LIGHTS! CAMERA! ELECTION!
Evan Williams votes on movies about politics
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