Movies as political puppets

As Election Day looms, several popular releases are boldly mixing entertainment with pointed political commentary.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

There's no way Dicky Pilager, a central character of the forthcoming movie "Silver City," bears any resemblance to George W. Bush.

Apart from the fact that he's a reelection candidate, and his dad is a famous senior politician. And then there are his syntactically challenged speech patterns. And he hails from Colorado, which isn't exactly Texas but isn't a coastal state, either. And then there are his policies, conservative to the core....

All right, let's face it, Dicky's character has been written and directed by John Sayles, and acted by Chris Cooper, to resemble Mr. Bush in almost every way you can imagine.

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Could it be Mr. Sayles has an agenda here?

You bet. And it's not a hidden one. Sayles has been exploring public issues from a liberal perspective for some 25 years.

Nor is "Silver City" the only imminent fiction film with a political twist. "Team America: World Police" uses marionette figures in what's described as a satirical story of superhero-type adventurers fighting terrorism. Other recent releases have also been pointed in their political targets. Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" features a corporation with great political influence - shades of Haliburton, perhaps? - while "The Day After Tomorrow," a movie that advocates government action to curb global warming, includes a fictional vice president who clearly resembles Dick Cheney.

Past political movies have tended to be broader in aim. "Bulworth," for example, is a satire about politics in general rather than a specific person. Or they focused on past events ("All the President's Men," for instance) or on issues that are evergreens. By contrast, this year's crop of movies act as the movie equivalent of political cartoons, aimed to make a political point even as they entertain.

Why now? Simply, this is an election year in a highly polarized America, and people with access to the media want to have their say.

As for the impact such films may have, if any, the jury is out.

"It's impossible to know," says Susan Zeig, a film professor at Long Island University, "especially since it depends on what a person thinks before seeing a film."

A few directors, though, certainly would like to believe that the timing of their movies will provide some sort of impact. Other than the Tim Robbins satire "Bob Roberts," released at the height of election season in 1992, when was the last time we saw a deluge of movies pointedly aimed at a particular election day?

Michael Moore has been quite blunt in stating that intent of his nonfiction film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," is to galvanize voters to oust Bush - one reason why the movie is being rushed to DVD one month prior to the elections. A slew of other left-leaning political documentaries have found big-screen distribution, among them "Bush's Brain," "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," and the imminent "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry."

Blending politics and entertainment

But it's Moore's film that has had the largest cultural impact. Could it be the presence of a strong political message that has made Moore's movie such a hit, playing to large crowds in middle America as well as the supposedly sophisticated coasts?

People who share Moore's ideology might like to think that, but others suspect it's only part of the reason for his movie's popularity. Agree with it or not, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is entertaining, sometimes in funny ways - as when Moore scoots around Washington declaiming the Patriot Act from a sound truck - and sometimes in sentimental ways, as when he interviews the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq.

"Moore is a phenomenon because he's entertaining and a good storyteller," says Robert Merrill, editor of Baltimore's Maisonneuve Press, which publishes mainly politically oriented books. "If he presented the thesis of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' as an argument, no one would go to his movies."

Similar views come from Christopher Sharrett, a communications professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

"I'm less concerned with something like 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' a nonfiction film using sarcasm to make some of its points," Dr. Sharrett says, "than with [political TV and radio] with their tendency to use yuks as a way of getting points across."

What such experts seem to agree on is a growing tendency to make entertainment and politics marketable in similar ways. Certainly TV news programs with photogenic hosts and dynamic logos stimulate the senses as aggressively as Hollywood pictures do.

"The election of Ronald Reagan was the moment when entertainment overwhelmed politics," says Mr. Merrill, a longtime humanities professor. "His media advisers were entertainment and advertising experts.... It's the same for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George W. Bush clearly sees himself as playing a role in a drama."

Based on a true story

Similarly, filmmakers are focusing on entertaining viewers as a way to reach a broad audience with a message.

"Silver City," which will be released on Sept. 17, boasts stars such as Richard Dreyfuss and Daryl Hannah. Though director John Sayles hasn't shied away from pointing out that "Silver City" targets the president, he has also stated that the film should also been seen as a broader comment on the political process as a whole.

Another imminent release, "The September Tapes," bills itself as a "rare and controversial look behind the scenes of war-torn Afghanistan," as the film production notes say. But the film is hardly a dry documentary. Director Christian Johnston blends nonfiction footage with staged scenes to create a thriller about a journalist who is searching for Osama bin Laden.

"Team America," on the other hand, reportedly makes political points against the left as well as the right. The October release lampoons liberals such as Michael Moore, Sean Penn, and Danny Glover even as it satirizes neoconservative ideology.

How not to preach to the converted

Yet films that are outspoken about a partisan point of view may do little to sway viewers' outlook.

"If any films do have [a political] effect," says Professor Zeig, "it's probably the ones that don't wear ideology on their sleeves. A recent film like 'The Corporation' begins with a corporate executive, and an older film like 'The Times of Harvey Milk' starts with a blue-collar worker speaking. These are people that audience members can identify, and what [the people in the film] say might start some people thinking, maybe in a new way - if they go to see the movie in the first place."

Whatever their degree of persuasiveness, such films are likely to crop up in future election years. On a larger scale, the war of ideologies will continue to be waged on a battlefield that blurs the line between entertainment and politics.

"True democracy requires a great deal of discussion, deep debate, and a search for the truth of a subject," says Merrill. "Today's politics isn't about any of those things. It's about seducing voters with stories or images."

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