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Political Movies: Post Critic Stephen Hunter

Free Media
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Tuesday, December 7, 1999

It's been said that "politics is show business for ugly people." Maybe. But not when Hollywood is calling the shots: Michael Douglas as the president. Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic young senator. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As much as politicians seem fascinated with show business for the glamour and the campaign contributions, so too has Hollywood long been fascinated by power and the political process. And audiences have sat rapt in movie theaters while avoiding voting booths.

When has Hollywood gotten Washington right? What are the best political movies of all time? Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter joined "Free Media" on Tuesday, Dec. 7 to talk about political movies, and to assess the best and the worst. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good afternoon, Stephen, and welcome. What do you think is the fascination between Hollywood and Washington? Besides political contributions, of course.

Stephen Hunter: I think the two cities are essentially selling – and recognize this, thus their kinship – the same product, which is illusion. Historically, Kennedy glamour, the emergence of fabulously theatrical talk shows (compare the flashy McLauglin Group to the ancient doddering old-style Meet the Press), the emergence of scandal as a press staple (it's inherently dramatic) has made Washington a kind of ongoing movie. Moreover, the same dynamics of stardom apply. Clinton, whatever your politics are, is a star; the camera loves him, we feel for him. Maybe Bush will be too. Poor Gore just doesn't have that something that the camera loves. It's the same principle that makes an Al Pacino a star and a Brian Dennehy a good actor.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think has to be in a movie for it to qualify as "political"? Do you think something like "Independence Day" counts?

Stephen Hunter: I see basically two kinds of political movies – the ostensible and the implicit. The former is something that deals with politics as politics, such as The Candidate (great movie) or Advise and Consent or Bulworth. The latter are movies that aren't about politics and its process but are nevertheless arguments for attitudes that could be considered in some sense political. The people that make them have passionate convictions which are reflected in the stories they chose to tell and positions they chose to admire. I was looking at The Siege, for example, in which a liberal, democratic FBI is played off against a fascistic, right-wing Army. It's technically a thriller, but it contains metaphorphical resonances.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think is the most overrated political movie?

Stephen Hunter: I was no fan of Wag the Dog, which got a lot of credit for its insights. Its insights seemed to me quite obvious and I didn't think it argued its case very convincingly. If you were the president of the United States and you wanted to cover up a sex scandal, wouldn't it be a lot easier and less complicated to put together a real war – with bombing missions, commando incursions and the like – than a fake one, particularly in a country like Albania which is not as inaccessible as the movie portrayed it to be. In this case, I think the filmmakers were overwhelmed by events which made their imagingings seem pale and pointless. Yes, I admit that Hoffman was very funny as Bob Evans.

Washington, D.C.: Ever notice that almost every president – or at least the ones we're supposed to like – are Democrats? From The American President to The West Wing on TV. Now, I realize that Hollywood's not exactly a den of conservatism, but do you suspect we'll ever see a portrayal of a conservative – other than Bob Roberts?

Stephen Hunter: Yes, I've noticed that. It seems to me a reflection of the fact that movies are made by smart young people and tend to reflect the views of smart young people. Smart young conservatives, I guess, go to Wall Street. Or they become studio chiefs.

Free Media: How do you think the political climate of the past couple of years has affected political movies? "Primary Colors," for example, was not a huge box office draw, was it?

Stephen Hunter: In the case of Primary Colors, I think it arrived in that moment when people were just sick of The Scandal. If The Scandal were a movie, it went on way too long! People – i.e, the regular ones, not all you inside-the-Beltway boys and girls – still go to the movies to escape reality, not have it stuffed into them. Does this mean the political movie is dead as a commercial project? Well, in the short term, yeah. One reason is that politics – particularly the presidential campaigns – have become so immense and unwieldy and last forever and ever. I think the ideal time for a political movie would be in a new president's second year. There's about a six-month window there where politics doesn't dominate our front page and the TV news shows.

Washington, D.C.: No question. I think Bulworth was one of the best political movies ever. The satire was biting and right on target. What a total breath of fresh air. The idea that someone with that kind of high profile would, for whatever reason, choose to forgo common sense and just shoot straight is so appealing it made me interested in politics again.

Stephen Hunter: I'm not a great admirer of Bulworth. This brings up an interesting issue, which is, do we judge political movies by the extent to which we agree with them or by our perception of their artistic merit irrespective of their inclinations? I don't know the answer. Would like to believe in the latter but really, who has enough discipline to put their inner passions totally aside? With Bulworth, I thought it was a movie desperately in search of an ending, and the ending it came up with wasn't very clever. But I did like the first half very much. Yes, the idea of a politician shorn of encumbrances and willing to speak The Truth instead of For the Record was very amusing. Usually they won't tell the truth unless you agree not to name them!

New York, N.Y.: Who portrayed the best president? Michael Douglas in "The American President"; Anthony Hopkins in "Nixon"; Fred Thompson in "In the Line of Fire"; or Gene Hackman in "Absolute Power"?

Stephen Hunter: Oh, absolutely, Gene Hackman in . . . no, seriously, I'd go back farther. (Or is that further.) Franchot Tone in "Advise and Consent" is superb as an old warrior who knows his time is coming to an end, but in spite of it all means to fight through his pain and leave an appropriate legacy. I believe it was Lee Tracy (memory, where have you gone?) who was equally impressive in The Best Man, a particularly brittle, funny movie (written by Gore Vidal, don't you know!). Of the choices, I'd have to go with Hopkins as Nixon, though he wasn't quite as good as Phillip Michael Hall in some one-man Nixon show that Robert Aldrich directed whose title I forget.

Washington, D.C.: What's the most boring political movie you remember?

Stephen Hunter: I would say The American President. I mean, there was a movie that was more formed by its political aspirations than its dramatic values. It's not that I'm against liberal movies or conservative movies, it's that they should have some life to them, some spark of originality. That one had a kind of preachy sanctimony to it that just shriveled me up. It was like reading one of those totally predictable, completely orthodox by the numbers lib pieces that show up on the Post's op ed pages with distressing regularity.

Chicago, Ill.: Do you think movies about politics are more cynical now – has it followed the mood of the country? The Manchurian Candidate and Three Days of the Condor weren't exactly pretty pictures. And in the midst of movies showing corruption in politics, there was Dave.

Stephen Hunter: It seems to me that there are cycles of cynicism and idealism when it comes to movies; of course, and for obvious reasons, we are in a cynical cycle now. If we want to get out of the cynical gutter, damnit, we need a good war to get us unified. In fact, to harken back to an earlier question which I did not notice, it was in that sense that indeed in that mode that Independence Day was a political movie. It sort of gave us a chance to feel the thrill of a total war against a vermin-like enemy, and to rally unambiguously behind a heroic president (OK, so it was only Bill Pullman). But with attack and scandal politics the norm in coverage it seems unlikely that someone will do a modern film in the idealistic mode.

Washington, D.C.: This is more of a political question that touches on film and the city of Washington, D.C.

Stephen, are there any movies you can think of that portray life in the District of Columbia (as in neighborhoods like Petworth, Anacostia, etc.) that truly depict the lives of the numeric majority of this "state".

ALL the movies of Washington, D.C. that come to my mind focus on Washington – as in government and life in upper Northwest.

Is there a cinema verite film about D.C.??


Stephen Hunter: Yes, there have been a few. I agree that the "Washington Movie" is a particular creature: It's usually cynical, conspiratorial, paranoid, violent, dangerous, a thriller, a kind of film noir set amid marble monuments and that the real city is almost never looked at. There was a film called Slam last year about a poet in the community trying to get along without getting destroyed by the various forces at loose on the street. Sorry I can't remember the director, but I recall being very impressed and giving a good review. But that's about the only one. Filmmakers seem to see Baltimore as a Real City and D.C. as a city of paranoia. Be nice to see some movies about the real city of Washington as lived be people who weren't drunken ex-CIA mercs with .45s under their armpits and M-16s in the trunk.

Free Media: So should we compile a list of the best movies about politics ever? Which ones got it right? Top Five? We can even discount All the President's Men – lest we be accused of bias toward The Post.

Stephen Hunter: In the interests of honesty, I don't think I could disqualify All the President's Men. I looked at it again a year or so ago and I thought it was terrific. It didn't press too far and it didn't overmelodramatize. It showed reporters as they are, human, ambitious, occasionally stupid, extremely earnest. I hate to think of how some modern filmmaker would handle the same thing, complete with moles, machine guns, scattergun editing, rock music, and lots of 'splosions. I still love Mr. Smith; I rediscovered Advise and Consent, and was struck with how it valued civility and compromise and respect, those hallmarks of the process and the culture of this city. I've mentioned Best Man; very funny and revealing in a bitchy way. This brings up The Candidate, a superb movie in its own right, and I love Redford's discipline (as opposed to say, Rob Reiner's lack thereof in American President) in showing the young liberal finally having won and wondering what he's won, having been subtly corrupted by the election process. That's a serious thought worth considering at some length. And what about two other political movies from a lost age: that would be Henry Fonda and Peter Sellers as presidents at the end of the world, in Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. These movies have disappeared from the memory bank because the Soviets don't have 80,000 megatons aimed at us right now, but in their time, they were the best kind of political movies because they penetrated the issues and got us to talking about them, instead of delivering little pious speeches.

Rockville, Md.: Seems to me that many people (and politicians sometimes) take their cue from movies when it comes to foreign policy. An example is the way Arab Americans have – and still are-being portrayed in movies, as "a bunch of illiterate extremist terrorists," with no focus whatsoever on Arab and Arab Americans' real contributions to art, business, science and so forth. A little scary to see how much influence Hollywood's money has. Even scarier to think that our politicians are influenced by that.

Please comment. Thank you.

Stephen Hunter: I agree that Arabs are portrayed negatively most of the time, and I understand that if you're in the category you're going to be extremely annoyed. When I see movies where the journalists are sleazy and corrupt, that annoys me as well. It's no fun being the scapegoat in somebody's crusade for morality. On the other hand, however, I think you have to let anyone speak their piece and over time, good ideas are going to win out over bad ideas. A case in point is The Siege, which I just re-saw. At the time, it enraged many Arab Americans but it seemed then and it seemed now to make careful distinctions between the very few terrorists and the larger Arab American population which was portrayed as victimized. This is a tough issue and no matter what I say, I know I'll never comfort aggrieved parties out of their outrage. I just think that over the longer stretch of history, good ideas will drown out bad ideas.

Adams Morgan: Not so much a question about politics but filming in DC in general...

I wonder how expensive it is to film in D.C.? I know that a lot of movies use a lot of basic D.C. images but I have yet to see a film that manages to reconstruct the city's mapping accurately. My favorites are Enemy of the State where Smith is at 24th and M and the paramedics say they are going to take him to Saint Elizabeth's, even though GW is right there and Saint E's is in SE, and Arlington Road where they show GW's campus as one rolling lawn after another.

Stephen Hunter: I agree that one of the secret pleasures of a D.C. film is watching how they re-assemble the city to suit their purposes, slinging subway stops and freeway connections in wherever it'll advance the plot. But let me tell you, these guys don't care much for maps; they don't even care much for scripts!

Washington, DC: Stephen, you're a breath of fresh air in Post-land. Do you take any heat from Style editors when you write reviews, a la "The Iron Giant," that refer to part of the plotline as "the usual left wing crap"?

I, for one, start applauding when I read your descriptions, but I don't know how you get away with it. Anyway, keep it up.

Stephen Hunter: Thanks for the comment. I much appreciate it. I don't know what is said about me behind doors but I feel my ideas and my perspective has been at least tolerated, if not welcomed. People think a newspaper is like a re-ed camp where we get together and recite the Six Principles of Liberal Humanism from the Little Green Book every morning. No, it's more like (or at least this has been my experience) a series of loosely affiliated duchys where everybody is allowed their own freedom. I read editorials every week that I think suck and at least so far no one has ordered me to hew to a line. Thanks to one and all, and sorry for those I didn't get to or chose to avoid!

Free Media: That was our last question today for Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter. Thanks to Stephen and to everyone who joined us today.

Tune in tomorrow to talk about the Democratic congressional agenda with Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) at noon EST and the WTO conference and U.S. trade policy with Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) at 1 p.m. EST.

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