On Political Punditry in Film

This week has seen some kind of shift in the British electoral landscape. The Conservative’s once-guaranteed landslide seems less of a forgone conclusion than it was before Jeremy Corbyn made an appearance in Channel Four/Sky and the BBC’s TV debates. Both sides of the political divide have now fired up their reserves, launching an emphatic defence of their policies and championing the appeal of their respective leaders.

Pundits, meanwhile, have been reaching for their thesaurus to find new adjectives to describe this latest turn of events. Is there really a sea change afoot – an earthquake more surprising than last year’s Trump win. (Now there’s a man who should put a thesaurus at the top of his birthday list this month). Or are we just echoing 1987 general election, when Labour were seen to have presented the better campaign (the Conservatives seemed content with footage of Margaret Thatcher clutching babies to the accompaniment of Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’) but Neil Kinnock’s party was crucified at the polls? Is Corbyn Tracy Flick, the character Reese Witherspoon played in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), or Matthew Broderick’s ill-fated Jim McAllister?

James Stewart on the Senate floor in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

James Stewart on the Senate floor in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

Election is one of the more light-hearted films to play with the political punditry and the games played in the back rooms of electoral campaigns (albeit at a school). The powers behind the power behind the throne have often been the subject of films, though few have been complimentary. Frank Capra’s Oscar-nominated classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) might have idealised James Stewart’s titular hero, but Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman’s story is damning of the process and the shenanigans that contaminate American political life. They see Washington as a cesspit of corruption, a swamp even, which should be cleansed. However, Jefferson Smith would likely identify more with Bernie Sanders than the current POTUS.
 
If you thought Capra edged towards the cynical at times (watch his underrated Meet John Doe [1941] for a chilling tale of populism run amok), take a look at Preston Sturges’ directorial debut The Great McGinty (1940). Made before his classics The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels (amazingly, both are 1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), it stars Brian Donlevy as a tramp who becomes a sleazy political leader and ends up as a barman in a banana republic. (We can only dream…) It’s a venal attack on political profiteering in which the establishment wins and any schmuck who goes up against the system will invariably fail. Like his earlier script for The Power and the Glory (1933), which itself inspired elements of Citizen Kane (1941), Sturges’ film – which won an Oscar for Best Screenplay – shows how easy it is to buy people in politics and to change public perception if you have enough money and power.

The timing was perfect, but it showed that politics – anywhere – is all about smoke and mirrors. Got a scandal? Create a war. Things looking bad at the polls? Shout ‘Immigration’ a little louder.

Sometimes, it’s even possible to fabricate the world around you in order to win. The acclaimed playwright and filmmaker David Mamet wrote (with Hilary Henkin) the screenplay to Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog. In it, Robert De Niro’s media guru hires Dustin Hoffman’s wacked out Hollywood director – not so much over the hill as a whole mountain range away from his best years – to fabricate a war in a fictitious country in order to draw public attention away from a candidate's peccadillos. The film was released in 1997, not in response to the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky ‘issue’ but before it. The timing was perfect, but it showed that politics – anywhere – is all about smoke and mirrors. Got a scandal? Create a war. Things looking bad at the polls? Shout ‘Immigration’ a little louder.
 
Sidney Lumet’s mostly forgotten Richard Gere-Denzel Washington starrer Power (1986) also looked at the role of operatives who play with polling data like putty. Two decades earlier, Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay for The Best Man (1964), one of the first films to suggest that the best political candidate isn’t always the one chosen. It's a smart script and features an excellent performance by Hollywood's most famous liberal Henry Fonda.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in ‘Best of Enemies’.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in ‘Best of Enemies’.

As for Vidal, it remained arguably the finest political film of his career until the emergence of Best of Enemies (2015). Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's documentary is a hugely entertaining time capsule of a key moment in the coverage of electoral campaigns. In 1968, ABC was still a fledgling TV company. It didn’t have a large enough budget to send a crew to film the Republican National Convention in Miami and Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Instead, it did what no TV station had done before – it invited two respected writers and noted broadcasters, Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., to discuss each day’s events in a special news programme.
 
There were ten debates across the duration two conventions and, like the chaos that descended on Chicago, they were not a pretty sight. But they were compulsive viewing. Buckley was a fiery proponent for the right, while Vidal was the debonair performer and Democratic champion. He appeared to be in possession of a limitless armoury of bon mots and scathing put-downs, which Buckley initially batted away but eventually wore him down. Politeness and decorum were the first victims in the debates, which ended in vicious personal attacks. Best of Enemies gives context to his showdown, the era in which they took place and shows the highlights from the encounters. The paur’s sparring attracted an audience of millions and as a result the TV political pundit was born. (In this country, the 1970 TV satire The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, starring Peter Cook, recognised the increasing importance of this strange media creature.)

Gael Garcia Bernal on the campaign trail in Larrain's Oscar-nominee 'No'

Gael Garcia Bernal on the campaign trail in Larrain's Oscar-nominee 'No'

Pablo Larrain’s No (2012) is the perfect double bill alongside Best of Enemies (both available on Curzon Home Cinema). It stars Gael García Bernal as an advertising executive in the 1980s who, fed up with the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, decides to start a campaign against him. It is timed with the 1988 plebiscite, which would decide whether the military leader stays in power for another eight years. Rather than create a negative campaign, René Saavedra turned the idea of saying ‘no’ into a positive action and, in turn, inspired a nation to stand up. It’s a thrilling, compassionate film and a stark contrast to many dramas and documentaries featuring political professionals in that it highlights how integrity and politics don’t always have to be on opposing sides.

Five Key Films

 

By Ian Haydn Smith

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