Mr. Smith goes to Hollywood: Politics in the movies

political movies

Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Recent events in Congress have left journalists scrambling for metaphors. Circuses, carnivals, sideshows and clown cars have all been invoked.

No one has compared our legislative drama to a movie, though, and for good reason. Movies wouldn’t dare put anything like it onscreen, unless they were making an out-and-out farce.

Onscreen, politicians are generally portrayed by filmmakers as serious characters, albeit seriously compromised. In the movies, our elected officials are usually seen, not as mercenary morons, but people who start out right and go wrong. (Or, given most movie-makers’ progressive slant, idealists who start out Left, and go corporate.) They’re less vain villains than they are simple sellouts and second-rate disappointments.

It’s interesting because, as much as filmmakers condescendingly sneer at politicians, Washington loves Hollywood. No matter how much pols dramatically rail against the movies — whether it’s liberals criticizing their commercialization of gun violence, or conservatives decrying their embrace of LGBQT lives — they are not-so-secretly infatuated with them.

Not only do politicians of every stripe hit up media moguls for campaign contributions, since the Camelot era they have stolen the industry’s tricks, and aspired to its celebrities’ style. Candidates sport expensive haircuts and fake tans. Campaign rallies are controlled and camera-ready. Applause lines are scripted, debate jokes rehearsed, public “outrage” carefully planned.

And once these people get into office, most of them start looking ahead to their next role, as well-paid media pundits. It’s all showbiz, with government service just the last and biggest audition — which is why Hollywood’s professional performers tend to look at these awkward amateurs with a smirk and an ever-more cynical eye.

Filmmakers were more careful a century ago. The balance of power was with Washington then, and it didn’t much like this brand-new industry, even if it still didn’t quite understand it. Politicians knew how to work with railroad barons and oil tycoons. Bargains could be struck, accommodations reached, graft paid. But how did you deal with someone who made movies?

Prejudice and bigotry played a huge role, too, in that early, problematic relationship. Most of the early movie moguls were Jewish, and a huge percentage of moviegoers were recent immigrants. Conservative politicians and Christian pressure groups periodically railed against the “foreigners” in Hollywood, and the dangerous influence their products had on “ignorant” minds. Legislated repression — disguised as reform — seemed imminent.

Terrified of government control, Hollywood finally instituted a self-policing censorship code in 1934. Although it was primarily meant to prohibit the same things that enrage people today — onscreen sex and violence — it quietly hampered political speech as well. Movie makers were specifically prohibited from ridiculing religion or the clergy, or suggesting the justice system was unfair. Occasionally, a drama might feature a corrupt politician as a character, but it was rare.

And it held risks.

For example, when the script for Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was submitted for the censors’ approval, the studio got a finger-wagging note back, reminding them that “the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation.” Anything suggesting otherwise would be very dangerous. Sure enough, after its 1939 release, senators accused the film of being pro-Communist. Joseph Kennedy, then the Ambassador to Great Britain, advised the studio against releasing it in Europe, warning it would give comfort to America’s enemies.

In the end, the American public embraced the movie, making it the second biggest hit of 1939, after “Gone With the Wind.” (Who were not as enthused? The world’s dictators, who saw it as the salute to democracy it was intended to be.) But even the film’s mild criticisms of D.C. would later help smear Capra — a registered Republican — as un-American, and encourage a vengeful Congress to pass anti-studio trade regulations.

And so Hollywood’s interest in political stories — apart from the wonderful farce “The Great McGinty,” released the next year — faded. There were too many risks — and those only increased once the nation went to war, and anything that could be seen as critical of the democratic system was shunned.

Andy Griffith in “A Face in the Crowd.”

After the war, though, Hollywood began to make movies about American politics again. Pictures like 1949’s “All the King’s Men” told what would become a classic story — the well-intentioned young politician who decides the ends justify the means, and is ready to ruin anybody in his pursuit of power. “A Face in the Crowd,” released in 1957, showed the dangers of television, too, as a popular entertainer learns how to turn his adoring audience into mindless lemmings.

Ahead of its time — its downbeat ending turned off audiences — “A Face in the Crowd” was also prescient in its warning about mass media’s influences. It was a subject that would gain more traction as the telegenic Jack Kennedy, and his kin, began their ascent.

For example, the fictional governor’s race in 1960’s “The Last Hurrah” — in which a crusty old pol finds himself pushed aside by a young, handsome, made-for-TV newcomer — is very much the Kennedy legend writ small, a story of one generation giving way to another. And “The Best Man,” written by fierce JFK frenemy Gore Vidal, envisioned contentious political conventions as a war not of ideas but smears, as candidates compete to see who’s got the best dirt on the other. (Does a homosexual scandal trump a Communist one? In 1964, maybe — barely.)

The Camelot Era spurred a new interest in political movies, and in political paranoia. In “Seven Days in May,” a right-wing general plots a coup; in “The Manchurian Candidate,” a convoluted collusion between Chinese Communists and American extremists connives to put a puppet in the White House. Easier to follow was the nuts-and-bolts politicking of “Advise & Consent,” an insider’s drama that dug deep into the back-and-forth battles that drove a confirmation hearing.

Robert Redford in “The Candidate.”

But more often, Hollywood’s best political movies became about liberal idealists gone bad, about dashed dreams, wasted potential and handsome sell-outs. Think of the magnificent “The Candidate,” in which Robert Redford is an activist who enters a race he’s told he can’t win, and in which he’s promised the freedom to say whatever he wants. Until he and his advisors realize that, just maybe, he can win — if he strikes deals with people he once despised, and trades political convictions for meaningless soundbites.

Or “Bulworth,” starring and co-written by former ’72 McGovern delegate Warren Beatty. He plays a once-staunch liberal senator who, over the years, has traded his politics for pragmatism, accepting corporate donations, and demands. Now facing a genuine challenge from a young populist, and his own increasing self-loathing, Bulworth arranges for his own assassination — only to be suddenly liberated by drugs, rap music, and an affair with a young Black activist. Determined to speak the unvarnished truth, he recovers his support and rediscovers his soul — only to be shot down by an insurance company executive.

There are some filmmakers who still see American politics as a calling, and our democracy as an occasionally challenged but vibrant institution. Rod Lurie, who made “The Contender,” is one. Aaron Sorkin, who created TV’s “The West Wing,” is another.

But when Hollywood deigns to think of Washington these days, it’s more like something out of “Veep” — as a runaway train careening from crisis to crisis, with sudden stops for personal aggrandizement, naked graft and the expedient appeasement of whatever interest group makes the most noise, or has the biggest wallet.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was once criticized as controversial and un-American. Now it only seems sweetly, painfully, nostalgically naïve.


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