Movies as political puppets
As Election Day looms, several popular releases are boldly mixing entertainment with pointed political commentary.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.
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."