The presidential election is entering its final stretch, but we’ve been casting ballots for a month of Sundays. At least in terms of politically themed movies. American voters buy millions of tickets for them every year. Like crooks and cowboys, Hollywood audiences have been fascinated with political people from the start of silent movies. And now they’re more fascinated than ever. Recent hits like “Lincoln,” “Spotlight” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” explain how politics once worked and why it doesn’t work today. The success of Netflix’s gripping original series “House of Cards” and HBO’s scathing satire “Veep” prove that dramatizing corruption, compromises, graft, hacks and backroom deals can be irresistibly addictive.
Expressing our democratic aspirations and anxieties, these movies and TV shows define America’s experiment in self-government for better or worse. For three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone, known for films like “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Wall Street,” that has been a theme revisited throughout his career. Friday saw the release of Stone’s eye-opening drama “Snowden,” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Edward Snowden, the security expert turned National Security Agency whistleblower.
Stone said in a recent phone conversation that politics continually fascinates him. “It’s the power center of the world. It makes things better for everyone or worse for everyone. It’s the determinant. Crime doesn’t change our lives the way politics does.”
Stone delved into presidential history in “JFK,” “Nixon” and “W” because “leadership is very important and I’m fascinated by power. Politics is the art of perception, too, and communicating the reality of the world. It’s controlled for the most part by central governments and a narrative comes out in front of us” with a backlash to too little truth, or too much. In Stone’s films, the real patriot isn’t the person holding the highest office but the one who speaks out and stands up against the government, whichever party is in power.
For Daniel Kelliher, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, “our few true movies” about the field “are satirical and absurdist. Half a century later, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is still the best movie ever made on American politics.” Stanley Kubrick’s grimly realistic satire of the military establishment, with a nuclear holocaust triggered by a lunatic “feels very much of the moment.”
So does the 1972 campaign movie “The Candidate,” with Robert Redford as an idealist who dislikes the egoism and self-interest of corrupt senatorial politics and enters the race in protest, only to connive his way to victory. At the ending he silently travels through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, finally feeling, along with the audience, baffled about what he should do next.
In a more serious vein, Kelliher praised “Milk,” the dramatized biography of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco official who was killed after becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, and “Spotlight,” a realistic story of Boston Globe reporters determined to get to the truth of clergy child abuse. “It’s unusual in that it gives a pretty straight telling of how much control the church had in Boston and the rest of the country, where they have recent successes in killing the statute of limitations in child abuse cases.”
A sometimes dazzling, sometimes grating political subtext has worked its way into a wide array of mainstream movies this year. In the last few months it has delivered high tension in “The Purge: Election Year” about a gun control presidential candidate turned into a shooting target, and “Green Room,” in which a punk-rock band battling Oregon white supremacists became a mosh-pit dive into survivalism.
Fact-based comedies have offered sharp, star-driven criticism of the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “War Dogs,” starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, transformed real military-industrial corruption over international arms trading into a crime farce, and Tina Fey’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” morphed a war correspondent’s memoir into pointed diplomatic satire.
The documentary “Zero Days” reported on U.S. agencies’ cryptic cyber weapons with the tension of a spellbinding espionage thriller, while “Weiner” followed sexting-scandal-plagued former congressman Anthony Weiner through his catastrophic 2013 mayoral run.
In this especially fractious election season, which seems like a “Clintonstein vs. Trumpzilla” sendup, there’s much more to come, with the opening of films similar in theme though different in tone. Even Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” with Tom Hanks as the airline pilot who saved 155 lives by landing his stricken jet in the Hudson River, tells the story in part as a narrative of “Big Bad Government” vs. “Sympathetic Hero.”
In the Sundance hit “The Birth of a Nation” (opening Oct. 7), writer/director/star Nate Parker tells the historically important true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved African-American. In 1831, he was dispatched by his master to control troublesome slaves but instead led an armed rebellion leading them to freedom. The film’s title is an echo of D.W. Griffith’s formally groundbreaking, virulently bigoted 1915 Civil War epic, which ends with confederate Ku Klux Klan vigilantes lining up at voting booths to keep newly franchised black Americans from voting. “A century later,” Kelliher said, “we’re still facing it.”
The new film, rich in spiritual undertones, opens with the young Turner experiencing prophetic visions that spur his desire for religious education. He matures to share scripture with downtrodden slaves whose masters twist Biblical passages to justify their domination. Turner refutes each misinterpretation, citing declarations against injustice, even though it may not be defeated in his lifetime. The film’s scenes of violence inflicted on slaves turns to their cathartic, bloody vengeance through armed retribution. The film’s focus on issues of prejudice and inequality was expected to be the point of public discussion. Instead, the debate seems to have shifted to politics of a different sort: renewed attention to a rape charge against Parker 17 years ago.
Among the possible highlights of the season, there is a great deal of legal and military combat, which is political strife in different forms. “Loving,” a romantic drama inspired by the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, tackles Civil Rights issues and the decadelong criminal trial the couple caused when they defied 1950s anti-miscegenation laws. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a satirical examination of the emotional collateral damage of contemporary military combat. The first feature shot at a revolutionary 120 frames-per-second to offer images in a form akin to 3-D, it promises a high-impact experience for the eyes and mind alike.Compare any hour of these films with an hour of cable news, and you’ll soon be asking: Exactly who is being honest about our country and who is making things up?