ELECTIONS – Hollywood Style


As Americans get ready to vote, a look at Hollywood’s vision of elections and candidates is illustrative of what we think of the process. One is reminded of the old Groucho Marx quote: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member.” Hollywood’s view about elections seems to be similar. We wouldn’t want a President or Governor, or Senator or Representative who would actually want to be a President or Governor or Senator or Representative.

In our mythology we want a straight talking, men of the people to be our leaders. Whether it is Abraham Lincoln in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, or Grant Mathews in Frank Capra’s STATE OF THE UNION or Bill McCay in THE CANDIDATE, a simple man endorsing the ideals of democracy ventures into the campaign fray. They seek to find a better way, a way of helping people. They are reluctant politicians. There is a scene in the Robert Redford starrer THE CANDIDATE, when his father congratulates him on his win by saying, “Son, you’re a politician.” The look on Redford’s face is one of disgust. He won by becoming what he never wanted to be, a politician. It s exactly this dichotomy that creates the tension found in many political films. It is the mud sullying the purity of American democracy.

Usually the thrower of the mud is America’s fourth estate, the media. Over and over again, in film after film, Hollywood depicts the corrupter of our democracy as the newspapers or the radio and in more recent times, television. The unsuspecting, naive hayseeds – the voters are easy prey to the manipulations and lies foisted upon by the cynical media powers. In MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the newspaper baron and corrupter of Senators goes on a virulent campaign to discredit the young Jefferson Smith. Probably the most acerbic look at media manipulation was WAG THE DOG where the entire force of Hollywood is used to create a phony war to make a scandal plagued sitting President look good in the eyes of voters.

Another favorite poke at the election process is the abuse of power. The cynicism of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, the paranoia seen in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or the charming simpleton Chance the Gardener in BEING THERE, all bespeak how power is wielded, not in a truly democratic way, but in a distorted, dysfunctional way.

The question that should be asked is if this Hollywood vision of the American democratic process is skewed or on target? Sadly, as this year’s political landscape is surveyed, big money is pouring millions into campaigns. They are promoting their very parochial interests. Their agenda has nothing to do with the good of the country, although they’ll tell you about free enterprise or the American way. It is really about greed.

Then there are politicians cynically acting the part of that straight talking leader. They’ll wear a LL Bean jacket, pose next to their pick-up truck and wax nostalgic about how it use to be. Next are the media companies airing skewed view points. Looking to garner ratings by pandering to one side or the other. At no time do they really embrace the tenets of true journalism, although they say they will.

Sadly, Hollywood may exaggerate, but not by much. American democracy is facing a destructive convergence of marketing, lies, manipulation and even sadder, candidates who thrive in that environment. The Jefferson Smiths, the Grant Mathews and even the Abraham Lincolns, would be eaten alive by today’s political campaigns. Oh, guess who ultimately pays?


Garen is a writer and commentator on film, frugality & whatever strikes his fancy. He appears on NH Public Radio, WGBH, NE Cable News and various other media outlets. Follow him on FaceBook.


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