News Column

Red, Blue or Other, Election Films Can Punch Your Buttons

Aug. 9, 2012

William Loeffler, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The country seems so polarized that perhaps the only way to unite the left, the right and the undecided is a movie that delivers a well-aimed kick in the polls to the electoral process.

That's the hope of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, who play mud-slinging political rivals in "The Campaign." The film, which opens Friday, stars Ferrell as a vain, corrupt Congressman whose unopposed incumbency is threatened when Galifianakis declares he's running against him.

Democrats may see George W. Bush in his clueless utterances. But, when Ferrell's character says "My hair could lift a car off a baby if it had to," Republicans might say, "Aha! John Edwards!"

Like sporting events, elections have a built-in story arc. Typically, the script pits an underdog against a seemingly invincible foe. Can the little guy overcome long odds to triumph, as Robert Redford did as an idealistic senatorial aspirant in 1972's "The Candidate?" Can Chris Rock's straight-talking inner-city alderman prevail over his established Republican opponent in "Head of State?"

"Politics have become entertainment for so many people now," says Bruce Haynes, managing partner at PurpleStrageties, a bipartisan public-affairs firm in Alexandria, Va. "There's been something of an evolution in political movies over time. At one time, they were inspirational. They were 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' Then the were cynical, they were 'All the President's Men,' they were 'The Candidate,'

"Now, they are sort of theater of the absurd," he says. "They're movies like 'Bulworth' and 'Wag the Dog.' In that way, I think Hollywood does what it does best, which is to reflect what popular culture view is of a given thing at a given time."

Other election films focus on the conflicts, compromises and maddening absurdity of the campaign trail. John Travolta got raves as a charming philanderer in "Primary Colors," the 1998 movie based on Joe Klein's book about the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. In "Election," Reese Witherspoon is a high-school student running unopposed for student body president. One of her teachers, played by Matthew Broderick, takes it upon himself to find a popular jock to run against her. He's upholding the American way. Or is he merely holding a grudge?

Whether broad slapstick or sly satire, movies with an election as their story-line can be illuminating, says Robert Thompson, trustee professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

"The best of any kind of movie or play or novel or poem is to entertain us and amuse us, and at the same time to give us a sense of insight that journalism and history might not give us," he says. "Journalism is really good at covering stuff as it happens. History is really good at giving us the context. But occasionally art makes us think about things differently."

Real-life elections can seem ridiculous enough, with their scripted sound bites, attack ads and verbal gaffes that pop up on YouTube almost before the candidate has removed their foot from their mouth.

Ferrell has said that reality is so outrageous that he wonders if his movie goes far enough.

"When you try to run a democratic republic with 300 million people, it's obviously going to take on a sense of the theatrical and, in a lot of cases, the theater of the absurd," Thompson says.

Nobody has to tell this to Doug Shields, who was City Council President from 2006 to 2010. One of his favorite election films is "Bob Roberts," which filmed here in 1991. Tim Robbins wrote and starred in this mock documentary about a predatory political candidate who masks his real agenda behind a folksy, guitar-playing facade. The public eats up his rhetoric. Only a reporter, played by Giancarlo Esposito of "Breaking Bad," realizes that something stinks.

"It's about how we're all easily swayed by a populist message -- when you really start thinking about it, it doesn't make too much sense," Shields says. "That's been a theme in the (local) political discourse. Throw the red meat to the public, don't back it up with any kind of cogent fiscal language that explains it or gives it a rationale, and kick the can down the road for the next guy."

The most accurate election film?

" 'The Candidate' with Redford was a very good one," Shields says. "The characters that are pushing the candidate have one thing in mind only: to win. After he finally wins and turns to them and says, 'Now what do I do?' They say, 'That's your problem.' That's extremely accurate. It shows the deal-making and the ins and outs of the campaign and the rigors of it and the backroom meeting and so forth."

William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

Source: (c)2012 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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