The vote is in: Political matters have become viable candidates on the big screen, with filmmakers and audiences roused by curiosity, patriotism or indignation to explore critical issues of the times.
Usually relegated to Sunday morning TV roundtables, current events and political content have become as commonplace in theaters as presidential wannabes in Iowa early in an election year.
Michael Moore’s President Bush-bashing “Fahrenheit 9/11” has led the way, but dozens of other documentaries and a handful of dramatized films have arisen in the aftershocks of the 2000 election mess, the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. war on terrorism.
Moviegoers have made mini-hits out of such theatrical releases as “Control Room,” an examination of Arab TV network Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war, and “The Fog of War,” Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winning compendium of Robert S. McNamara’s insights on modern history and combat.
Political documentaries such as “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election,” “Uncovered: The War on Iraq” and “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” have sold briskly on DVD.
“The voting public is energized,” Moore said last summer, after “Fahrenheit 9/11” became the first documentary to top $100 million at the domestic box office. “They are anxious to discuss politics, and I think since Sept. 11, the American people have wanted to find out more of what’s going on in the world.”
Filmmakers and distributors have rushed in to satisfy that inquisitiveness.
Political filmmaking still on the riseOther issue-driven films newly released on film or DVD include “Horns and Halos,” chronicling the saga of J.H. Hatfield’s George W. Bush biography “Fortunate Son”; “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry” and “Brothers in Arms,” which explore the Democratic presidential candidate’s Vietnam record and his subsequent stand against the war; “The Yes Men,” following two anti-corporate pranksters posing as World Trade Organization representatives; “The Hunting of the President,” examining efforts by Bill Clinton’s enemies to discredit his administration; and “The War Room,” the documentary hit about Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
“I think this is the high-water mark for political filmmaking, but I don’t think it’s the end of the rising tide,” said filmmaker Steve Rosenbaum, who is making “Inside the Bubble,” a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Kerry campaign.
“Under Clinton, we went through eight years in which things were kind of OK, the economy was going great, with the dot-com thing, everybody was going to be a millionaire. Now, we’re on the back end of that. People are waking up, wondering, ‘Where the hell is Sudan? Where is the Gaza Strip? What did we do in Afghanistan?’ That sense of bewilderment people have been feeling leaves intelligent people thinking.”
Documentary directors tend to be left-leaning people, so the rush of political films reflects that liberal bent. But some films have delved into the conservative side or attempted to counter liberal viewpoints, among them “Bush’s Brain,” a portrait of the president’s chief adviser, Karl Rove; “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House”; and two documentaries rebutting Moore’s work, “Michael Moore Hates America” and “Fahrenhype 9/11.”
To an extent, the surge in political interest has spilled over to fictional films. “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Team America: World Police” parodies the U.S. war on terror using a cast of puppets. Denzel Washington starred in last summer’s remake of the assassination thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” which used the Persian Gulf War as the root for a plot to usurp the White House. Robert Redford is developing a sequel to his 1972 political satire “The Candidate.”
Big-name stars stepping upSean Penn stars in the upcoming “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” based on the true story of a business failure who set out to kill the president because he viewed him as the embodiment of corruption.
Penn — who derided the Iraq war at last spring’s Academy Awards, when he won the best-actor prize for “Mystic River” — said filmmakers’ current interest in world affairs reflects the preoccupations of society at large.
“It’s the story of the fight that happened outside,” said Penn, who also plans to star in a new version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” a novel loosely based on Louisiana’s populist “Kingfish” governor, Huey Long. “There’s a fight across the street. They come in, see their friends, they tell them the story of the fight across the street.
“I think they’re walking in off the streets now to their typewriters and writing about what’s all around them, and events happening in the world right now are what’s all around them.”
John Sayles’ latest ensemble tale, “Silver City,” casts Chris Cooper as a tongue-tied gubernatorial candidate loosely based on Bush in his first campaign for Texas governor.
Satirizing political king-making, corporate influence and media passivity, “Silver City” had its roots in what Sayles and romantic partner and producer Maggie Renzi saw as rah-rah coverage of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
“It was so one-sided, the conversation. The war was happening, and Maggie and I were watching the BBC and the Jon Stewart show to feel like we were getting any news at all,” Sayles said. “And these miniseries were running on the American news that just seemed liked pep rallies. Despite reporters being embedded, we felt like we were watching Armed Forces Radio and TV.
“It didn’t feel like there was any perspective at all, any analysis, or even any facts, in some ways. So we felt like, we’ve got to get into the conversation.”
As with other forms of independent filmmaking, digital technology has helped swell the ranks of documentary directors. What used to be a prohibitively expensive endeavor for cameras, lighting and film stock now can be undertaken by anyone with an idea and a few thousand dollars for a digital camera.
But will it affect the election?
Commercial success of Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and other documentary hits have broadened audience and distributor interest in nonfiction films in general.
Though audiences have embraced political films, the movies’ potential to influence the elections is uncertain.
Moore has said he hopes “Fahrenheit 9/11” will help jar apathetic Americans to vote, but response to the film breaks down along party lines. Essentially, it’s been embraced by those already predisposed to vote for Kerry and dismissed as propaganda by Bush supporters.
The same holds true for other political documentaries, most of which have not been seen by wide-enough audiences to significantly impact the election, anyway.
“It’s very rare that a work of art changes people’s opinions,” said “Going Upriver” director George Butler, who also made “Pumping Iron,” the 1977 documentary featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger that helped popularize the world of bodybuilding. “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ did it, ‘China Syndrome’ did it. ‘Pumping Iron’ did it to a certain degree, because 100,000 gyms opened up in America after the movie came out. ...
“If I’d made a film about John Kerry with some cute idea that it would influence the election, it would be a disaster. I believe first of all that a good film speaks for itself. The moment the audience feels they’re being manipulated, forget it.”