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Politics, Hollywood Style

Why and How Political Films Matter[1]

Do films serve purposes besides entertainment?  Stephenson and Debrix point out that “Film brings us face to face with reality, or with something that looks like reality” (1973).  Jumping off from that thought, Walter Lipman famously said that “the job of the journalist is to portray a picture of reality on which the citizen can act.”  These two quotes are a good starting point for a book on political films.  The first says that films “look like reality:” images are powerful, even if we know them to be fictional.  The second quote refers to journalism, and, with rare exceptions, the makers of the films described here are not considered (by themselves or others) to be journalists.  But it provides a useful perspective on all media: what sort of “picture of reality” do they portray, and in what ways might citizens think or be able to act in response to these pictures?  Because film-makers are seen as entertainers and not journalists, these might seem like unfair questions.  Yet, there is little reason to think that media consumers neatly divide influential media sources into news, which is “true,” and entertainment, which is “fiction.”  This is especially true in an era in which market pressures lead to so much “infotainment” that blurs the boundary between news and entertainment.[2]

The hold of films on the public is not what it once was. In the 1930s and 1940s weekly film attendance was eighty to ninety million, or about two-thirds of the population!  Attendance bottomed out in the late 1960s at only about twenty million per week, but since the 1980s it has been over one hundred million. (Gianos 1999, 40; Gianetti 1986, 137). There is little doubt that ideas in films were and are important because they both reflect and affect views held in the public.  Popular films can be said to reflect popular tastes, both by the simple fact that they are popular, and because filmmakers, seeking to make money, will attempt to produce movies that will be box office successes.  Thus, as film writer Randall M. Miller puts it, “Mass entertainment cannot depart too far from the tastes and beliefs of the masses.” (Miller 1980, 13; as quoted in Christensen 1987, 7) There are some limits to this idea because people may attend movies for many reasons; the political ideas and images might be incidental to the reason for a particular film’s success.  And, of course, one must pay before seeing a film.

Phillip Gianos emphasizes that the unpredictability of all film-making necessitates caution:

“It is essential to understand that films are a commodity intended to make money . . . The imperative that films make a profit means seeking large audiences, and seeking large audiences requires caution about a film’s subject matter and treatment.  As with any other genuinely mass medium, the content and form of films is largely dictated by economic necessities . . . (Films’) creators thus must anticipate–guess is probably more appropriate–the tastes of an often fickle audience.” (1999, 1)

The caution that Gianos describes would especially apply to potentially sensitive political topics.  Not all films mentioned in this book were created with the expectation (or hope) of making a large profit, but I emphasize those that were made with the hopes of a significant audience because it is precisely those films that reflect, and affect, audiences the most.

How much do films actually affect the audience?  As elsewhere in the study of media, there is limited conclusive research evidence, but experimental studies are gradually accumulating that support the idea that films do matter.  Research on media in general supports two common-sense notions that are important in considering the impact of films on the public:

1) ideas from media sources are not simply injected in viewers like a drug, but repeated exposure to the same or similar messages over time is likely to affect attitudes. (Morgan and Signorielli 1990, as cited in Carlson 1995, 50.)

2) people are much more likely to be influenced by media on topics that they have less information about already.  And, given how little exposure most Americans have to detailed information on the political process, fictional accounts can be persuasive.[3]

Furthermore, compared with other popular mass media, film is an intense experience, a “hot” medium.  Viewers do not experience films as background noise the way they often experience television or radio, for example.  They attend voluntarily, often with a positive attitude and their guard down, looking for entertainment.  Movies are well-known for their ability to manipulate our emotions, and the young, who generally have less information on politics already (Flanigan and Zingale 1991, 17), are the most frequent movie-goers. (Christensen 1981, 5).   And, as Adkins and Castle point out, viewers might not always recognize that the messages they receive in films are political, thus they might be more affected. (2013, 2)

The impact of films on society cannot be readily measured, despite many controversies over the years on topics ranging from pornography to copy-cat crimes.  Interestingly, there have been a few studies which found evidence for the effects specific political films have on audiences.  Such studies attempt scientific experiments in which one group is shown a film and a second, or control, group does not see it.  Attitudes on variables of interest can then be compared.  The results of such studies, while neither conclusive nor terribly surprising, are informative.  Viewers of All the President’s Men (1976), in which the protagonists are journalists shown helping to expose the Watergate scandal, were more likely to have positive attitudes toward journalists and negative views of politicians. (Elliot and Schenk-Hamlin 1979, cited in Giglio 2000)  Those who saw director Michael Moore’s indictment of corporate greed, Roger and Me (1989), had more negative views of corporations than those that did not. (Bateman, Sakano, and Fulita 1992, cited in Giglio 2000)

More recently, Adkins and Castle performed such experiments designed to measure the impact of films on a major current American issue: health care reform.  They showed people three different films, none explicitly political, but two of which had stories that might be expected to make people more sympathetic to reform.[4]  There results found not only a significant effect of the pro-reform films, but that the effect lasted when people were surveyed two weeks later. (2013)

This book assumes that the films studied here will, given the above, have some effect on viewers, at least in the aggregate when repeated, as emphasized above; and these films certainly will reflect, to some extent, popular views of the time when made.  The chapters to come will note the relative popularity of films to get some very rough idea of the potential of political films in this regard.  But this study does not present new experimental or other direct evidence of films’ impact on viewers.

Portrayals of Politics and Politicians

Many films are “political.”  Indeed, using a broad definition of politics, almost all films are political in one way or another.  One political scientist defines as political those questions that “involve the making of a common decision for a group of people” and “involve the use of power.” (Shively 2003, 3-4)  Most or all films touch on some of these questions.  Seemingly non-political films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) have been described as political allegories, and a film on any part of ordinary human life might affect our attitudes on related political issues.  For example, the film The Fast and the Furious (2001) might make people more likely to engage in street racing that breaks our agreed-upon laws, and this, in turn, might lead to changes in law enforcement.

Writers, readers, and students especially interested in politics might narrow the focus to the more overtly political films, like those that in some way clearly advocate a political cause, as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) advocates caution about nuclear weapons and war, and, more explicitly, The China Syndrome (1979) makes nuclear power look risky. This book casts its net even more narrowly, and, I hope, more clearly,  by concentrating on film portrayals of politicians and the political process.  Besides providing a topic of manageable scope, this allows us to consider important issues of how Americans think about politics and politicians, such as whether they are good or evil, and whether they should be embraced or avoided.  Much has been said and written in recent decades about the apathy and cynicism of the American public toward the political process, and it is in light of such discussions that I chose political process-oriented films as my focus.  Given the assumption that major films do reflect and affect Americans’ views, analyzing these films can help explain something about levels of participation in politics by citizens and the nature of such participation.  This focus on portrayals of politics and politicians also allows me to decrease somewhat my reliance on arbitrary decisions about whether and when a film is “political.”[5]

Thus, for the purposes of this book, the films being considered are those that share the following characteristics:

  • They were made in the United States, primarily for U.S. film (not television or Internet) audiences.[6]
  • They were “major” motion pictures: they enjoyed wide release, and were mass-marketed.[7]
  • They are “political” in the sense that their plots focus primarily on events in American government, elections, and involve political leaders. Even this narrow definition of “political” is potentially vague and contentious, but I focus on the mostly traditional scope of American government politics and politicians such as elected officials and those seeking power over American politics and government.  All films are “political” in that their makers may make some political points and they may cause some forms of political socialization of their audiences, but this is a much narrower definition.[8]

Thus, unlike many other interesting books on politics and film, this one explains why these films were included and not others.   Of course, in doing so, the book cannot eliminate disagreements over why some films were included and others not; such disagreements are inevitable when so many judgments are made about which films are mostly about American politics, but I hope that the reasons for these films’ inclusion are relatively clear, and some difficult choices are discussed in the book.

Because of its narrower definition, this book focuses primarily on the ways that politics and politicians are portrayed, rather than attempting to discuss any and all political issues over the years.  Certainly, with the historical organization of the book, I will consider what were some of the most prominent issues in these films and how these changed over time.

Historical Organization of Films

All the President’s Men was released in 1976, two years after President Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal.  Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and during the height of the Cold War.  Obviously, these films make more sense within the history of these specific times.  All the President’s Men could not have been made any earlier, since it was a historical drama, based on the events of 1972-1974.  It was unlikely to be made much later, as these events rapidly became of less interest to film audiences.

In 1976, All the President’s Men was reasonably successful, grossing seventy-one million dollars.[9]  The 1999 comedy Dick, about some of the same events, was a box-office failure.  There are many possible explanations for that, but the lack of interest in and knowledge about Watergate among 1999 film audiences (especially young people, who make up the largest group of film-goers) was certainly one important factor.  All the President’s Men also had some historical effects: it was at least one cause of the glorification of investigative journalism that led to more applications to journalism schools and caused greater emphasis on such journalism among newspapers and other media since the 1970s.

My students in the last two decades have often found Dr. Strangelove (1964) to be a rather odd comedy.  Stylistically, it must have been quite shocking or off-putting to the audiences of the early 1960s, long before Monty Python or Saturday Night Live helped accustom us to such broad and silly comedic style, as well as such black comedy (a comedy about the destruction of the Earth is unusual).  In terms of specific content, references to fluoridation of the water and Mutually Assured Destruction only make sense to modern audiences if they are aware of the history of that time.

These obvious examples are mentioned to explain my choice of historical organization for the book.  I have divided the book into several historical chapters.  Within each section, films can be assumed to share some of the same historical background.  Despite significant differences among films within each period, discussing them in such groupings helps us understand the films better and perhaps understand the historical period a little better as well.  Besides general discussion of the historical period, this broad chronological ordering of the book allows us to consider any trends that might be present among the political films themselves in the ways that they portray politics.

The historical chapters start with Chapter Two, which covers the Depression Era and continues into the early 1940s, when the Depression ended.  This chapter also starts near the beginning of the era of sound movies and includes the peak of film popularity.  Chapter Three includes films of the World War Two era and its immediate aftermath, including the early Cold War years.  Chapter Four covers what might be called the height of the Cold War, from the 1950s and early 1960s.  While the raw number of films about politics in this period is not great, they include an unusually high number that are still widely-viewed by film critics as significant and well-made, such as Fail-Safe (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Chapter Five runs from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s: some commentators on recent history have observed that the period of cultural and political upheaval we call “the 1960s” actually includes approximately these years.

Perhaps the slowest years for well-known political process films were those that followed: from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and these are discussed in Chapter Six. Chapter Seven covers the revival of films about politicians and American government that occurred in the 1990s, and it continues into 2001.   Chapter Eight covers political films of the past decade or so, after the events of September 11, 2011; this allows some greater focus on security themes.  Chapters Seven and Eight cover very many films; the revival of political film-making has continued through this past decade.  Finally, Chapter Nine offers some conclusions and thoughts on trends in political films, including some of the themes and issues discussed in the following sections.

Political Themes and Issues

Throughout this book, I will examine films that portray politicians and the process of political decision-making on the United States.  My scholarly interest in these films stems originally from a background in political science rather than in film scholarship.  Thus, one should expect the emphasis here to be on political content more than on form.  One cannot, of course, divorce form from content, and we must keep in mind that important messages about politics can be sent through the way a scene is filmed, for example, as much as through its script.[10]  But the overall focus is on fairly straightforward messages that one might receive about politics through these films, as well as related issues of ideology, race, and gender.  Both film jargon and political science jargon are avoided as much as possible.

As many observers have pointed out, politicians and American government do not get off easy in American films.  Ernest Giglio, for example, cites the classic scene in The Candidate (1972) in which protagonist Bill McKay is approached by his famous politician father after a successful campaign debate appearance.  Smiling rather frighteningly, the father says: “Congratulations, Son.  You’re a politician now!” (2000, 93-94). The statement is meant as a compliment, but McKay’s expression indicates that he does not take it as one, and the film’s intent is clear that we should not either.  This scene alone points out the complex cause/effect relationship between film and audience: Giglio uses it, logically enough, as an example of the corrosive effect films can have on civic virtue, in discouraging viewers from seeing politics as a worthy pursuit.  But the scene would not be so effective if most viewers did not enter the theater with the predisposition to view politics negatively.  Thus, the scene reinforces rather than creates an attitude.  And, in doing so, it curries our favor, since it agrees with us.

In discussing films, I seek to go a bit beyond this obvious fact that films usually portray politics negatively and discuss four broad categories of ways in which politics is portrayed by these films.  While most films share some of these negative attitudes, they are quite different in their messages about politics, and these four types provide some guidance to the ways in which films’ messages differ.  The categories help to generalize about each film’s general messages about politics and politicians.  The four broad categories are idealistic/cynical (I/C), completely cynical, paranoid, and heroic.  I define each of these here, with reference to a few examples, which will be further developed in subsequent chapters.  Some films, unsurprisingly, contain aspects of multiple types, and a few defy categorization into any of these four.  Thoughtful readers will, undoubtedly, disagree with some of my classifications, but there are some clear generalizations that can be made about these films’ portrayals of politics.

Idealistic/Cynical Films

This combination of ideas about politics is the most common one in political films, and as such I will delve into it in the greatest depth.  The term “idealism” is used in different ways in different political contexts.  Sometimes it is pejorative: for example, when “realists” in analysis of international relations describe others as “idealists”, they focus on the unreality or foolishness of idealism.  Such a view is not inconsistent with my use here, but I attempt to be more neutral. Roger Scruton, in his Dictionary of Political Thought, refers to idealism as the “pursuit of, and unwillingness to renounce, ideals of conduct, even when present reality conflicts with them, and even when their future realization seems unlikely or impossible” (1982, 213).

That definition is a suitable one.  In films about American politics, such idealism often manifests itself in the glorification of specific individuals, both fictional and historical, as paragons of virtue whose conduct should serve as an example.  The early, popular, and influential American political film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), directed by Frank Capra, shows this perfectly through the identification of its valiant hero, Jefferson Smith, with American political heroes such as Abraham Lincoln.  When individuals in these films succeed, despite evil enemies and difficult circumstances, it upholds their conduct.  It also demonstrates that idealism is not incompatible with cynicism about those portions of the political world over which the individual must triumph.  In Mr. Smith these include machine bosses and their cronies and manipulated and manipulative media.  Indeed, this theme in political films is popular in part, no doubt, because of the dramatic tension that the good person/bad system dichotomy produces.  If the political world is just fine, what is there for the hero to do?  And if it is hopelessly irredeemable (as in some films of the following two categories), what do the hero’s actions matter?

Idealism also is present whenever films have very uplifting conclusions, conclusions that seek to show us that good can triumph in politics, even in unlikely situations.  Such conclusions can be seen as encouraging positive contributions by the public to politics.  However, more worryingly, they may foster naiveté about American politics and how one succeeds in it, by encouraging us to seek solutions from great individuals only (“knights in shining armor”), and by demonizing the ordinary political processes of compromise.

This last point brings us to the contrasting, but companion, concept of cynicism.  In using the term “cynicism,” I apply the everyday meaning to politics.  If a cynic is inherently dubious about human nature and the likelihood of success in various human endeavors, cynicism in political films is the expression of such an outlook about American politics.  If people primarily participate in politics for self-interested reasons, the world of American politics that is portrayed in cynical views is one where the powerful routinely overwhelm the powerless, and even those who purport to be serving the public good are probably serving themselves.

The category of I/C films then includes very important aspects of each idea.  Most of these films have a primarily cynical attitude toward politics overall:  the process is bad, and/or most of the people involved with politics are bad people.  But these films have one or more “good guys” who seek to redeem themselves and, perhaps, some part of the political system.  Politics has many problems, but right can still triumph, often because our founding fathers left us a good system that can be redeemed.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps the prototypical idealist/cynical film, especially takes this view, as when the protagonist, in his moment of doubt, seeks solace at the Lincoln Memorial.  An I/C film will generally have a happy ending in which the protagonist triumphs, at least partially, against the odds, over the troubled political world in which he finds himself.  As an added touch, he often finds himself in the political world by accident or something close to it.  Examples include Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe (1941), Dave (1993), and Head of State (2003).  This feature makes it more plausible for us to view the hero as untainted by the problems of politics.

The description of the mechanics of the American political system in these films is usually quite negative: people are not just self-serving, but also power-hungry and manipulative.  And the more you know about the inner working of politics, the more you see this ugly truth, so it is the naive outsider who is pure.  Thus the idealism of the lead character is a foil for others’ (and our own) cynicism, and he converts us and either converts or conquers them in the dramatic conclusion.  While these films are uplifting in a sense, they are also disturbing, especially if one asks: where would we be if this one hero had not come along?

I give this detailed interpretation of this theme because it is such a powerful and dominant one.  It plays into our natural distrust of politics and our desire to see good triumph: we “know” politics is evil, but we know (or hope) not everyone is evil, so we seek some uncorrupted person who can fix things.  In the real world, this is at least a part of what occurs when we elect “outsiders” continually and even insiders run against government.[11]

The dominance of these I/C themes can be seen throughout the history of American political films, and will be explored in subsequent chapters.  The legacy of Mr. Smith is pro-individual, but anti-politics and anti-compromise.  In this mold, one could include thrillers such as Seven Days in May (1964), where we see a patriotic marine officer saving America from a military takeover, as well as later Capra films such as State of the Union (1948).   Hendrik Hertzberg has gone so far as to deride “Smith’s Syndrome” as being made up of:

“Sentimentality, ignorance, corniness, showy patriotism, cynicism disguised as naive idealism, a hatred of politics masked by ostentatious reverence for the constitutional forms that politics alone can bring to life, populist demagoguery, and stupidity” (1998, 86).
While exaggerated, Hertzberg’s criticism is telling.  And we will see throughout the book how common traits such as these are.

Completely Cynical Films

While films in the I/C category show politics in a negative light, there is a limit to this negative portrayal, in that the situation is redeemable.  Completely cynical films are those in which politics is assumed to be filled with self-serving persons and is a corrupt and corrupting enterprise which heroes cannot fixThe Candidate, for example, shows the same pure outsider versus corrupt politics themes as do I/C films, but the outsider does not triumph.

In The Candidate, a well-meaning young man, Bill McKay (an idealist), reluctantly enters a campaign and finds himself gradually losing control to people who do this for a living and seem to be largely self-serving.  Compromises become routine, and, in order to succeed, McKay’s candidacy must become packaged and, ultimately, empty.  This is epitomized in the classic closing line from the film, when McKay has won, but asks “what do I do now?”

We would expect this type of film to be much less common than the I/C type for some obvious reasons.  First and foremost, these cynical films do not show the triumph of the individual, thus they usually lack happy endings.  Secondly, while cynicism toward politics in film reflects and reinforces public attitudes, it is unlikely that many Americans have such completely cynical views, given the overall high levels of support for the American system that U.S. citizens display.[12]

There are certainly fewer completely cynical films than there are I/C, but they do continue.  More recent examples include Wag the Dog from the 1997 and 2008’s Thank You For Smoking.  Both of these films make the unusual move of making manipulators of public opinion the protagonists.  In Thank You, a tobacco industry lobbyist is the lead character, and neither he nor his opponents are portrayed very positively.

In contrast to idealism in political films, cynicism would be most likely to discourage political engagement by the viewer.  Such engagement might appear pointless if the political world is corrupt and inevitable compromises will produce few meaningful changes.  While such a portrayal might become too depressing to be successful film entertainment, it can appeal to the public’s common perceptions of politics and politicians as evil, and might even ease citizens’ guilt over lack of participation: if they are all rotten, it is not my fault, since there is little that I could do.

Paranoid Films

Paranoia usually refers to irrational fear and excessive suspicion on the part of individuals.  The term is used here to refer to extreme levels of fear and distrust expressed towards government and/or important politicians.  There can be an overlap with negative portrayals of politics that are labeled “cynical,” but “paranoid” views go beyond these because of their extremity, and the emphasis on fear and danger to the individual.  Thus, cynical portrayals in film may encourage one to ignore government, but paranoid portrayals warn us to fear government.

Films exhibit a paranoid theme when they show individuals as lost and powerless against frightening forces that totally overwhelm them.  Paranoia has been less common in American political films then the two preceding categories, although important examples can be found.  The 1970s provide some of the clearest examples, such as portions of All the President’s Men where the reporter-heroes, Woodward and Bernstein, appear to be in great danger from unnamed and unseen agents of the executive branch. (As has been pointed out by some critics, there is no evidence that they were actually in danger (Leuchtenburg 1995, 288)).

While that film only has elements of paranoia, another 1970s example from the same director, Alan Pakula, is the entirety of the assassination thriller The Parallax View (1974), which plays on the high-profile political assassinations of the 1960s to present a frightening view of politics manipulated by a series of unexplained killings.  Recent decades have also given us prominent examples, such as Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), in which a pro-war conspiracy going all the way to the top of American government is alleged to have killed President Kennedy and 2004’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate in which a global corporation seeks to control the U.S. government.  As all three of these examples show, the threats in these films are almost always internal rather than external (Coyne 2008, 12).  Even after 9-11, films most often warned against threats to our liberty through over-reaction to the external threat.

In paranoid themes, individuals usually lose out to large, frightening political forces, although some films, as we will see, dilute this negative message with elements of hope.  Relatively few films present an unadulterated paranoid view, but the theme is important in many political films.  Paranoid themes in politics films could lead to avoidance of politics, as with cynical views, but they could also lead, conceivably, to endorsement of extreme, even violent, political views (of the left or right), since the paranoid world of politics does not necessarily allow one to merely ignore the political.  Some extreme action might need to be taken to stop the dangers presented.  The recent popularity of conspiracy theories, such as that President Obama is not really an American or that the 9-11 attacks were planned by the U.S. government, are consistent with the paranoid view of politics.

Heroic Films

Heroic films are closest to the idealist/cynical category, but I have listed them last because, especially in recent years, they are the least common.  These films are essentially the idealist/cynical films without the cynicism.  That does not necessarily mean that there are no negative or cynical attitudes expressed in such films — it would be an odd American political film that expressed no such ideas — but the struggle of the protagonist in these films is NOT primarily against corruption or evil in politics, but rather against other problems or obstacles.

A well-known recent example of the heroic film is Air Force One (1997), in which the president heroically fights against international terrorists.  Although some political struggles are shown within the administration (over who is really in charge while the president is missing, and then under duress), these struggles are minor compared with those between the clearly good, idealistic president and the terrorists who threaten both his family and larger targets.  This category also best describes some biographical films which treat former leaders reverentially.  Some, such as Wilson (1944), fit into the I/C category, because they focus on leader’s struggles against corruption and other political enemies.  But others, such as Sunrise at Campobello (1960) (emphasizing Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle versus polio) are heroic in the sense described here: they are about good people who are politicians fighting against personal and societal problems heroically, but the political system is not emphasized as the enemy.

While films in this category are less critical about American politics than those in the three categories above, it does not follow that they are better for citizens.  First of all, while excessively negative attitudes by citizens are problematic, more positive attitudes are not always better, since they can lead to uncritical acceptance of government policies[13]. Also, in general, films in the heroic category are not very sophisticated, detailed, or thoughtful in their depiction of American politics. A small number of the films discussed in later chapters fit none of these four main categories, and some of these, being less typical and predictable, are quite interesting.

One important point about these themes is that negative attitudes towards politics are found in political films of the first three types, and even, to a lesser extent, in heroic films.  While this overall tendency is interesting, and potentially problematic, one can realistically argue that it is difficult to avoid.  Conventional films have plots with protagonists and antagonists, and there must be some kind of struggle for the protagonists to overcome (or occasionally not overcome), even in a comedy.  As such, it is not necessarily surprising that political films often place characters in unpleasant situations: that is what gives them dramatic tension, as discussed above in the idealism/cynicism category.  One finds similar juxtapositions in most genres (westerns are a good example, with the lone good guys fighting off imposing threats.)  Louis Gianetti and Scott Eyman, in their history of film, describe the conventions of “classical cinema” in similar terms:

“Classical narrative structures begin with an implied dramatic question: we want to know how the protagonist will get what he or she wants in the face of considerable opposition.  The subsequent scenes intensify this conflict in a rising pattern of action . . . The conflict builds to its maximum tension in the climax, at which point the protagonist and the antagonist clash overtly . . .”(149)

Since antagonist(s) and protagonist(s) are virtually a given in films, it is the political film’s choices of exactly what the good and bad elements will be, and what will be the result of their interplay that are interesting to us from a political standpoint.  These say a great deal about the values of the film-makers and the ideas that the viewers will take away with them.

Other Considerations in Portrayals of Politics

Compromise and Honest Disagreement

Beyond thinking about the four broad categories discussed above, the historical chapters that follow will consider some other issues of the content of the films discussed that relate to how politics and politicians are portrayed.  One set of ideas closely related to the discussion of idealism and cynicism toward politics is the treatment of compromise, deal-making, and debate with opponents, and, relatedly, the ways that ideological disagreement is dealt with (or not dealt with.)  Films about politics most often have tended to describe politics as good versus evil, especially along the lines described in the idealist/cynical type.  Thus, compromise and deal-making, which are necessary parts of any political world in which people and their values are different, are denigrated.

The compromiser is someone such as Senator Paine in Mr. Smith, who compromises with an evil political machine and becomes evil himself.  Or the protagonist, such as President Shepherd in The American President (1995), is tempted into compromising his principles, but later returns to the “right” values.  Obviously, we should all draw the line at certain compromises, but beneficial compromises and deals are seldom even considered in political films.  Hendrik Hertzberg argues that even Senator Paine, as portrayed in Mr. Smith, is not evil, but has “served the public interest honorably for thirty years, at the relatively small cost of not directly confronting the machine.” (1998, 87)  The film itself presents Paine’s self-defense along these lines, but it never allows us to seriously consider it.

Terry Christensen describes ideology in film as being either lacking or denigrated: “alternatives are seldom expressed, and we have been taught, partly by political movies, that ideology is foolish, impractical or evil.” (1987, 9)  Similarly, one seldom sees honest disagreements on principal between two sides, since one side is portrayed as good and the other as evil.  Antagonists in film are usually motivated by greed, rather than by beliefs.  These ideas about how politics works, and should work, are worth tracing through political films, and it is especially interesting to find the exceptions to these generalizations.

Ideological Tendencies in Political Films

While ideological motivations of characters are often underplayed in political films, the films themselves still may have ideological slants.  This issue, of course, goes well beyond the types of films discussed here: there has been debate on the tendencies or “bias” of films in general, as well as all other aspects of media: are they “too liberal” or “too conservative?”  Ideology adds another layer to my consideration of how politics is portrayed in these films.

In any consideration of this issue, we should remember that it is a classic case in which one’s individual perspective is crucial.  Two observers, for example, could look at the same set of political films (or news broadcasts, television shows, etc.) and one could intelligently, accurately conclude that they are “liberal,” as compared to his or her own views of the truth, while of course another observer would reasonably see them as conservative.  I will endeavor to make some broad conclusions on ideologies present in these films, and attempt to do so by comparing them to the spectrum of popular opinion in the United States.  That is, a recent film could be called liberal in its opposition to the death penalty, since a clear majority of Americans currently favor the death penalty.

Not all issues have such clear majorities as that one, but one can also look at broader patterns in a given film.  The American President, for example, includes a concluding presidential speech that supports greater levels of gun control and defends the American Civil Liberties Union.  Throughout the film, these views and others generally thought of as liberal, such as far greater levels of pollution control to combat global warming, are endorsed.  While we shall consider many films that avoid ideological controversy, a large number of political films operate under assumptions about which political goals are worthwhile, and these assumptions are good clues to their guiding ideologies.

The ACLU example fits into a general presumption by many that Hollywood tends to be liberal, especially recently.  Michael Medved, in his Hollywood Vs. America, notes the tendency for Hollywood and its supporters to defend controversial left-wing views on the basis on free expression. However, Medved observes that Hollywood rarely, if ever, makes films that support right wing views.  He describes Hollywood as a culture with liberal peer pressure (1992, 31-34).

One of the common responses to this argument is that market forces provide enough incentive to prevent Hollywood films from straying too far from audiences in ideology.  Daniel Franklin makes this argument, and he also says that somewhat liberal values in films are caused by audiences that are more liberal than the rest of the United States (Franklin 2006, Chapter 3).

Films specifically about the political process ought to bring out ideological predispositions as much as any.  It is instructive to note who are the protagonists, who are the antagonists, and what are the causes fought for in these films.  It is in these ways that the ideology of the film-makers plays out.  We will see in later chapters that Medved’s view of Hollywood as liberal is supported to an extent, especially in more recent decades.

Race and Gender in Politics

In considering how politicians are portrayed in U.S. films, I will examine another, slightly different aspect: who are these politicians?  Which kinds of Americans are shown as leaders and major actors in American politics?  This is also an important part of the ways that films show us a version of political reality.  In teaching about and researching political films over the years, I have found them to provide an exceptional opportunity to consider who the politicians are as well as what they do and what happens to them.  The historical organization of films here also allows us to ponder the changes over time in this regard.  Of course, the demographic question of whom is portrayed, and crucially, how members of groups are portrayed, could be considered from many angles, but I focus in the book on the two much-discussed categories of race and gender.

Lead roles in actual American politics in our history have generally been reserved to white males, including all of our presidents, and almost all members of Congress and the Supreme Court until very recently.  For example, until the Obama administration, only three women had ever served on the Supreme Court, and now five have.   Clarence Thomas replaced the only previous African American, Thurgood Marshall.  Congress does not do well either in representing the diversity of U.S. citizens, as seen in Table 1.1.  None of the ethnic groups come very close to matching their U.S. population numbers in Congress, and women are even further away.

TABLE 1.1: People of Color and Women in Congress and in the United States Population[14]

African Americans422448.2%12.6%
Asian/Pacific Islander Americans111122.8%4.8%
Hispanic Americans213315.8%16.3%


We should not be surprised, then, to see such white-male dominance reprised in films portraying politics over the years.  What is important are the early exceptions and the extent to which that has begun to change in the last few decades, and how, if at all, issues of race or gender are dealt with in relationship to the political process.  One relatively recent film, The Contender (2000), focuses heavily on some of the problems facing women as they reach the higher echelons of American government.  Another recent film, Head of State, looked comically at the possibility of an African American president several years before Barack Obama made it a reality.

In older films, the ways that women and minorities are dealt with are interesting, even if there are few of them.  Non-whites are almost invisible in many films from the 1930s through 1950s, but of course women are there, sometimes, but not always, in important roles.  For example, both of Frank Capra’s important early political films, Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe, contain women in key roles, although never as political leaders.  The presence of characters of different genders and colors matters in the same way that portrayals of politicians matter: they signal to audiences what is expected or normal in American government.

As important as whether African Americans are depicted in major roles is how they are depicted.  Film scholar Ed Guerrero, for example, stated in 1993 that ” . . . In almost every instance, the representation of black people on the commercial screen has amounted to one grand, multifaceted illusion.” (2) Even if one accepts this, perhaps extreme, formulation, that does not mean that the portrayal of African Americans has been static, as Guerrero himself states.  I will argue that some political films make rather significant strides in portraying African Americans, but these do not occur until several decades into the story of American political films.

Similarly, when speaking of women’s roles in film, Molly Haskell writes of the “big lie” of Western society, the idea of women’s inferiority, being ingrained in films.  (Haskell 1974, 1)  We will definitely see this portrayal of inferiority in these political films, but significant progress in film portrayals, or at least hints of it, began sooner for women than for African Americans and other discriminated-against groups.



[1] Some parts of this chapter and of Chapter Seven were originally part of a paper I wrote on political films of  the 1990s. (Heyrman 2001)

[2] For example, see Iyengar and McGrady (2007, 62-65.)

[3] Doris Graber and James M. Carson both make the same important argument about fictional sources: that they are more widely-used for political information than are non-fiction sources. (Graber 1997, 194; Carlson 1995, 49)

[4] The films were The Rainmaker (1997) and As Good as it Gets (1997), as well as a control with little relevant content, That Thing That You Do (1996.) (Adkins and Castle 2013.)

[5] See, for example, Giglio, Chapter Two (2000). However, I still must make some difficult choices about which films emphasize the political process enough to include.  Inevitably, judgments must be made about what films are significantly about politicians and the political process.  These judgments are certainly debatable, but I try to show my reasoning.

[6] In our globalizing world, the distinction between what is an “American” film and a “foreign” is gradually becoming less obvious.  U.S. films are often made with international markets in mind, although this is arguably less the case for those that focus especially on U.S. politics.  A few films, such as In The Loop (2009), straddle the line among countries, but I judged that to be primarily a British film.  I have opted here for the traditional category of “American” films that most scholarship in the field has used.

[7] In the last two periods (1990s-2000s), I use one million dollars U.S. gross as a cut-off for what is a “major film.”  DVD sales are obviously becoming more important, but were not used for this measure.  In earlier periods, the box office figures are less readily-available, so I have to make a rougher estimation of which films were in truly wide release.

[8] One could reasonably include court-oriented films within this definition, but I have excluded these because they are such a large genre of their own.  Films on the Supreme Court are included because the Court is a very prominent and political part of our national government.

[9] Gross box office figures come from the Internet Movie Data Base (2013).

[10] For example, The Candidate (1972) shows the chaos and confusion of political campaigns through film and sound editing.

[11] E.g., see Fenno (1978, 163-169) on running for Congress by running against Congress.

[12] Americans continue to strongly support the political system and have pride in being American (at well over ninety percent levels), despite declining support for specific aspects of U.S. government, such as Congress, and declining levels of trust in government since the 1960s (e.g., Dalton 2002, 249).

[13]  See Gershtenson (2005).

[14] Information in the table is from “An Overview of the U.S. Population” (2013), “State of the Congress” (2013) and Blackwell (2013).


This excerpt is from Politics, Hollywood Style: American Politics in Film from Mr. Smith to Selma (Lexington Books, 2017) with our review of the book here.

John HeyrmanJohn Heyrman

John Heyrman

John Heyrman is Chair and Professor of Political Science at Berea College in Kentucky. He is author of Politics, Hollywood Style: American Politics in Film from Mr. Smith to Selma (Lexington Books, 2017).

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