Friday, December 28, 2018

Five Film Favorites: Insider Looks at American Politics

by F.T. Rea

Today is Day Seven of the USA's third federal government shutdown of 2018. By the way, the longevity record for shutdowns also took in the holiday season, the 21 days of Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996.

While the particulars of such confrontations change over the years, the sort of politicians who absolutely must get their way -- come hell or high water -- until they can't, doesn’t change all that much from one generation to the next. So, even with Trump in the game, there's plenty of here-we-go-again in the way this current shutdown feels.

At least, so far.

Larger than life politicians, who ruthlessly exploit whoever and whatever they find along the way, make good characters for screenwriters to flesh out. This list of political films is about characters. It isn't about social causes or tides of history. No revolutions. No big wars. The films on this list are about charismatic politicians and the sort of people one generally finds surrounding them -- ambitious deal-makers and back-stabbers.

No documentaries this time, no biographies. All five films on the list are fiction ... perhaps thinly veiled, sometimes. What else these flicks have in common is their emphasis on their behind-the-scenes looks at the tactics of hardball politics. 
  • “All the King’s Men” (1949): B&W. 110 minutes. Directed by Robert Rossen. Cast: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek. Mercedes McCambridge. Note: Adapted from the novel with the same title, the story follows the phenomenal rise of Willie Stark, a populist campaigner fashioned after a real Depression Era politician -- Louisiana’s Huey P. Long (1893-1935). It is seen through the eyes of a political reporter who goes to work for Stark and eventually cringes as unchecked power overcomes and corrupts his boss.
  • “Bob Roberts” (1992): Color. 102 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Gore Vidal. Note: Affecting the style of a documentary, the story is set in 1990. The character of Bob Roberts, played by Robbins, first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986. The movie’s story is focused on the take-no-prisoners, kick-in-the-door quest of Roberts, a wealthy folk-singer/conservative politician, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
  • “The Candidate” (1972): Color. 110 minutes. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Cast: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvin Douglas, Allen Garfield. Note: A spin doctor talks the son of a popular governor into running for the U.S. Senate, to unseat a Republican incumbent. The original idea is he can say whatever he likes, because he has no chance to win ... or was it? When events change the odds, the temptation to compromise and tone down his message starts to build on the idealistic candidate.
  • "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold. Note: By what amounts to a fluke idealistic Jefferson Smith finds himself appointed to the U.S. Senate. Trouble is, he's not as malleable as those who arranged his appointment had thought he would be. When the political machine running the show in his state pulls the rug out from under him, Smith (Stewart) and Saunders (Arthur, at her best) get creative.  
  • “The Last Hurrah” (1958): B&W. 121 minutes. Directed by John Ford. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O‘Brien, Basil Rathbone. Note: With times a-changing, Democrat Frank Skeffington, a 72-year-old big city machine politician, runs for reelection as mayor. His opponent is an empty suit with a pleasant face who is an WWII vet. The effect of the new propaganda medium, television, is explored. In its time, this was seen as a story about a real Boston mayor -- James Michael Curley.

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