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Movies as political puppets

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

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 2004

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

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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.

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.