Politics as Usual

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Politics as Usual

For those not aware, the first debate in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election is this Friday, September 26th. It’s currently impossible to avoid – whether trolling the internets, turning on the TV, opening a newspaper, or even just walking outside – the crush of political pontificating and posturing on display 24/7 in the weeks leading up to the election (November 4th). With all this inexorably in mind, I’m taking this week’s ToM to touch on a few beloved(ish) pictures set in the political realm – all of which lay bear more truth than 90% of what passes for news reporting these days. There’s no shortage of great films focused on Washington’s glories and gaffes and the genre, if there is one, is endlessly malleable so sound off below – what are some of your favorites?

The Manchurian Candidate - a wildly compelling black-hearted sci-fi / suspense mash-up that laces its machinations with political commentary, John Frankenheimer’s now-classic film has taken its sweet time to garner the level of recognition it truly deserves. Frank Sinatra’s best screen work is on display here, as well as a chilling turn by Angela Lansbury as a Communist sympathizer and great supporting work from the likes of Janet Leigh and Henry Silva, among others. Best to avoid Jonathan Demme’s lifeless 2004 remake, which transplants the film’s Red Scare setting to a modern-day corporate / government landscape and includes references to the Gulf and Iraq wars to little dramatic effect.

The Candidate - recently “rediscovered” when it finally popped up on DVD after years in filmic limbo, maddeningly uneven filmmaker Michael Ritchie hits all the right notes in this satire focused on a free-spirited lawyer (Robert Redford) who finds himself caught in – and changed by – the political machine as he’s pushed into running for office. With great support from a knock-out cast including Peter Boyle (am I the only one starting think this man was a very, very underrated actor?), the picture paints a realistic world in which individualism is forced to give way to broader concerns at unknown costs. Redford’s final line to Boyle is a classic – hilarious, depressing, and completely spot-on.

All the President’s Men - a textbook example of both procedural filmmaking and that rarified, stripped-down ‘70s aesthetic so prized by lovers of American film, Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s precedent-setting investigation into the Watergate scandal ticks forward with Pythagorean precision in relating the facts of the case that destroyed a presidency and upended whatever trust Americans had retained in their political system following the turbulent ‘60s. Headlined by two bonafide stars (Redford again, and Dustin Hoffman) at the height of their respective games and buttressed with a spread of reliable character players, Pakula’s film turns what should be a dense morass of tedious leg work and paper trails into a pitched, completely absorbing thriller.

JFK - whether you agree with writer / director Oliver Stone’s representation of the still-clouded facts surrounding the murder of John F. Kennedy, there’s no denying his command of technique or the power of the performances on display in what many consider to be the most polarizing work in a career noted for films intended to get the public’s collective goose. Ripped to shreds by the historical press upon its release and unfairly characterized as a “conspiracy” film, Stone’s JFK has – if nothing else – the absolute conviction of its creator by its side, something rarer than one might expect these days. In fact, Stone continues stumping for his version of the truth today. Inspired casting and use of archival footage abounds. Stone's latest politically-charged offering, the Bush family opus W, debuts this fall.

Bulworth - a strange, daring film unjustly ignored upon its initial release, writer / director / star Warren Beatty’s dark satire involving a disillusioned Senator who puts a hit out on himself – only to find the emotional freedom engendered by his decision driving his will to live and desire for political change anew – features some jaw-dropping scenes focused on US race relations that probably woudn’t survive the PC gauntlet today, just 10 years removed from the film’s release. Intricate lighting and composition work, as well as a wonderfully menacing / melancholy score courtesy of Ennio Morricone, highlight the proceedings. Beatty hasn’t directed since, which is a shame – it’s easy to forget, but coupled with the sweeping romance of Reds and the outré stylistic excess of Dick Tracy, Bulworth marks the man as something of an auteur.

What did I miss? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? The Parallax View? Brewster's Millions? (love all three, btw) Let's hear it!

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DJensenSeptember 23, 2008 11:06 PM

Isn't the first debate in the CANADIAN election ALSO this Friday?

san ku kaiSeptember 23, 2008 11:50 PM

David Conenberg's Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" springs to mind ... Would be very usefull to shake the candidate's hand and see what he is going to be up to, shake and break ... Even though it seems to me the majority of the American voters don't even care to judge their President's actions ... at least four years ago ...

And for something completely different ...
I kinda like "The American President", the movie that is ... (the real deal is quite a whole different matter ...)

MetrogenicSeptember 24, 2008 12:17 AM

Oh, man. This is headed nowhere good.

Collin ArmstrongSeptember 24, 2008 12:37 AM

Metrogenic, need I remind you where you are? Our readers are nothing if not thoughtful folks :)

STARSHIP TROOPERS is a great example, as is THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG. Man, I need to watch that again. Love that movie.

SonaBoySeptember 24, 2008 2:34 AM

oh yeah - and you missed a really poignant one for the list:

Being There


Web-MonkeySeptember 24, 2008 3:33 AM

Warren Beatty's monologue in Bulworth.


cherubSeptember 24, 2008 4:10 AM

Out of those I'd go for all the presidents men but yeah the real winner is the power of choice! I'm never too psyched about the mix of entertainment and politics.. just look at cali..


MetrogenicSeptember 24, 2008 5:37 AM

True enough, Collin. Sometimes I forget I'm not on AICN. ;)

Tuan JimSeptember 24, 2008 7:45 AM

Come on Kurt, the original source material of Starship Troopers was Heinlein at his best, firing on all cylinders. Verhoeven's commentary comments on the politics in that film are incredibly frustrating IMO - completely missed the point of the book (which wasn't helped by the other changes to the story - still a great flick on it's own though).

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 24, 2008 8:06 AM

I don't know, Tuan - I think it is quite unique that an adapation of a novel goes out of its way to give the complete opposite message of its source material. I think the satire is sharp, witty, heck it's incorporated even into the casting decisions of the film. I love the commentary track on SST, one of the best out there. I think completely missing the point of the book was not an accident, I think screenwriter Ed Neumeier subverted it nicely. Having read a number of Heinlen's book (and that one in particular twice), I have to say I prefer (much prefer) the film versions approach to things. Although the power-suits are missed, they would have totally distracted from the film, I like the 'humans swarm like bugs' aesthetic in the film, whereas the book it was fair more special-ops lone soldier type of thing. The group-think aspect to the films politics is amusing.

Rhythm-XSeptember 24, 2008 10:28 AM

BULWORTH? I can't imagine watching that now. Good idea, but lousy execution. Plus Kool Keith said it best - "You're comin' so wack you sound like the BULWORTH soundtrack". And Keith, as usual, was absolutely right. You already mentioned PARALLAX VIEW, and in no universe should that get bumped to make room for freaking BULWORTH. BOB ROBERTS, absolutely. BULWORTH, not so much.

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 24, 2008 9:16 PM

Yay, Bob Roberts! Dang, I've got to watch that one again. Great movie. I do like Gore Vidal in all of his bitchy glory.