In exactly a week from now, the United States of America will have a new president. And unless the current polls turn out to be a whole lot of hokum, an African-American president will lead the country for the first time in history.
On paper, the unexpected rise of Barack Obama initially seemed like an outlandish Hollywood wish-fulfillment dream; an honest underdog fighting the powers of Washington and transcending race barriers.
The day Obama scored his first win with Iowa at the primaries without the aid of negative campaigning, the most cynical of observers started to have second thoughts. The fable ended when the race to the Democratic Party nomination got nastier. As his campaign machine oiled up, Obama broke his vow to avoid using negative ads and launched the same type of campaign he had condemned in his bestselling books.
Sounds familiar? Well, if you’ve followed the numerous American films tackling congressional/presidential elections over the past 60 years, you’ll probably pick up on the similarities.
Early elections melodramasThe subject of elections is regarded as a tricky sub-genre. Frank Capra’s 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the earliest, best known Hollywood production to touch upon the subject. James Stewart plays the idealistic community organizer Jefferson Smith appointed senator by the governor of a Western state.
Smith is immediately exposed to the corruption and bureaucracy of corporate-controlled Washington before he embarks on a one-man crusade to stand up to both the lawmakers and the businessmen backing them up.
Initially condemned by the US Senate at the time, the strong patriotism Capra was occasionally accused of advocating should not divert from his stern critique of Washington. The picture, as most of Capra’s films, brims with feel-good sentimentality far removed from the current murky political mood. Smith is a lone, uncompromising hero with clear-cut principles and no interest in personal gain – a rare breed of men that has long perished, which explains why so many politicians cite him as their favorite film character.
The enforcement of the infamous Hayes code required all filmmakers to end their films on a happy note, disallowing adversary forces to march their natural, realistic course and win the day in the subsequent film.
Among the most notable exceptions of the era was Preston Sturges’ directorial debut “The Great McGinty (1940). Brian Donlevy plays Dan McGinty, a homeless thug recruited by a mob boss as his henchman. McGinty climbs up the ranks and, relying on his everyman appeal, wins the governor seat. When he finally tries to rebel and do the right thing, his efforts are crushed and he ends up in jail.
The first major film to take on the election process itself is another Capra flick, 1948’s “State of the Union starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Tracy’s Grant Matthews is a nonconformist, self-made businessman chosen by the Republican Party to become their presidential nominee. Vowing to speak his mind regardless of the outcome, Matthews swiftly gets caught in the party strategies and turns into a puppet by the political machinery and special-interest groups.
Years later, in an eerie life-imitating-art incident, Ronald Reagan would reproduce the famous scene in “State when Matthews decides to take charge of his own campaign, a moment several historians credit for turning Reagan’s candidacy around.
Hollywood reality checkReality would soon take over Hollywood as several real-life incidents unfolded, proving to be fertile material for political dramas, as demonstrated by the success of Robert Rossen’s 1949 best picture Oscar-winner “All the King’s Men.
Based on the life of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, the film charts the rise and fall of Governor Willie Stark, an idealistic politician who becomes disillusioned by the system as his plans to change his state are destroyed. Backed by the media and his inner advisory circle, Stark turns into a crooked fascist intoxicated with power.
With allusions to Joe McCarthy’s infamous blacklisting campaign, “The Manchurian Candidate ushered the beginning of a new age for election films, materializing with Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Best Man (1964) and peaking with Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate (1972), arguably the best film to date to capture the essence of modern American election process.
“Best Man was the first Hollywood picture to present an authentic portrait of backstage politics behind presidential campaigns. Henry Fonda plays Secretary of Defense and presidential nominee William Russell, an intellectual with principles who refuses to engage in the mudslinging his opponent Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) actively embraces, despite holding some critical information that could instantly unravel the latter’s campaign.
“Best Man poses a decisive question most candidates seem to have forgotten or sidestepped: Does a candidate’s intentions to serve the public justify devious, immoral means?
Despite its genuine, downbeat ending, “Best Man offers a faint glimmer of hope, personified by the Russell character that would completely disappear by the time “The Candidate was released.
“The Candidate Released three years prior to the end of the Vietnam War, “The Candidate carries the prevailing apprehension and cynicism that dominated the late 60s and mid-70s. Robert Redford plays young Californian lawyer Bill McKay, another inexperienced idealist chosen by the Democratic Party to run against the impregnable incumbent senator.
Convinced he has no chance of winning, McKay accepts the Party’s offer only to have the chance to highlight the “real important issues he’s passionate about; the issues he believes to be of grave significance to the public.
Under firm control of his campaign managers, McKay’s popularity grows and, against all expectations, his chances of winning the race increase. Like his predecessors, a flabbergasted McKay abandons his beliefs and becomes the candidate people want him to be.
“The Candidate primarily underscores the tactics employed in marketing a candidate. Character likability, above all, is the key. Elections are, at core, a popularity contest. Neither McKay nor his campaign managers outline a specific program for his future policies, the content of their half-hearted messages is hollow.
The shallow media, especially broadcast, isn’t interested in the real issues either focusing the bulk of their coverage on the candidates themselves, the scandals and the heat generated by the contest.
The most telling moment of the film occurs near the end, when a weary Mckay attempts one last time to speak his piece, to clarify his actual position on the issues that do matter. The immediate repercussions prove to be catastrophic, prompting Mckay to yield to his campaign strategy, telling the people what they want to hear.
Sixteen years later, director Robert Altman would elaborate on “The Candidate’s themes with his little-seen landmark mini-series “Tanner 88. A seamless combination of fact and fiction, the series centers on fictional presidential nominee Jack Tanner running against a host of real-life candidates such as Bob Dole and Gary Hart. In such a crowded political marketplace, Tanner wrestles to find his own voice before he’s reduced to “an instant bystander in his own campaign.
The last great election picturesNone of these two-dozen pictures could have prepared the audience for Tim Robbins’ hilarious biting mockumentary “Bob Roberts (1992). Released four months before Clinton was elected, the film revolves around Bob Roberts (Robbins), an anti-revolutionary Bob Dylan-like folk singer turned businessman turned Republican senate nominee.
Roberts is the extreme embodiment of the republican greed is good mantra of the 80s. With hit albums entitled “The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts and The Times Are a-Changing Back coupled with epic song choruses such as “I’m the bleeding heart, let’s give money away under his sleeve, Roberts uses his folksy appeal to attract votes while unabashedly tarnishi
ng the reputation of his democratic rival.
“Bob Roberts is the most ferocious anti-Republican attack put on celluloid by one of Hollywood’s most famous liberals. Robbins wears his politics on his sleeve, criticizing, as critic Roger Ebert put it, “a whole mindset. Yet he also doesn’t shy away from taking some jabs against the arrogance and self-righteousness of his own party.
Along with Mike Nichols’ biting Clinton satire “Primary Colors (1998), “Bob Roberts proved to be the last great election film before the genre drifted into triviality.
Whether Obama wins or loses on Nov. 4, his story will either become a Hollywood legend or a cautionary tale. The fact is, the political process and public opinion will continue to be manipulated, the media will persist on covering the sensational for higher ratings and Americans’ never-ending quest for rooting for the outsiders – an emblem of the American dream – will mostly outweigh rational assessment. Let’s just hope, for the sake of humanity, they get it right this time.