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For those who seek comfort and clarity in pop culture during uncertain times, 2016 has already been a tough year. The immense losses of Bowie and Prince sent immediate ripples of grief through the music world, while Rage Against the Machine regrouped in an act of real-time protest to Trump’s candidacy. Over in TV land Orange is the New Black fans are still reeling from how miscarriages of justice in the modern for-profit prison system manifested in the show. Film, though, by dint of its longer development and production periods, often aligns with politics by (un)happy accidents rather than deliberate planning. (Selma, to take one recent example, would have been an acclaimed biopic of MLK regardless of its timing; that it came out at a time of increased racial tensions in America made it an inadvertent touchstone for activists both online and on the ground.) It remains to be seen how long it will be before the aftershocks of the 2016 presidential race are felt in the medium. But, as the old saw goes, history’s usually repeating itself and, as someone who’ll take almost any excuse to fill in some of the gaps of my movie knowledge, I decided to see what, if anything, a few classics from the past could impart about our sorry present.
My journey began with the film I was most embarrassed about not having seen before: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which came out in the banner cinematic year of 1939. I had a passing familiarity with the famous filibuster scene and director Frank Capra’s other work, which led me to believe I’d be in for a pleasant, uplifting film about the power of government. However, the opening literal game of telephone amongst a group of venal senators laid that immediately to rest. It seems the chambers have always been a haven for corrupt, backbiting men, an insinuation that was not lost on the forty-five senators invited to the film’s premiere. Despite a sequence featuring a vaguely jingoistic tour through D.C.’s iconic landmarks, this is not a city where innocence escapes unscathed.
For those in need of a quick plot refresher: Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, head of a Boy Scouts-esque group, brought in to fill a vacant seat as a coin-flipped compromise, his wholesome image pleasing to one side of the aisle and his potential to be manipulated pleasing the other. Smith is advised to introduce a land bill to build a national boys’ camp but, unbeknownst to him, the land he’s chosen has already been earmarked for a dam-building graft scheme. To his shame and frustration, the senators he thought supported him begin doing everything in their power to smear and vilify him until he’s forced to filibuster for 24 hours to stay a vote for his expulsion. If it all sounds a bit convoluted, that seems to be part of Capra’s point about how the immoral interests of a few can poison the whole well. Smith’s speech is inspiring to watch, his refusal to yield to repeated requests acting as a comical rebuke to petty bureaucracy. It’s also genuinely draining; he collapses immediately after a suicidal senator bursts into the chamber to confess his guilt and the film ends while Smith is being carried away, having exhausted itself along with its hero. Integrity, Capra’s film insists, is the responsibility of the individual, not the body, particularly a political one. In the early years of World War II this message was understandably inspiring; many theatres in Vichy France reportedly chose Washington as the last American film screened before a Nazi-imposed ban went into effect. These days though, when the Senate is more often a site of intense partisan gridlock, it’s usually the loudest and least helpful voices that end up breaking through.
Indeed, a mere thirty-three years later the potential of the individual to enact change was already less assured. The Candidate, starring Robert Redford as an idealistic lawyer drafted into what’s expected to be a futile Senate run, was released in 1972, the same year as the disastrous Democratic Convention that George McGovern would eventually win on his way to a sound defeat in the general courtesy of incumbent Richard Nixon. Hunter S. Thompson immortalized that debacle in literature and the film captures, albeit with clearer, less drug-addled eyes, some of that same madness. The casting of Redford at the height of his golden-boy years is a stroke of genius and the manpower behind the scenes helps add to the authenticity; it was written by Jeremy Larner, who had worked as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy during his presidential campaign.
The film opens as a defeated politician gives a speech to his disappointed supporters. “Hell of a nice guy,” says one political strategist to another. The response? “He never had a chance.” This declaration is made by Marvin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) and his resigned cynicism pervades the story that follows: Democrat Bill McKay (Redford), the son of a famous governor, is convinced by Lucas to run against a Republican incumbent believed to be unbeatable. Since he’s all but guaranteed to lose, McKay is told he can run his campaign as he likes and he jumps at the chance to spread his progressive values to the masses. When it becomes clear he’ll be demolished in the election to an embarrassing degree, however, he’s advised to tone down his message and broaden his appeal, only to find that the more he sells out, the higher his poll numbers climb. So much for honor, then. The end of the film mirrors the beginning except now we have a victory, for someone fully unprepared for what lies ahead of him. “What do we do now?” McKay asks Lucas before he’s dragged out of a hotel room by voters to celebrate, the camera lingering on the empty space he leaves behind before fading to the credits. Even four years ago the idea that a man, running solely on name recognition could be elected with such a generic platform was comical; what makes it chilling for a modern viewer is the implicit suggestion that the public ultimately doesn’t care as long as it’s backed a winner.
One of The Candidate’s most hilarious scenes shows McKay meeting Natalie Wood (in a cameo whose self-awareness seems questionable) at a campaign event. Rather than talk policy with the celebrity, he listens agreeably while she proceeds to recommend he put fresh fruit in his yogurt. Redford, though, was one of the most politically conscious movie stars of the era and four years later he would be instrumental in the making of All the President’s Men. The story of two reporters helping to dismantle the Nixon administration is public knowledge, of course, and has since permeated the cultural landscape in ways that can make it difficult for modern viewers to take seriously; my first real exposure to Watergate was via the 1999 satirical film Dick, the preening performance of Bruce McCulloch as Bernstein making Dustin Hoffman’s rakish interpretation retroactively comical. Yet there’s something invigorating in how earnestly the film prizes journalistic integrity in times of political corruption. The poster tagline proclaimed it “the most devastating detective story of the century,” and in many ways it is, though one that glorifies the nuts and bolts of such procedural work rather than the actual solution.
The film opens in media res, with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters already in progress. Woodward (played by Redford) is still getting his sea legs at the Washington Post and is put on the case, which is believed to be of minor importance; instead it’s the first domino that ends up toppling a presidency. You know where it goes from here: at the behest of their editor and with the assistance of secret source Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein dig around, eventually connecting the five men arrested at the hotel with the Committee to Re-Elect the President (also known by its apt acronym CREEP) to Chief of Staff Haldeman all the way to Nixon himself. It’s a foregone conclusion but director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman smartly emphasize what the two reporters were up against at every turn. The D.C. they occupy is a shadowy place, seemingly without daylight; even when in their element on the newsroom floor they’re often dwarfed by their surroundings. The film pointedly ends before their work is even complete: in the final shot Nixon is being sworn in for his second term on a television while Woodward and Bernstein clack away on their typewriters nearby. A montage of teletype headlines preserves the rest for posterity. It’s a modest conclusion but then their reputations are already assured just by dint of being subjects of a movie. Still it’s heartening in this modern age to be reminded of the media’s potential to serve the greater good.
This (relative) positivity stands in stark contrast to the final film I watched, Medium Cool, which came out in 1969 during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent American history. It too takes the media as its focus though it centers on television rather than print, a medium whose potential to influence the general public was only just beginning to emerge. The film takes its title from Marshall McLuhan who wrote that the “cooler” the medium, “the more someone has to uncover and engage in the media” in order to “fill in the blanks.” Though its view of its subject is suspicious, even hostile, it’s also alive with the possibilities of cinema. Director Haskell Wexler mixes documentary style footage with his fictional story, capturing the anxieties and fears of his era in real time.
Ostensibly the film is about a cameraman for a news station (played by the brutishly charismatic Robert Forster) and his various personal and professional exploits but that’s really just an inroad to the sociopolitical commentary on the 1960’s last gasps. The parallels to 2016 are numerous and striking, from the discussion of the role of the media in public life and the rifts between the races and sexes to the palpable rage in the clashes between protestors and police. The climactic scenes were filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, which erupted into a riot following anti-war demonstrations, and have an almost apocalyptic energy to them, a sense at any moment that things will run off the rails – at one point someone behind the camera yells out Haskell’s name to warn him off, a break in the fourth wall that feels truly dangerous. As a political statement it’s brazen and energizing; while the film doesn’t shy away from grappling with the shortcomings of the counterculture movement as a force for change, it’s clear what side Wexler falls on. Our humanity is lost, he seems to say, when we’re all reduced to spectacles for a camera. In 2016, though, with the 24-hour news cycle in endless motion, it feels too late to heed the lesson.
So what can these films tell us, aside from the fact that we’ve always been skeptical of our fearless leaders? Is there any reason to be hopeful about the future when the past is less rosy than we remember? These may be the wrong questions to ask. Stories by their very definition require conflict, or at least some kind of friction, and the political realm offers some of the very best. Even something like 2012’s Lincoln, which takes a more exalted view of civil service, understood this, finding as much to admire in the diligence and compromises it took to ratify the 13th Amendment as it does in the actual victory. As with almost anything worthwhile, the best work done in government is often the hardest. And some of our most timeless art is borne from trying times. Regardless of what comes to pass in November, it’s a safe bet it’ll inspire some great movies.