Seventy years ago, Hamilton MacFadden made a New Deal comedy called Stand Up and Cheer. Quick summary: The president creates a new Department of Amusement because Americans are so depressed, what with the Depression and all. A Broadway producer takes the helm and, in a great feat of central planning, organizes a massive entertainment drive. This angers a cabal of evil businessmen, who somehow are profiting from the bad times, so they conspire to bring the new agency down. The noble impresario rebuffs their efforts; and the country, inspired by his not-quite-Keynesian stimulus, emerges happily from the Great Depression. The end.
Hollywood's most popular products are wish fulfillment and nightmares, and its political pictures offer big doses of both. The fantasy of a political savior has been a movie mainstay from the birth of the talkies to today: If it's not a secretary of amusement, it's a naive congressional freshman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939), a crusading lady populist (The Farmer's Daughter, 1947), or a Democrat's fantasy of what he really, really wishes Bill Clinton could be (The American President, 1995). It's no surprise that both leading candidates for the White House offer public personas already familiar from the movies. John Kerry is the war hero (his handlers having decided that Sergeant York is a better sell than Born on the Fourth of July), while George W. Bush is the regular Joe, just like you 'n' me, bringing common sense and whatnot to Washington. Kinda like Mr. Smith.
There are certain differences between Mr. Smith and Mr. Bush, of course, among them the odd circumstances under which Bush attained his office: He was anointed after a legal coin toss, whereas Smith was anointed after an actual coin toss.
That's another movie tradition. Modern audiences in particular seem to find it unbelievable that a good man could reach a high office in the conventional manner. Instead we get retreads of a formula that goes at least as far back as Gabriel Over the White House (1933), in which a puppet president survives an accident, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be. There's the disillusioned senator who thinks he's about to die, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (Bulworth, 1998); the slick crook who cons his way into Congress, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (The Distinguished Gentleman, 1992); the lowly alderman who runs for president as a sacrificial lamb, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (Head of State, 2003); the look-alike who secretly takes the president's place, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (Dave, 1993).
Purists will note that Bush has yet to start standing up for the little guy and fighting the powers that be. But while I'm no fan of the president, I think I'd like him even less if he started channeling the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, à la Dave, or rapping about socialized health care, à la Bulworth. Or, worse, acting on divine instructions and using extraconstitutional military tribunals against those he deems the country's enemies, à la Gabriel Over the White House. Oh, wait….
The only political archetype that's more common than the savior is the cabal. An optimistic potboiler requires a hero and some villains; a pessimistic one just needs the villains. Richard Condon's cynical novels have inspired two of the most enjoyably paranoid takes on American government, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the best of the Kennedy assassination movies, the wonderfully dark comedy Winter Kills (1979). The same spirit animates many other comedies and thrillers, from The President's Analyst (1967) to The Parallax View (1974).
But they're just the tip of the genre. If you don't care for Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner's vision of a saintly Democrat fending off Gingrichite grinches in The American President, then turn to the nightmare on the other side of the wish-fulfillment fantasy: You and the specter of Vince Foster can enjoy a radically different vision of the Clinton years in two 1997 films, Murder at 1600 and Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power.
More realistic, and arguably more cynical, is what may be my favorite campaign picture. In The Candidate (1972), there's no need for a cabal—the protagonist simply has his own weaknesses, and the system simply has its own logic. The Candidate reverses the Mr. Smith formula: Instead of idealism overcoming corruption, it shows us an idealist getting corrupted.
That said, the film's greatest charm isn't its moral. It's its flavor. The fly-on-the-wall style, the extra story lines lurking in the background, the savvy take on the media—between them, they make this the oldest political movie I can think of that still feels contemporary. (Assuming you can get past the media consultant's primitive technology and the occasional references to such dormant issues as busing.) The picture feels like it was made by someone who'd actually spent some time on the campaign trail.
That's a rare quality. Most political flicks, even the good ones, suffer from a seriously distorted vision of their subject. The most egregious case in recent years is The Contender (2000), another liberal fantasy. Writer-director Rod Lurie is so tone-deaf that he seems to think a popular, moderate, Midwestern politician would call for draconian gun controls; worse, he thinks a potential vice president's youthful sexcapades would be more of a hot potato than her open atheism. It's at times like these that one hopes the candidates are smart enough not to take all their cues from the movies.
Though on second thought, I kind of like the idea of Bush as a rapping socialist after all. Bring it on!