American Politics & Hollywood Film

American Politics and Film
Politics Imitates Art, or Vice Versa

American Politics and Hollywood Film, Second Edition; Ian Scott

Book Review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Once, when I was just a little tyke, we drove over to my grandmother’s house for lunch, and, in one of her many opinionated decrees—and this I remember as clearly as if she had said it yesterday—proclaimed that actors should never be allowed to enter politics. It would be dangerous, inviting easy manipulation of voter opinion. This was probably 1966, and her remark—I’ve always assumed over the years—was directed toward Ronald Reagan, who by then had become a prominent new voice in GOP politics, and someone who was being watched by the smart money handicappers.

Though she didn’t much care for anyone with the last name Kennedy, my grandmother had been delighted that JFK had edged out Richard Nixon in 1960, largely as a result of Kennedy’s perceived “win” over Nixon in those famous televised debates. Then, four years later, Barry Goldwater had fallen to Lyndon Johnson in the most lopsided election in American history. By that day in 1966, Reagan’s star was on the rise while Richard Nixon sat quietly on the sidelines watching as the war in Vietnam was already beginning to tear at the Democratic Party’s solidarity. Nixon had been bad on TV; Goldwater, perhaps, even worse, each seemingly vindicating the theories of Marshall McLuhan. Reagan, however, was a natural, and she feared what would happen if his uncanny, affable charm was set loose upon the malleable masses.

Nevertheless, a reinvented, repackaged, media-friendly Nixon—sans five o’clock shadow and with better TV make-up—would win election in 1968 after Reagan lingered on the sidelines for too long.

Many years later, in the spring and summer of 1973, my grandmother and I sat for hours watching the Watergate hearings on television. She hated politicians in general, but her dislike of Richard Nixon had by then become something of an obsession. (Her loathing of Ronald Reagan, however, trumped all other factors). For her, all politics was tawdry theater, and the Watergate hearings were a kind of theater of the absurd, set upon a stage within the larger theater. The whole thing was like a bad audition, with cagey prosecutors, campy acting, crocodile tears, transparent lies, circuitous evasions, and pompous showmanship. There was the down-home, aw shucks Sam Irvin from North Carolina, the richly golden-toned redirects of Fred Dalton Thompson, the sudden and self-serving moral conversions of John Dean and Charles Colson, and the preposterous equivocations of Jeb Magruder and Robert Mardian. She hated every minute of it, but still she sat and watched with rapt attention, as did millions of other TV viewers.

May 17, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the start of those hearings, and upon reading the second edition of Ian Scott’s American Politics and Hollywood Film, I have come to realize yet again how closely the American penchant for political theater is embedded and wedded to our fascination with scandalous entertainment and moral indignation.

My grandmother’s obsessive apprehensions about actors moving into politics preceded the more common merger of the two streams. She may have distrusted Richard Nixon (an amateur actor in college, which is where he met his future wife Pat) and Ronald Reagan, but she could not have anticipated the day when a wide range of Hollywood’s elite stars become routine participants in the political processes and discussions. From Clint Eastwood to Sonny Bono, from Jesse Ventura to Fred Dalton Thompson to Arnold Schwarzenegger, we no longer regard it as novel when someone makes the move from Hollywood to Washington. Just this month there were rumors swirling in the press about a possible Senate run by Ashley Judd in Kentucky, and more election trial balloon discussions surrounding Alec Baldwin and Matt Damon. When those I encountered at last summer’s GOP convention in Tampa pulled up the Thursday Review website on their laptops or smart phones, their greatest interest was not what I thought of the speeches by Chris Christie, Ann Romney or Paul Ryan, but instead what I had written—if anything—about Jon Voight, Janine Turner, Bruce Willis and Stephen Baldwin. Infotainment, it is called.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t even the first A-List or B-List figure to make the transition to top-tier politics: Broadway actress and film star Helen Gahagan Douglas, elected to Congress in 1944, served three terms, and survived revelations of an affair with a young Lyndon Johnson, only to be crushed by Richard Nixon in his first U.S. House run in 1950; about as strange an irony as one can find in the confluence of politics and Hollywood. It was Helen Douglas who first coined the enduring, sneering Nixon moniker “Tricky Dick.” In private, Nixon liked to point out that Douglas was not only so left-leaning as to be a “pink” crypto-Marxist, but that she had also served—in her darkly costumed part in the fantasy film She—as the model for the evil queen in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Ian Scott’s book, reissued in 2011 (retrofitted with a full analysis of the post-9/11 era), engages in a sweeping analysis of the ways in which Hollywood approaches the American political tableau, from early incarnations, such as 1939s iconic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (starring James Stewart; directed by Frank Capra) and Young Mr. Lincoln (starring Henry Fonda; directed by James Ford), to the evolution and maturity of the great political thrillers, such as 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate (starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury; director, John Frankenheimer) and 1964’s Fail Safe (starring Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman; director, Sidney Lumet), to the arrival of the ubiquitous New Politics and its oversaturated cinema verite, as found in 1972’s The Candidate (starring Robert Redford; director, Michael Ritchie) and 1979’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan (starring Alan Alda; director, Jerry Schatzberg).  Scott also examines the scathing satire Bob Roberts, the story of a some-time songwriter and folksinger turned right wing politician who freely mixes his corruption with flag-waving cynicism.    

Scott also looks closely at those directors whose films more often than not take moviegoers into the realm of contemporary political history. Oliver Stone receives special attention from Scott for his electrifying and dazzlingly well-edited mainstream movies, JFK and Nixon, companion pieces of sorts from a director whose self-appointed specialty is to chronicle the 1960s and 1970s with big screen interpretations of the human costs in Vietnam (Born on the Fourth of July) and the complex Sixties culture (The Doors). Stone, we all understand, is no historian in the traditional sense of the word, and his frequent playing fast-and-loose with the truth has become a standard part of his filmmaking process. For Stone, movie-making is about reinterpreting our contemporary world, and freeing it from the constraints of “official” history. (To fully experience his elastic thought processes, watch any installment of his historical documentary series The Untold History of the United States, which makes an odorous villain out of every U.S. President from Truman to Obama, tools all of big money and big business, save for Stone’s much sainted John F. Kennedy).

Scott looks closely at Stone’s elaborate constructions in JFK and Nixon, in which pivotal moments—often brief—have been shamelessly fictionalized to expedite Stone’s larger themes of secret business dealings and corruption. Example: the dubious encounter between Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and General “X” (Donald Sutherland) on the Washington Mall in JFK, the shadowy “X” becoming a kind of informational deus ex machina, offering up the key logistics and motivations for the assassination and filling in Garrison’s missing links. A similar critical device is used in Nixon to explain the president’s apparent personal fixation with a specific audio tape on the eve of its subpoena by the Supreme Court, the very tape which would later turn up with an 18 minute gap.

What makes Scott’s updated edition more revealing, however, are his explorations into the relationship between Hollywood filmmaking and the Post 9/11 world of Washington. Not only had the political biopic reached a newer, more demanding level of technical proficiency by the 1990s, but the world order had changed dramatically with the start of the millennia: a complex, shadowy tapestry of Rovian thought and neo-conservative foreign policy, as well as domestic fears which even now supersede the infamous events at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Scott examines the fictionalized films: from The Sum of All Fears (based on the novel by Tom Clancy) to Syriana (directed by Stephen Gaghan; starring George Clooney and Jeffrey Wright); Jarhead (based on the 2003 book about Operation Desert Storm), and from The Hurt Locker (directed by Kathryn Bigelow) to Green Zone, (directed by Michael Greengrass and starring Matt Damon) both set in the anti-terror battlefield theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book takes a closer look at Charlie Wilson’s War (directed by Mike Nichols; starring Tom Hanks) which explores the origins of U.S. covert involvement with the Afghan rebels during the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan; as well as another Mike Nichols classic, Primary Colors, a thinly veiled retelling of the rise to national prominence of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the fictional cover of Jack and Susan Stanton—a film in which (as many have pointed out) John Travolta and Emma Thompson play the Clinton’s better than the Clinton’s themselves.

Still, the timing of the book leaves a few recent gaps. Notably absent from discussion are two relatively sophisticated and nuanced looks at the war on terror in the post 9/11 age: the quasi-fictional Traitor (starring Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce) in which an American Muslim is secretly embedded into African and Middle Eastern terror networks; and the fact-based Fair Game (starring Sean Penn as Joe Wilson and Naomi Watts at Valerie Plame) which explored the real life complexities of news leaks involving a CIA operative, leaks which were the result of retribution by White House operatives defending the neo-con template of unilateralism. Also absent is any discussion of the likeable and fact-based Live From Baghdad (starring Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham-Carter), a well-produced HBO film which tells the story of the CNN reporters and crew who choose to remain in Iraq in the weeks, days and hours leading to the start of Desert Storm—a decision, as the other major TV networks pulled out of the impending war zone, which surely catapulted CNN from last place to world preeminence quite literally overnight.  Missing too is The Adjustment Bureau, a handsome science-fiction fantasy (based on the novella by Phillip K. Dick) about the sudden turn in a young U.S. Senate candidate's life when slick, retro-hatted and omnipotent agents intervene to ensure that he does not consummate a love relationship with a woman he briefly encounters on the night of his election defeat. 

Of particular interest is Scott’s comparison—in the opening pages—of art and its real world imitations. He cites the eerie example of the highly popular late 90s-early aught years NBC TV series The West Wing, which, in its closing episodes, tells the story of a presidential election in which a charismatic Latino with powerful oratory skills bests the party’s establishment candidate and presumed Democratic front-runner in a long, contentious primary battle, then, goes on to win a narrow victory over his GOP rival. Then, in 2008, life indeed imitated art, with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain essentially playing out this same Hollywood script, but to greater dramatic impact and arguably higher ratings.

My grandmother didn't live long enough to witness the acsension of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1980, catapulted, many historians have argued, by superior debate performances on live television, thus elevating the presidential debate to a new ubiqitous and inescapable status, for in the 2011-2012 election cycle, Republicans held more debates--almost 30 total--than all the debates by all parties between 1960 and 1996.  Nor could she have have begun to comphrehend a world in which actors routinely run for public office, their stardom co-opted by political machinations, and their every word assumed to contain the same resonance we once would have attributed to Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George Romney or Jack Kemp.  As comedians of late have pointed out: when half of the cast of Predator holds public office, its time to take a closer look at how we elect our leaders.