Movies about politics are an avenue to vent our cynicism and shrug at the hopelessness of it all.
The difference between political commentary and stand-up comedy can be a thin and permeable line — something Hollywood would exploit in a U.S. election year, I would have thought. But the sole contender for Film of The Moment is a let-down. In The Campaign, two self-serving idiots (played by Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell) outdo each other in stupidity while campaigning for the Congressional seat in North Carolina.
Politics is a surreal game. No matter who eventually wins the elections, what will stick in the public consciousness will be incidents such as Mitt Romney’s 47 per cent video; or Clint Eastwood’s incomprehensible chat to an imaginary President Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention. Or even earlier, Rick Perry’s embarrassing “Oops moment” when he failed to remember the third federal agency he would like to eliminate if elected.
Politics scream out to be lampooned but while Jay Roach’s The Campaign taps into our cynicism, it fails to come up with anything really insightful. In India, the movie might resonate on a different level: what is the voting public to do when the candidates in question are equally selfish and shady?
Real edge is a quality missing in the foul-mouthed slapstick-fest that is The Campaign. But there are aspects that refocus our attention on the bizarreness of campaigning. Such as one candidate trading in his pugs for all-American dogs, though damage has already been done: “Chinese dog owner” is a pejorative already associated with the candidate.
We bemoan such idiotic smear campaigns and ads that attack the opponent with no credible basis but, in the real world as well, the collective voting public seems startlingly responsive to such tactics.
A serious side
Though presidential campaigns seem to have been crafted in caricature heaven, there’s a flip side too: the serious one, the dramatic one. The days leading up to voting day can be a heady cocktail of power and danger, horse-trading and backstabbing. This pressure-cooker atmosphere has been smartly exploited by well-crafted dramas.
Season one of 24 — the TV serial that had viewers actively counting down to the next episode — had a storyline that started at 12.00 a.m. on the day of the California Presidential primary. We were hooked from the moment protagonist Jack Bauer voiceover told us: “Right now, terrorists are planning to assassinate a presidential candidate...”
There have been entertaining and provocative TV shows and movies about fictional political campaigns from way back; Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for instance; or later, The Best Man (1964) based on a script by Gore Vidal; or the gripping, if somewhat under-rated, Ides of March with George Clooney and Ryan Gosling last year.
Since politicians are notorious for saying the expedient thing, it’s a nice twist to have contenders who speak their mind. In The Candidate (1972), set during a California Senate race, Robert Redford is such a no-hoper candidate that he’s initially allowed to speak his mind. While in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), what’s most memorable is his character speaking — or rapping about — what he really thinks.
If politics and truth can never enter wedlock, politics and sex are inseparable bedfellows. Primary Colours (1998), which has a randy Presidential hopeful at the centre, was a thinly disguised tale about Bill Clinton’s bid for the White House. Wag the Dog wasn’t about a political campaign, but it did, rather amusingly, have the White House drum up a phoney war to distract the American public from the President’s sexual shenanigans.
Clooney’s fourth directorial venture, The Ides of March, has a potential sex scandal threatening to ruin a candidate’s chances to win the nomination, in the days leading up to an Ohio Democratic presidential primary. But what I found gripping wasn’t the saga of fizzy interns and horny politicians; rather, it was Clooney’s evocation of the vicious, dog-eat-dog atmosphere of contemporary politics. Absolute power corrupts, yes, but Clooney suggests that even the mere promise of power will corrupt, absolutely.
Politics, everywhere, seems to trivialise the human need for good governance; there is no accountability, only the will to win at any costs. But political movies, at least, allow us an avenue to vent our cynicism and shrug wryly at the hopelessness of it all. As a New York Times reporter tells someone about the Presidential hopeful he is working for in The Ides of March, “He’s a politician. He’ll let you down, sooner or later.”