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Film Feature: Political Films

October 27, 2010 2:45 p.m.

KPBS film critic takes a look at films about politics.

Related Story: Film Feature: Politics on Film


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: Political Films
By Beth Accomando
Air date: October 28, 2010

With the election just around the corner KPBS film critic Beth Accomando has a few suggestions for films you might want to watch to put you in the political mood.

POLITICS(ba).wav SOQ 3:52 (music out at 4:49)

(Tag:) Find a complete list of films about politics on Beth's blog at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.


Here's a clip from a political campaign spot.

CLIP "The determination to put some action back into the United States Senate. The energy to fight the special interests on behalf of all the people of California. For a better way, Bill McKay."

If you haven't heard of Bill McKay that's because he isn't running for senate in Tuesday's election. He's a character created by filmmaker Michael Ritchie and actor Robert Redford in the 1972 film "The Candidate." Redford plays McKay, an idealistic lawyer who begins his senatorial campaign by saying what he believes. But slowly he allows his handlers to turn his strong opinions into hollow soundbites to ensure victory.

CLIP Man: Mr. McKay, what do you feel about legalized abortion?
McKay: I'm for it I think every woman should have that right.
Manager: Wait a minute Bill you can't put it that way.
McKay: That's what I think.
Manager: Well it won't be understood without a hell of a long explanation. How about this for the time being, just say it's worth studying.

"The Candidate" is one of the best films on modern politics. Some three decades later its satire still has bite. It shows how the political process can prompt even a well-intentioned candidate to stray from his ideals in pursuit of victory. This notion is echoed sixteen years later in the Robert Altman-Gary Trudeau collaboration "Tanner '88."

CLIP Tanner: I feel like I'm becoming an innocent bystander in my own campaign. Every day I give up a little bit of my dignity, a little bit of my soul and deal with some guy I would have walked away from a few months ago.

In that sharp made for cable satire, Altman places his fictional candidate, Jack Tanner, in real situations during the 1988 presidential race. Tanner chats with Bob Dole during the primaries and appears on the floor of the Democratic national convention. In this scene Bruce Babbitt offers the presidential hopeful some advice.

CLIP Bruce Babbitt: What you wanna do in a campaign is say I ran, I made a difference. I'll risk losing but I just might win and in any event I'll make a difference.

Babbitt took that chance and as he says in the show, he "got blown out of the water." So his dialogue might have been scripted or it might reflect his own views. That's the fun of Altman's film; you never quite know where the line between truth and fiction is drawn. The show offers a fascinating look at the packaging of a candidate and offers a savage attack on politics in the age of television. But Altman, like Ritchie, doesn't leave you with a very positive view of the political process. The current mood of voter apathy is well conveyed in the teen satire, "Election." It looks to a high school presidential race and one candidate with a "Who Cares" slogan.

CLIP Tammy: We all know it doesn't matter who gets elected president of Carver. Do you really think it will change anything around here? The same pathetic charade happens every year and everyone makes the same pathetic promises. So vote for me and as president, I won't do anything.

If all these films leave you feeling a little deflated there is one filmmaker who lets idealism triumph: Frank Capra. In 1939, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" gave us a classic Capra hero in James Stewart's wide-eyed junior senator. Capra's films have moments of biting cynicism. His heroes undergo a loss of innocence but they ultimately prove that the system works. Stewart's final plea to the corrupt senator sums up Capra's idealism.

CLIP Mr. Smith: You know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others, yes you even die for them. You all think I'm licked, well I'm not licked.

Whether these films prompt you to question the current political system or reignite your idealism, any of them would make appropriate viewing before casting your ballot next week.

CLIP Groucho: The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now just wait till I get through with it...

For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.

Music out: "Duck Soup" song continues