all his in­no­cence and fer­vour. We have come a long way since politi­cians in movies were re­spected, even de­serv­ing of some sym­pa­thy, liv­ing as they did like Willy Lo­man, ‘‘ way out there in the blue, rid­ing on a smile and a shoeshine’’.

We have come even fur­ther since Felix Holt ad­dressed an au­di­ence of work­ing men in the vil­lage of Treby Magna: What I may call the com­mon es­tate of so­ci­ety ( is) a wealth over and above build­ings, ma­chin­ery, pro­duce, ship­ping . . . I mean that trea­sure of knowl­edge, science, po­etry, re­fine­ment of thought, feel­ing, and man­ners, great mem­o­ries, and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of great records, which is car­ried on from the minds of one gen­er­a­tion to the minds of an­other. This is some­thing dis­tinct from the in­dul­gences of lux­ury and the pur­suit of fin­ery, and one of the hard­ships in the lot of work­ing men is that they have been for the most part shut out from shar­ing in this trea­sure. What a brave, and strange, film Felix Holt would make to­day.

Reel pol­i­tics: From left, John Tra­volta, Pri­mary Col­ors ; Den­zel Wash­ing­ton, The Manchurian Can­di­date ; Reese Wither­spoon,

Elec­tion ; War­ren Beatty, Bul­worth ; Kirk Douglas and Burt

Lan­caster, Seven Days in May; Graeme Blun­dell, Veron­ica Lang

and Ray Bar­rett, Don’s Party ; Meryl Streep and Alan Alda, The

Se­duc­tion of Joe Ty­nan ; James Ste­wart, Mr Smith Goes to


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