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Seeing Through the Screen: Interpreting American Political Film

Seeing Through The Screen: Interpreting American Political Film

Understanding Political Films

In choosing movies to include in this book, we had to start by asking what makes a film political. This seemingly simple question has caused considerable debate among those who have tried to answer it. One school of thought opts for a very narrow definition. Harry Keyishian’s textbook includes films “about politicians and the political process in America” whose primary concern is “the relationship between personal integrity and political success” (Keyishian 2003: xiii). This definition is so limited that it excludes Dr. Strangelove “because it does not imagine a connection between a society of real people with a stake in existence and its cartoon versions of national leaders” (Keyishian 2003: 67).

Others take a totally opposite approach, arguing that nearly every American film is political because, as Phillip L. Gianos asserts, an overwhelming majority of them essentially claim that happiness is primarily an individual matter (Gianos 1998: 4). Politics is hidden by personalizing the story, using allegory as code, selecting a formerly controversial topic that has become safe or avoiding specifics about what politics and parties in a particular film stand for (Gianos 1998: 8–9). Even in such noted films about politicians as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Best Man, the specific parties that these office holders belong to and even the one holding its presidential nominating convention are never named. As noted German director Wim Wenders contends, “It’s very hard to grasp what America understands as ‘political’ because this notion all too often exists only in its negation as the absence of the political” (Maltby 2003: 270). Similarly, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio sees The Devil Wears Prada “as completely political. Fashion is totally political, the icon of a political system” (Rohter 2014: AR14).

The dichotomy between foreign and American views is not surprising as, unlike many other countries, the United States has never developed a political film genre. Because the label “political film” is widely considered damaging at the box office, Hollywood tends to discourage the production of such pictures or to disguise their content using methods such as those pointed out by Gianos. Rather than examine political phenomena, American movies prefer to tell tales of individual triumph, simplifying those larger issues to tell a good story while validating the status quo to avoid controversy or offense. As we look at individual films, readers should think about the choices made by the producers, directors and script writers.

Keeping these issues in mind, let us return to the task of definition. The narrow conception of restricting political films to those depicting, in Keyishian’s words, “politicians and the political process” omits numerous movies whose content and themes are clearly political. For example, it would seem to exclude films about the media, interest groups and even many courtroom dramas. Would it include Erin Brokovich, which is more about the legal process and activism than the political process?1 It also leaves out influential genre films such as westerns, war or gangster films which explore such basic political issues as the state of nature, the basis of law and order, immigration and the treatment of Native Americans.

On the other hand, if we consider all films to be political, we have a category that fails to classify and is therefore of no practical use. Ian Scott (2011: 11–12) tries to bridge the gap by distinguishing between political films and films about politics. Political films (16) “have very direct settings, characters and/or references to politicians, political institutions and political history,” while films about politics often have a subtext in which apparently nonpolitical subjects serve as a metaphor or allegory for more explicitly political topics. The latter is similar to Richard Maltby’s “social problem films” that allow the depiction of controversial issues “by sugaring the didactic political pill with the more pleasurable elements of genre and star performances, and above all by individualizing the issue depicted” (Maltby 2003: 293). However, these new categories don’t help much in defining political film as they leave us with the choice of retaining the narrow definition or adding a second category that could include nearly every film, depending on how much subtext the viewer decodes. Instead, this book will find a middle ground by using a basic definition of politics to determine what should be included in a film to consider it “political.” This method has probably been avoided because defining politics has been no less contentious than defining political film.

Here too, definitions vary between the narrow and the broad, but in very different ways. Lexicographers tend to prefer the narrow such as “the art and science of government or governing” (American Heritage 1992: 1402). In contrast, most political scientists choose to go beyond government to include other actors. Two of the classic definitions come from Harold Lasswell and David Easton. Lasswell’s (1950: 3) pithy definition served as his book’s title, “who gets what, when, how.” Easton’s (1953: 129) classic formulation is “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Because policies grant things to some that they deny to others, his focus is on the making of authoritative policy whether by government or private actors. Government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force ensures that its decisions are authoritative, but some private decisions can have comparable finality.

Many contemporary political scientists, however, believe that these definitions are still too restrictive. Eisenstein et. al. (1996: 6) have two criticisms of the Lasswell and Easton definitions. Because cooperation can create additional collective benefits, politics should not be limited to dividing existing resources. Second, they fail to go far enough in including non-governmental actors who have a major impact on people’s lives as in the closing of a factory. Their formulation (16) is an expanded version of Lasswell and Easton: “politics consists of influence processes involving both conflict and cooperation, and occurring both within and outside of government, that authoritatively determine for a wide range of groups who gets what when and how?” Thomas Patterson (2013: 17) provides a more succinct definition: “the means by which society settles its conflicts and allocates the resulting benefits and costs.” These provide a good basis for determining which films to consider political.

As with any definition, there is room for debate at the margins. How much (or how little) political content is necessary for a film to meet the definition? For example, should courtroom comedies such as Adam’s Rib or My Cousin Vinny be included or is their political content too minimal? Do the James Bond and Bourne series fit? Does the emphasis on process exclude films about political outcomes such as the dystopian dramas 1984 or the popular Hunger Games series? Furthermore, definitions of what is political change over time. As Leon H. Hurwitz (1979: 4) writes, every generation has its “own particular (some would say peculiar) view of the nature and components of politics,” but each is limited by its culture to emphasizing those aspects they find most prevalent and important. Our survey has shown significant change from Lasswell and Easton in the mid-twentieth century to more contemporary views. This may also explain our earlier point that conceptions of what makes a film political often vary from one country to another.

Nevertheless, this definition was helpful in choosing what films to include in this book. Try applying it to recent films to evaluate how well it works. Does it help find common factors in political films, while allowing us to compare and contrast them? Is it useful in comparing American films to those of countries that claim to have a more developed genre of political films? Have American political films actually done as poorly at the box office as film company executives seem to think or is that just due to their use of the narrow definition?

The Language of Film

This book consists of a series of essays that attempt to discover the messages communicated by American political films. The language of film is far more than plot and dialogue. As Bill Nichols (2010: 12) has written, films are best understood “when viewers enter into, imaginatively inhabit, collectively reemerge from, and critically reflect on what they have experienced during their encounter with a cinematic world.” To do this, we need to examine the camera’s point of view, the visual images on the screen, music and other sounds along with a variety of other devices used by filmmakers to convey their messages. Because viewers enter a film’s world with diverse experiences and perspectives, the best films are complex enough in their nonverbal messages that more than one interpretation is possible. These essays will provide tools for understanding, but will often ask questions for viewers to answer, using their own perspectives.

Careful attention should be paid to the opening of each film which sets the tone and themes for the remainder of the movie. often with little or no dialogue. In Citizen Kane, the camera penetrates the isolated estate of its title character, Charles Foster Kane, beginning by passing a “No Trespassing” sign. The audience then sees him drop a snow globe as he dies, with only a single word of dialogue, “Rosebud.” The Conversation opens with a series of seemingly random shots and sounds in a San Francisco park that are presented from the point of view of an eavesdropper who is recording the sounds with multiple microphones much as the film recorded the scene using multiple cameras. The audience soon learns that this surveillance expert, Harry Caul, is the film’s protagonist, but by the time it does, we have already begun to identify with Harry and his apparent paranoia. By beginning with a scene of two airplanes rendezvousing to refuel to the strains of “Try a Little Tenderness,” Dr. Strangelove communicates one of its themes, the connection between war and sex.

Because many of these films are based on historical events or utilize actual institutions to tell a fictional story, we will also try to supply the background information necessary to put the movies in context. It is important to keep in mind that even a historically based film is not a documentary. The script writer or director who is not fully faithful to the historical record may have good reasons for this such as adding to the drama or suspense, making a larger point or simply condensing a lengthy historical event into the two hours or so available to view a film. No audience would sit still to watch every trivial moment of a trial that lasted weeks or months. We simply want to understand the larger picture. Also, a film about the past may be trying to use its subtext to make a point about contemporary events. For example, audiences for the 1940 movie Abe Lincoln in Illinois generally understood that in showing how Lincoln decided that taking up the fight against slavery was worth the risk of civil war, the film was arguing that the battle against fascism in Europe was similarly worth risking American involvement in World War II.

That example also illustrates the importance of political films in shaping popular opinion. Daniel Franklin (2006:5) asks whether film is “an influence on or a mirror of society?” He concludes that the influence goes in both directions because movie makers may decide which films to make, but audiences choose which are worth paying to see. Even more important is the need to find financial backing before production can even begin. Because of the high cost of producing and advertising a film, especially if it is intended for a mass market, producers often than play it safe by avoiding controversies that could alienate a significant portion of their potential audience. As noted earlier, this could be a reason that there are not more American political films or that many avoid taking controversial positions. Making films based on comic book superheroes has been a lot more profitable that those about, for example, presidential elections. Nevertheless, as this book demonstrates, there have been quite a few important political films made over the years. Some have a very clear message, but the need for films to entertain and to make a profit will sometimes mean that our essays need to analyze carefully to understand the political point their makers intend.



1. Keyisihian does not include this film or any courtroom dramas other than Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) in his book.


This excerpt is from Seeing through the Screen: Interpreting American Political Film(Lexington Books, 2017) with our review of the book here.

Bruce AltschulerBruce Altschuler

Bruce Altschuler

Bruce Altschuler is a Professor Emeritus at SUNY Oswego. He is editor, with Michael Genovese, of Shakespeare and Politics (Paradigm, 2014) and author of several books, including Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays About the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Seeing through the Screen: Interpreting American Political Film (Lexington Books, 2017).

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