America: State of a Nation
With discussion of Brexit as present in our lives as the air we breathe, and as the Trump Presidency attracts more controversy with each passing week, the last thing you might want to watch is a film about politics, let alone a whole programme that focuses on US political life. But as Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner and Adam McKay’s Vice show, witnessing history repeating can be the perfect remedy for our ‘end of days’ cultural climate.
Politics has played a significant role both on and behind the Hollywood screen. A cursory interest in the US Presidential election reveals how much candidates – particularly democratic nominees – attempt to win favour in Tinseltown. But films about the political machinations of Washington have long held interest for filmmakers, going all the way back to the silent days of cinema. Most notable – and reviled – among these early titles is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
A revolutionary film in terms of the development of classical Hollywood cinema, introducing shooting and editing techniques that we now take for granted when watching a film, it presented audiences with a revisionist history of the American Civil War, with the South winning, blacks remaining enslaved and the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as heroic saviours of white women and American life. It introduced the image of the burning cross – they only began to appear in real life in the years following the film’s release – and was responsible for breathing life into the near-moribund Klan.
An indirect response to that film was the rise of ‘Race Films’, dramas produced by and starring African Americans, the most famous of whom was Oscar Micheaux. (Most of the surviving films are available in the excellent BFI box set ‘Pioneers of African American Cinema’, which is also available on Netflix.) More recently, Kevin Wilmott – one of the BlacKkKlansman (2018) screenwriters – made C.S.A. (2004), a mockumentary that brought Griffith’s fiction into the present day, with slavery still intact.
Preston Sturges is better known these days for the sparkling comedies he made in the 1940s, but in 1933 he wrote The Power and the Glory, an early Spencer Tracy vehicle that detailed the rise of a powerful industrialist. It’s now seen as a precursor to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), but can also be seen as part of a long line of films that chart the rise of industrialist capitalism as the ultimate source of power in society, from Frank Capra’s bleak Meet John Doe (1941) to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Trumpian There Will Be Blood (2007).
Sturges would take on politics more directly in his directorial debut The Great McGinty (1940), a withering portrait of corruption. Brian Donlevy plays a crooked politician who revels in electoral fraud but is brought down by an moment of rare honesty. The reverse is true of James Stewart’s recently elected Congressman in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). His unwavering goodness has a corrupt senator, in one of the director’s signature deus ex machina moments, suddenly seeking redemption by confessing all and saving the day. If only that happened in reality.
But if Capra’s drama, constantly cited as one of the great Hollywood films about politics, represents the sublime, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) holds the fort for the surreal. The writer-director also plays the lead, a corrupt politician who wakes up to see the error of his ways and decides to rebel against the coercion of big business by becoming (I kid you not) a hip hop spouting senator. It shouldn’t work, but Beatty’s ire is so brazen and caustic, he gets away with it. The end, echoing the actor’s role in the 1974 conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974), wisely shies away from Capra’s corniness, offering a chilling portrait of what really happens if the corrupt become too clean.
The Parallax View, the second part of Alan J. Pakula’s celebrated conspiracy trilogy, which began with Klute (1972) and was rounded off by All the President’s Men (1976), represents the kind of US political film that most people recognise. The genre began with John Frankenheimer’s excellent The Manchurian Candidate (1962). (Jonathan Demme’s Gulf War-era remake is also fine, thanks to Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep who make great replacements for Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury.) And it continued with Seven Days in May (1964), The President’s Analyst (1967), The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Capricorn One (1977) and Winter Kills (1979). It’s also worth checking out Francesco Rosi’s work from this period, particularly his 1976 thriller Illisutrious Corpses. More recently, Wag the Dog (1997) and Primary Colors (1998) also fit into this genre, albeit with a more comedic than thriller edge.
Other political films continued alongside the conspiracy thrillers. The McCarthy hearings and society’s response to them, skilfully dramatised by Irwin Winkler in Guilty by Suspicion (1991) and George Clooney in his Edward R. Murrow drama Good Night and Good Luck (2005), are partially responsible for the glut of sci-fi b-movies that came out in the 1950s. Most impressive of all was Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Back in Washington, Otto Preminger explored a Senatorial investigation in Advise & Consent (1962), while Gore Vidal adapted his play The Best Man for a 1964 film. (Vidal would eventually be a star himself, winning points off right-wing firebrand William Buckley Jr., in the documentary Best of Enemies (2015), an account of the televised debates they appeared in around the time of the 1968 Presidential Conventions.) Both starred the champion of the Democratic Party in Hollywood, Henry Fonda.
Another vocal Democratic supporter, Robert Redford, played a young Congressional hopeful in Michael Ritchie’s excellent The Candidate (1972). If his character is tarnished by the system and its ability to corrupt, Kevin Kline in Dave (1993) and Michael Douglas in The American President (1995) offer a more positive spin on the virtuousness of some politicians. The latter was written by Aaron Sorkin and now looks like a dry run for his series ‘The West Wing’. Whereas Dave was written by Gary Ross, who would go on to make Pleasantville (1998), a smart satire that played with conventions of the 1950s to highlight the racism inherent in US culture.
Racism has rightly become one of the main topics in US political films of the last 50 years. It took some time to get going. The end of the Studio era in Hollywood saw more films featuring black characters and about black lives. First came Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (1971) and the Blaxploitation genre. Along with Killer of Sheep (1978) and Daughters of the Dust (1991), politics was more about a way of life in these films – the system that holds people back because of the colour of their skin. This was expressed most vehemently in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and subsequent other films by him, including the recent BlacKkKlansman. Alongside his film was Boyz n the Hood (1991), John Singleton’s account of violence and prejudice in LA’s South Central. Both films featured police violence against young African American men, which has become a nationwide epidemic and prompted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black Panther (2018) director Ryan Coogler’s debut Fruitvale Station (2013) and this month’s release of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s subtly affecting Monsters and Men both deal with this problem. While in Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In (2012) the profit business of long-term incarceration highlights the existence of a new Jim Crow.
The Front Runner, which plays out like one of Robert Altman’s ensemble dramas, is a companion piece of sorts to Primary Colours, replacing Bill Clinton with Gary Hart, the 1988 Democratic Presidential shoo-in who couldn’t keep his peccadilloes in check. Vice also has a little of Altman’s scabrous humour, but like his previous The Big Short (2015), McKay also draws on Oliver Stone’s visual blitzkrieg approach to filmmaking. They show that in US politics, Donald Trump might be the extreme end of what the system can produce, but he comes from a long line of – to steal from Michael Moore – stupid white men.
Throughout January, you can watch these films on Curzon Home Cinema, all part of the evolving America: State of a Nation collection, taking a close look at US politics on film.
More films will be added to the collection in the weeks to come, including Monsters and Men, The Post, CitizenFour, The Florida Project, Generation Wealth, Where to Invade Next and Sicario 2: Soldado