Through a lens, darkly
Richard James Havis
Americans tend to favour small government because, for better or worse, they don't like the idea of the state intruding too deeply into their lives. That makes them naturally suspicious of elected politicians, who they feel are more interested in personal power and financial gain than in representing the interests of the people. Hollywood movies aim to reflect the feelings of their audiences, and that's probably why US politicians usually get a bad rap in American films.
This image of political greed and corruption has surfaced in Hollywood films throughout the decades. Frank Capra depicted the power of political machines in the Senate in 1939's Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The Candidate, from 1972, had Robert Redford playing an idealistic presidential contender who allowed his liberal principles to be eroded for the sake of victory. In 1997, Wag the Dog featured a president who fakes a war to cover up a tryst he had with a cheerleader.
The Ides of March, a new film directed by and starring George Clooney, examines the depths to which Washington operatives will stoop to make sure their candidates are elected.
The film, whose title is the date Julius Caesar was supposedly murdered in the Roman Senate and vaguely alludes to the shameful career of one-time vice-presidential hopeful John Edwards, is part morality play, part thriller. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a deputy campaign manager who naively believes his candidate (Clooney) is an honest man who can change the world through principled actions.
But a series of what at first seem like minor occurrences pulls Meyers away from his idealistic visions and forces him to choose between acting ethically or gaining power. It won't be giving much away to state that, when push comes to shove, ethics don't get much of a look in.
American politics, which is colourful and dramatic by nature, has had its fair share of crooks. Just recently, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison for trying to sell President Barack Obama's former seat in the Senate. (In a scenario that could only happen in the US, Blagojevich was a contestant in Donald Trump's The Apprentice while awaiting trial. On the show, it became clear that he didn't know how to use a computer.) But not all politicians are criminals. So are they being portrayed too harshly in films?
'I think American films tend to capitalise on the American public's overall cynicism towards politics in general,' says Nino Saviano, president of Savi Political Consulting, a Washington DC-based political and campaign consulting firm. 'Americans tend to distrust government and, by extension, have a fundamentally guarded view of the political process and, thus, of politicians. Hollywood exploits that sentiment.'
The Ides of March portrays an exaggerated version of what happens on the campaign trail, Saviano says: 'It is not accurate. There are certainly moments in politics or on the campaign trail that closely reflect what's being represented in the movie.
But in general the 'selling out of values' portrayed in The Ides of March is far from what takes place within a candidate's campaign for office. Certainly, there is that tension between the idealism associated with personal beliefs and the realism of running a competitive political race. But it's not as extreme as it's portrayed in the movie.'
Richard Porton - co-editor of Cineaste, a US magazine specialising in 'the art and politics of the cinema' - questions whether The Ides of March is actually a political film at all. The politics, he points out, is kept in the background. The film chooses to focus on the moral decisions of the protagonist instead.
'American films which feature politics are usually more about moral issues than political ones,' Porton says. 'The Ides of March is directed by George Clooney, who is an avowed liberal. But it's less about party politics than nuanced ethical areas.'
The film could be set in another arena without too much difficulty, Porton says: 'The story doesn't really focus much on the actual politics, so the setting could easily be changed, and the story would still work. It could be set in the world of big business, for instance.'
Porton also points out that US filmmakers tend to shy away from making films about politics. Films about party politics, in particular, are considered to be certain death at the box office.
'Politics doesn't seem to be a very popular subject for audiences in general,' he says. 'Even the ones that do get made, like The Candidate, don't deal with specifics. European films by, say, Costa-Gavras or Francesco Rosi, deal with actual political issues. But there are no similar films or filmmakers like that in the US.'
Another reason for the lack of true political films is that even Hollywood can't compete with the noise of a real political campaign. Presidential campaigns, especially, are all about theatre and show business: the band plays, the supporters cheer, emotional speeches are given and, now and then, a headline-grabbing scandal threatens to derail the whole show.
'A presidential campaign is like a circus, and it goes on for a whole year,' says Porton. 'The conventions are massive affairs. You could never make a film that rivalled the razzmatazz of the real thing. It's a subject that's probably best left to documentary filmmakers.'
Nevertheless, films about politics, or featuring politics, do get made. Robert Altman's Nashville has a political story in the background, and Roman Polanski's thriller Chinatown used political corruption as a plot device. Mike Nichols' Primary Colors was a thinly veiled depiction of the Clintons, showing that people with sexual peccadilloes can still be politically idealistic - and effective, too.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington is the best known and most popular of America's political films. It features James Stewart as an honest man who's chosen to run for the Senate because the state's governor thinks he will be easy to manipulate. When ensconced in the Senate, he proposes a bill but is accused of graft. He defends himself on the Senate floor and exposes corruption in the ranks by means of a filibuster, which exhausts him to the point of collapse. Politicians at the time called the film unpatriotic, but it got good reviews and the public liked it.
'Capra's films usually did well, as they are considered populist movies,' Porton says. 'They always focus on the little man fighting against the government. That appeals to both the right and the left of American politics. The Republican right are always complaining about the idea of big government, while those on the left are always complaining about the government being too intrusive. Capra's films idealise small-town life and are sceptical of cities and Washington. That Jeffersonian ideal appeals to many Americans.'
Gerry O'Brien, a political consultant who worked for John McCain's campaign when he ran against George W. Bush for the presidential nomination in 2000, has his own idea about why politicians are always portrayed in a bad light: it's because they reflect the way Hollywood people themselves are.
'Hollywood lacks subtlety, and the creative community in the film and television industry has a warped perception that everyone is like them,' O'Brien says.
The Ides of March opens on Thursday