The 10 Best Hollywood Movies About Money and Politics

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BillMoyers.com asked critic and essayist Gene Seymour to pick 10 Hollywood feature films that he felt best depicted the corrupting influence of money in politics. Note, as Seymour does, “They’re all comedies, aren’t they?” Here they are, in chronological order:

Duck Soup (1933)

For once, try to think of the Marx Brothers’ greatest comedy without Groucho’s fusillade of one-liners or how he and Harpo look at each other through a mirror that isn’t there. Forget also Edgar Kennedy’s slow burns and Margaret Dumont’s imperious credulity. Forget, in short, all the knockabout anarchy that makes the movie so much fun. Think, instead, of what the anarchy is directed against: An attempted power grab of the near-bankrupt nation of Freedonia by the neighboring country of Sylvania, whose stuffy ambassador (Louis Calhern) uses every foul means at hand to force Freedonia to ruin, even wooing the country’s wealthy benefactress (Dumont). His biggest mistake is using Harpo and Chico as undercover spies, who don’t seem to care which side they’re on. The financial hoo-hah is so bewildering that when the inevitable war between the two countries happens, Freedonia welcomes it with a big musical number. Funny, liberating stuff, especially at times when audiences are wary of war (as when this movie was first released) or hostile to it (as during the Vietnam War when the movie re-emerged as a campus favorite.). (Rent on Amazon and Sony)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

This is the prototype for movies about American politics in which idealism, integrity and honor are bathed in glowing light, while pragmatism, compromise and skepticism are cast in varying shades of darkness. The latter values are shown in this movie (and in some of the others on this list) as pathways to cynicism, corruption and the death of hope, while the countervailing virtues are equated with justice, opportunity and the triumph of democracy. It’s a seductive dichotomy and director Frank Capra, at or near the peak of his artistic power and influence here, drives it home in this tale of a sweet young naïf named Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) appointed to a US Senate seat under the patronage of senior senator and family friend Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who has managed to hang on to his own seat by dealing with the state’s tyrannical boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold).

The folksy, charismatic Smith, Thomson contends, “is the real threat in the film” while Senator Paine “is the best-written, best-acted, and most interesting figure.”
When “Jeff” Smith wants to set aside land for a National Boys Camp, Boss Taylor and Senator Paine do everything to his reputation, short of murder, to keep that land intact for a fraudulent dam-building scheme. Smith’s marathon filibuster, thanks to Stewart’s star-making performance, has galvanized generations into believing in the power of one person to challenge an entrenched status quo. (Most recently, it inspired Ted Cruz to stage a similar marathon, the results of which were, to say the least, nowhere near as transformative.)

Yet, it also has been persuasively argued that the movie instills unrealistic expectations in its audience of what is possible in a democracy. Critic David Thomson wrote, “Democracy in America is a noble hope that needs to be guarded against corruption, but compromise is the essential American way – without it, we risk dictatorship.” The folksy, charismatic Smith, Thomson contends, “is the real threat in the film” while Senator Paine “is the best-written, best-acted, and most interesting figure.”

We could use more movies showing complex, intelligent, shrewd, if somewhat soiled pragmatists like Paine practicing politics as “the art of the possible” — instead of magic charmers like Smith, who set the bar so high that when the dreams don’t materialize as we’re hyped to believe, our collective disappointment may reach the point where we forsake politics, and democracy, altogether. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony)

Being There (1979)

The aftershocks of both Vietnam and Watergate left Americans so jaded and cynical towards politics they could totally buy into a movie where a nondescript illiterate whose tiny mind takes all its cues from the television screen could achieve greater political influence than the president of the United States. In the case of this Hal Ashby movie, adapted by Jerzy Kozinski from his novel of the same name, the blank-page-who-walks is named Chance (Peter Sellers), a live-in gardener for a rich old man who finds himself adrift in the streets of Washington, DC, after his employer dies. The aptly named Chance soon finds himself, literally by accident, living in the home of another wealthy codger, a well-connected mogul named Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), whose much younger wife (Shirley MacLaine) is the first of many in their circle to mishear Chance the Gardener’s name as “Chauncey Gardiner.”

Chance’s TV-inspired banalities are taken by Ben as hard-nosed wisdom and the billionaire soon takes on the perpetually obtuse Chance as his protégé and, eventually, putative heir. Even the president (Jack Warden) is intrigued enough by “Chauncey’s” oracular gifts to wonder whether they entitle him to someday take over his job, too. Sellers’ deadpan performance, one of his last, anchors the dry, mordant tone of this movie, which, with added hindsight, presaged an era where the face of power seemed to belong more and more to those with the slicker, emptier platitudes. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony, Amazon)

Dave (1993)

Ivan Reitman’s saga of a temp agency operator (Kevin Kline) who assumes the identity of his exact doppelganger, the president of the United States, includes one of the great wish-fulfillment fantasies of American life. It shows Dave-as-President-Mitchell at a cabinet meeting using pencil, paper and simple arithmetic to balance the budget without undue harm to social programs. Thus the whole process of “setting the nation’s economic agenda” is stripped of its wonky mystique, rendering it on a par with sitting at the kitchen table figuring out the monthly household expenses.

Indeed, the whole movie depicts a political elite so aloof and removed from daily life that its members speak to so-called average Americans such as Dave as if they were third-graders incapable of understanding the complexities of economics and politics. But it also flatters its audience by making them feel that they know more – or could come to know more – than those anointed to manage their interests. It is, in short, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington updated for the post-Vietnam era with a cooler and perhaps more cautious attitude towards the power of personality. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony)

Wag the Dog (1997)

The title of this sly, dry satire, directed by Barry Levinson and written (in large part) by David Mamet, was almost immediately absorbed into the zeitgeist to the point of becoming a brand-name accusation towards politicians finding (or creating) international crises as diversions from scandal. In this case, the president of the United States is accused of fondling a Girl Scout a few weeks before he’s supposed to be re-elected. An infamous spin-doctor (Robert De Niro) hires a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate a war against – what the hell – Albania that would play out on television in the weeks before Election Day, thus giving voters a view of a Leader of the Free World on the job and not in trouble.

The movie’s all-too-plausible intersection of show-biz and politics made such an impression that a year later, when President Clinton ordered bombings of terrorist targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, both Levinson and the movie’s producer Jane Rosenthal were besieged by reporters for comment. Those insisting on seeing Clinton’s actions as constituting a real-life parallel to the Levinson-Mamet script pointed to his widespread support among Hollywood’s liberal elite. When, after the 9/11 attack, it came out that the bombings were aimed at the attack’s mastermind Osama bin Laden, such analogies were rendered moot – though that aforementioned intersection of Hollywood and Washington not only remains intact, it has been strengthened by digital technology. If you doubt this, just watch President Obama’s next on-line comedy sketch on behalf of the Affordable Care Act. (Stream on Xfinity HBO, CINEMAX, Starz, Encore | Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony)

Primary Colors (1998)

This adaptation of Joe Klein’s rueful roman-a-clef about the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign was released at just about the time the aforementioned Lewinsky scandal broke open. The media din surrounding this coincidence was so noisy that it almost kept audiences at the time from seeing how great a job director Mike Nichols had done in evoking the book’s tumult and color, especially in the vivid characterizations of slick, charming Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta), his steely, combative wife Susan (Emma Thompson), the cagey, vulpine strategist (Billy Bob Thornton), his two-fisted, but emotionally vulnerable counterpart (Kathy Bates), and the earnest, but wary activist (Adrian Lester) who signs on with Stanton’s presidential campaign and finds his own belief in the cause challenged on all sides by the governor’s mendacity towards his sex life and the ruthless tactics endorsed by both Stantons. Once again, idealism and pragmatism are set against each other like pit bulls, snarling and grapping all the way until the movie reaches — or, some might think, staggers towards — something very much like a compromise between the two. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, YouTube, Sony)

Bulworth (1998)

If you’re a lapsed progressive Democratic senator from California whose Kennedy-esque ideals and battered psyche have been razed by corporate greed, systemic breakdown and consensus cynicism, then, as far as Warren Beatty’s go-for-broke black comedy is concerned (co-written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser), you’ve got two options: Go crazy or go “gangsta!” For a veteran pol, even one as existentially challenged as Jay Bulworth (Beatty), there’s always a way to avoid choosing one option while taking both. So he endows a multi-million-dollar contract for a hit – on himself. With literally nothing left to lose, Bulworth drops his adopted neo-liberal façade in public and starts telling everybody what he really thinks of the insurance industry’s hostile attitude towards health care reform. His newfound candor assumes an even rougher inner-city edge when, emboldened by an enigmatic neighborhood activist (Halle Berry) and an icily insightful drug lord (Don Cheadle), he adopts the swaggering persona and astringent rhetoric of a rap artist, rhyming his off-the-reservation views on economics, race and a single-payer health plan.

Few movies of any kind, even at the tail end of the Clinton era, dared to be as excoriating about the body politic as Beatty’s. And while some critics at the time, even those who liked the movie, believed the director-star to display a jaundiced eye towards American society, the movie now seems oddly hopeful about the possibilities it raises; a few of which have come close to fruition in the years since — though Jam Master Jay Bulworth would likely observe, as his erstwhile hero JFK once did, that we could do better. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony)

Head of State (2003)

At the time it was released, Chris Rock’s raucous take on how an African-American would reach the finish line in a presidential contest was taken by many critics and audiences to be a formulaic raunchy comedy. (With the late Bernie Mac in the cast, such pre-fab expectations were logical.) But this movie remains an undervalued gem for its savvier observations about the political process as woven into yet another underdog-takes-on-the-power-structure story about a Washington, DC, alderman named Mays Gilliam (Rock), who through the agency of a freak plane crash, is given his party’s nomination for the presidency with the expectation that he’ll lose on Election Day and allow the party to regroup four years later.

Gilliam plays along with the scenario laid out by his handlers (Lynn Whitfield, Dylan Baker). But egged on by his brother (Mac), Mays begins to speak his mind on the issues and his poll numbers climb within reach of his smug opponent (Nick Searcy), who finally agrees to a debate after Mays tells him, “Your mother’s ass is so big that when she sits down, she’s three feet taller.”

OK, so that never happened when a real African-American ran for president and it’s not likely to happen ever. But Rock’s own version of the Mr. Smith, Dave wish-fulfillment fantasy is also a trenchant depiction of how those marginalized from the American mainstream have felt for generations about a democratic process that’s let them down more often than it’s raised them up. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony)

Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Christopher Buckley’s grinning deconstruction of lobbying was transformed by writer-director Jason Reitman (Ivan’s son) into an acerbic farce which lays out like a buffet table the vagaries of advocating what’s impossible to justify. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a charming smoothie lobbying for Big Tobacco, whether with elected officials or with the general public, watching TV news-talk shows where he can make the case for smoking even when there’s somebody on camera with him, dying of lung cancer. He even manages to convince a cancer-stricken “Marlboro Man” (Sam Elliot) to accept a suitcase full of hush money so he won’t speak out against his clients.

The movie makes Nick somewhat less foolish than his enemies, chief among whom is a liberal Vermont senator (William H. Macy) so anti-tobacco that he wants to put a skull-and-crossbones icon on every pack of cigarettes and wishes to purge every movie ever made of cigarette smoking. To his credit (sort of), Nick’s self-aware enough to meet each week with his counterparts in the alcohol and gun lobbies, who jokingly characterize themselves as the “Merchants of Death” or “MOD.”

As jovially pointed as the movie is, you keep wondering throughout whether it disapproves more of Nick or of those, like the senator, who overreach in trying to neutralize his impact. More likely, we’re supposed to come away resigned that lobbying is one of the things we have to put up with if we presume to live in a democracy. Not a comfort, exactly; but then, sour pragmatism sounds like something that should taste exactly like tonic. (Stream on xfinity CINEMAX)

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Mike Nichols’ late-career bloom found more nourishment in the political realm with this adaptation of George Crile’s true story of Wilson (Tom Hanks), the randy Texas congressman who forged a partnership with CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to mobilize the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s. The improbability of a “lower house” member being able to enable and endow a clandestine military operation is, by itself, an entertaining premise, especially with two central characters as colorful as Charlie and Gust. Delineating the details of this process would seem more daunting. But given that the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, had previously flashed his mastery of making wonkiness sexy and clever on TV (The West Wing) and in movies (The American President), it figured that this movie would be able to handle the story’s complexities with no seams showing – except maybe for the “unintended consequences” to come that Charlie alludes to at the end of both his “war” and the United States’ subsequent disengagement from Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. (Rent on iTunes, Google play, Vudu, YouTube, Sony)

 

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour has published articles about film, jazz and other necessary distractions in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation magazine and on CNN.com. He lives in Philadelphia and is working on a collection of essays. His web address is geneseymour.com.
Gene Seymour has published articles about film, jazz and other necessary distractions in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation and on CNN.com. He lives in Philadelphia and is working on a collection of essays. Follow him on Twitter: @GeneSeymour.
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