Conventional Wisdom: Political Process on the Silver Screen

A look at our nation's democracy in action, as seen through the lens of Hollywood, might help put us all in the electoral spirit.
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The action hero chief executive. Senior advisers manipulating affairs of state. Crusading reporters (or bloggers) exposing the truth. Scenes from the last few weeks in American politics or the last few decades of American cinema?

With the Republican and Democratic conventions just days away and the congressional and presidential elections two months out from there, the season of red meat politics is upon us. A look at our nation's democracy in action, as seen through the lens of Hollywood, might help put us all in the electoral spirit.

Imagine a legislator who takes on an earmark in his own state and challenges a fellow Senator representing rich, corrupt interests back home. It may sound like it could have (or should have) been a modern event. But it was Frank Capra's 1939 film classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Washington was up in arms with the film's cynicism toward 'politics as usual' and depiction of legislators as out of touch with the common man. As Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith famously declared, "I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too."

Gore Vidal's 1964 film The Best Man deals directly with political conventions as it asks the question: Can the best man win with modern politics' penchant for character assassination? Henry Fonda's statesmanlike Bill Russell (an Adlai Stevenson-type fellow) is brutally destroyed by the McCarthy-esque Senator Joe Cantwell, played by Cliff Robertson. In this "ends justify the means" climate, the incumbent president urges Russell to fight back: "If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor... then you've got no business in the big league."

At their finest, movies demonstrate to the world that in America we can look honestly, without fear of censorship, into the highest levels of government and live to tell the tale. No surprise then that some of our most memorable on-screen heroes come straight out of U.S. history. All the President's Men documents Woodward and Bernstein's Pulitzer-Prize winning efforts to "follow the money." I'll never forget Jason Robards portrayal of my friend and legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Deciding to run a key story, he declares: "Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country."

Movies often also celebrate the ideal of public service. In Clear and Present Danger, based on the hugely popular Tom Clancy thriller, an honest CIA officer takes on high-ranking U.S. government officials who consider their actions in the war on drugs above the law. Why? It's his duty. As James Earl Jones' Admiral Greer reminds him: "You took an oath... and I don't mean the president. You gave your word to his boss: You gave your word to the people of the United States."

Of course, we don't mind when our presidents are dashing, principled and able to hold their own with the bad guys. Harrison Ford's President James Marshall in Air Force One, between bouts of action heroism, notes that "peace isn't merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice." And, who can forget Annette Bening's Sydney Ellen Wade in The American President, hanging up on the commander in chief when he calls to ask for a date. (She thinks it's a hoax.)

The politics of the absurd is another favorite with audiences and filmmakers alike. Take Dustin Hoffman's Stanley Motss, an over-the-top Hollywood image-maker in Wag the Dog. Standing amid plane wreckage that threatens to expose the false premise of the nation going to war (in 1997!), he confidently declares, "this is nothing."

Whether playing for laughs or tackling serious issues, the power of the individual is the heart and soul of the genre. Elle Woods of Legally Blonde fame takes on Congress by urging her fellow citizens to "speak up for the home of the brave. Speak up for the land of the free gift with purchase. Speak up, America!"

And, in this summer's Swing Vote, Kevin Costner's Bud Johnson embodies in the extreme the notion that "one man can make a difference." After learning his vote will determine the election, he shrugs off an avalanche of spin with the simple observation that "America needs someone who's bigger than their speeches."

Hollywood has long been infatuated with Washington. On the one hand you have a community of artists looking to tell the big stories. On the other, you have the high-stakes drama of very real human beings -- fallible, heroic and often both at once -- who, through the public trust placed in them, wield incredible power and influence in leading the free world.

In the final shot of the 1972 classic The Candidate, Robert Redford's Bill McKay, a crusading lawyer who fights for the little guy, catches the proverbial bus and actually wins his underdog Senate bid. He turns to his advisor in disbelief and asks, "What do we do now?" In the coming days, this pivotal question will take center stage at both political conventions. Perhaps for an answer, we can return to Senator Jefferson Smith: "Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again." True, movies are fiction. But sometimes they get it just right.

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