TCM Political Films With Ben Mankiewicz
Cinema Junkie / November 1, 2016
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz talks about films that highlights the best and worst in American politics.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junky podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. All right, the election is just around the corner and I have a special bonus podcast for you with Ben Mankiewicz talking about the political films coming up on TCM.
Beth Accomando: 2016 is kind of a wild and crazy year for election. So, TCM has come up with a program of political films for us. What inspired you to do this and what, kind of, was the criteria for selecting the films for this?
Ben Mankiewicz: Well, the criteria is not much different than the criteria we would have the rest of the time, which is we want to show, you know, engaging movies that move the audience in some way. Obviously with as much coverage – news coverage as the election is getting, we – and there have been so many terrific political movies, we thought this was a worthy time to bring these movies, to highlight these movies, which is really what we're doing.
Beth Accomando: And you weren’t looking specifically for just presidential films. It’s politics and kind of a broad definition of the word?
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah, even to some extent with the films that Alec Baldwin is hosting during the month, documentaries that are in many ways more so about policy, necessarily than politics. So, you know, yeah definitely not solely presidential, but political movies. Most of the comedies that we have or politics in general are not presidential. There aren’t a lot of great presidential comedies. There are a couple but not a lot.
Beth Accomando: You’ve grouped these films into, kind of, smaller packages. One collection is called, Born to Run, which is kind of looking at more of the campaigning process. And this is a really great collection of films that spans a few decades. One of the films is one of my favorites because I love Spencer Tracy, and that’s The Last Hurrah. So, tell me a little bit about why you picked this film and what you liked about it.
Ben Mankiewicz: Well, this is a – it’s strange to call any movie your favorite John Ford movie because just by virtue of picking a favorite John Ford movie, you leave out so many great films. But I will say that this is certainly the John Ford movie that I think is most overlooked when discussing great John Ford movies. I think it’s his only really political movie.
Ben Mankiewicz: And you know it comes pretty late in Tracy’s career and Tracy essentially in the movie plays the Mayor of Boston. It’s never completely referred to as Boston, but it’s pretty clear as a large New England city, what we're talking about. And it’s just a – it’s a really layered political movie because you can’t – it’s Spencer Tracy, you can’t help but root for him here as the mayor. But there is plenty of corruption to pick at, and he’s had a political machine which he presumes will put him into office again here in one final hurrah. This is going to be his last hurrah. This is going to be his last election.
And it’s just – I mean it is as I say, it is layered, it is complicated. It is – my father loved this movie. And my dad was Bobby Kennedy's Press Secretary and ran George McGovern's campaign, and he always thought from the moment he saw it when it came out when he was 35 years old, that it was pretty close to – this is as good as Hollywood can do politics. This doesn’t turn politicians into buffoons, which Hollywood does from time to time. But it also, sort of, gives us the complicated nature of how political campaigns work.
Beth Accomando: Well, you’re talking about this being one of John Ford’s, sort of, overlooked films. For me, Spencer Tracy is an actor who I don’t think gets as much attention as he deserves. You don’t see a whole lot of Spencer Tracy retrospectives at you know museums or retrospective theatres and things like that, and he's so good. He just – he's always struck me as this actor of such integrity and having him in this part where there are these layers to it was just fascinating.
Ben Mankiewicz: So, I always try to avoid, you know, excessive high hyperbole in this job because otherwise you end up realizing that you’ve said 38 people are the best actors and 57 movies are the best movie of all time. But I think you’re right about Tracy, and I think he’s the greatest actor ever. I mean, I can consistently put him at number one. And I tell you why my impression is different than yours, you know, you I’m certain are correct that there aren’t enough Spencer Tracy retrospectives. But in the interviews that I’ve done with so many of these great film stars from Hollywood's golden era and beyond and so many great directors, it’s fairly unanimous. I mean, it is overwhelming if I were to poll who the best actor any of these people worked with.
If any of them have worked with Spencer Tracy, they say Spencer Tracy. [Indiscernible] [00:06:53] said it, Robert Wagner said it, just to give you sort of a significant span of actors and the kind of movies they were in. And many others, they just, he was the best. And it’s those things that presumably, I guess they can be taught. Tracy, I suppose, picked them up on his own. But, you know, he does so much with his eyes and there are so many moments where he isn’t speaking and they are by far the most, sort of, powerful and poignant and telling moments in the movie and you will see plenty of that in The Last Hurrah.
Beth Accomando: Another film I want to highlight from your Born to Run group is one of my favorite political films which is, The Candidate. And this has Robert Redford as kind of this unwilling candidate who gets drafted into a campaign and this film was made in 1972, but it is still so on the money for the kind of commentary it makes.
Ben Mankiewicz: Well, why this is such a great night of programming is that I get to mention my father again. So, when I talk to my dad about political movie, the two movies that he said most accurately reflect a campaign were, The Last Hurrah and The Candidate. I mean, The Candidate is so realistic that it feels like a documentary.
Ben Mankiewicz: From start to finish, it’s terrific. But a Redford who is, you know, I also think just this, another actor who can say volumes without speaking, and I think he's supremely underrated as an actor. Another movie we have tonight, All the President’s Men, I don’t think there’s anybody better than Robert Redford at talking on the phone in a movie than that performance and being on the phone in All the President’s Men. But in The Candidate, Redford plays, and he’s an environmental lawyer. He’s the son of a former governor played by Melvin Douglas. And as you say, he's sort of, drafted to run a Senate campaign and the beauty of it is, hey men you can say whatever you want because you're never going to win. This is an establishment candidate who can’t be beaten.
And then it takes us through that campaign and how the campaign changes even sort of the most ideologically pure and uncorrupt among us. But it’s a really good lesson for people who are overly idealistic about politics. And I don’t want to crush people’s idealism, but politics works in part because it probably crushes too much idealism. But this is a good perspective on what being part of that system does, and it does it even to the best politicians who's sort of accomplished the most good for the most people, so. And it has one of the great laugh lines of any political movie of all time too, The Candidate does.
Beth Accomando: All right. We won’t give that away, but --
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah.
Beth Accomando: -- and the other thing that this film gets into really nicely is advertising, political advertisements and, you have, I think it’s Allen Garfield who is the --
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah, Allen Garfield, he's terrific as the ad man.
Beth Accomando: And they are going and they are trying to shoot some footage and the whole sense of that process and what makes a candidate appealing to the public, again that’s a nice aspect of it that you don’t get in a lot of other political films.
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah, like in The Last Hurrah, Last Hurrah is still old school, hand shaking, you know, old school politicking and in fact another movie where Sherwin is part of this and not on the same night, but as part of the overall festival, the documentary campaign about the 1960 campaign. That was really the last campaign where TV wasn't – where TV weren't – didn’t play the enormous role that they do now. So, Last Hurrah and 58 gives you a sort of last look at a campaign done in an old-fashion way. But it had changed significantly by 1972, the same time that my father was running George McGovern's campaign with Garry Heart.
And there are some great moments with Redford, one, the ads and as they take apart the ads of the other candidate, Allen Garfield and Peter Boyle who plays Redford’s campaign manager, he’s terrific. And there’s a moment early when I think Redford announces, it’s not quite an ad, but you still see the importance that the media plays, that the press comes to cover Redford’s announcement and he’s at his office where they're doing this environmental legal work. And the press says, hey can we get you to stand over by your campaign staff? It will make a better shot. And Redford goes, no, like I’m here, they are not running, I’m running and I don’t care about the shot. You want to talk to me just talk to me, this really sort of pure moment, that, of course now, you would never – you would think about everything when you made your announcement. You would think about the optics of the announcement, how it was going to look on CNN, how it was going to look on MSNBC.
Beth Accomando: And why we place crowds behind a candidate nowadays.
Ben Mankiewicz: That’s right. And the demographic makeup of the crowd and what signs they're holding, and are they expressive and all these things that has had the cumulative effect of making us feel as if politics is inherently phony. And of course much of it is phony, not all of it, the works they do, the policy work isn’t phony at all, but the optics are incredibly phony and they have left more than a generation, multiple generations of Americans supremely jaded about politics as if it doesn’t matter who they elect and that is supremely unfortunate because, of course, it matters a great deal. Presidents make a huge difference in the direction of the country and so do Senators and Representatives.
Beth Accomando: Okay, you brought up presidents, so the next group of films there are, is before they were presidents. So you have a trilogy of films that, kind of, look at people before they became well-known political candidates for president. You have JFK and FDR and Abe Lincoln, and what were you looking for in this group of films?
Ben Mankiewicz: Well, first of all, you three important presidents there. I think it's safe to say JFK, FDR and Abe Lincoln. I mean you know JFK, mythologized, perhaps over-mythologized but still a critically important president, and FDR and Abe Lincoln arguably the two most important presidents in American history. So, you know, but we're also looking at those three movies at PT 109, Sunrise [indiscernible] [00:13:46] and Abe Lincoln, I don't know. These are all, every one of them quality films, and that’s really what we're looking for first.
Beth Accomando: And tell me about the TCM Spotlight to tell the truth? What is this about?
Ben Mankiewicz: Well the – To Tell the Truth Spotlight is an effort on our part to look at non-fiction films. I think we have more than 50 movies, sort of, again, these are documentaries. And they're – you know as I said, I mean I simplified it a little by suggesting that they're more policy than politics. But I mean, we're looking at stuff that matters in everyday lives of Americans. So, organized labor, I mean the depressed nature of inter cities, you know, seen through the lens of basketball in Hoop Dreams. But you know I mean everybody who’s seen Hoop Dreams knows what remarkable film that is from Steve James, and Woodstock, about, sort of, I mean obviously can be just a about music but it’s also about the mood in the country in the middle of the Vietnam war and the counter cultural movement.
We have a movie about organized labor during the great depression at a time when organized labor in America has, sort of, never been weaker. Again as I keep referencing my father, my dad, always said that you know it was a bumper sticker when he was growing up. I’m sure you can still get it. But he always wanted to remind people who were critical of organized labor, that these are the people who brought you the weekend. And we should never forget that. So, yeah just these are movies that aren’t generally seen on TCM but they range in years from, you know, the 1930’s to some more recent work, but these are, we think these are important films and at a time when we're talking about the direction of the country here in November before the month that we elect the 45th president, it seemed an appropriate time to bring these films. And Alec Baldwin has always been enormously, sort of, socially conscious. Alec Baldwin is interested in current events. He’s obviously you know doubled at times with the – a couple of times with the running for Mayor in New York. So, he cares about policy and he seemed a perfect guy to host these documentaries.
Beth Accomando: So, I appreciate the span of time that these films cover from the 1930’s up until 1990’s where you have the documentary, A perfect Candidate, about the Oliver North campaign.
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah, interesting. That comes in as 1994 in Virginia when North ran for the Senate against a Chuck Robb. And it was, sort of, that 1994, that’s the Newt Gingrich – that’s the Republican revolution. Bill Clinton’s, you know, first midterm where Democrats took a blood bath. But this was one of the rare seats that Democrats held onto. And you know, there’s great irony in calling Oliver North who many in America see as a criminal, myself included, you know, described as the perfect candidate.
Beth Accomando: Well, it reminds me of the time when he was testifying and he made sure that he wore his uniform and he stood in this position that looked just like the Noman Rockwall painting and it just reminded me, after talking about the candidate about how conscious people are of that visual image they present in this trying time.
Ben Mankiewicz: Totally my father, I'm bringing up my dad a lot when we're talking about politics, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post during the testimony because there were so much talk about patriotism and how North, as a distinguished officer who’d served in the military, my dad wrote that he had also served in the military during World War II and that he thought part of being a patriotic American for people who've served the country was not to break the country's laws, and that he didn’t need to wear a uniform everyday to let everybody know that he was a proud American. Anyway, the Post printed it and it was a great letter.
But yeah, so that’s – but it's in that sea change of Republicans who swept into office in 1994, Chuck Robb, you know, hung on and kept his seat for the Democrats. But it’s also emblematic to many Democrats of what was wrong with the Democratic Party, like the idea that the Democrat in that race, Chuck Robb running against Oliver North, shows demonstrably the drift to the right that the country experienced, that some would argue has only recently been slightly reversed, but it certainly started after George McGovern's huge loss in 1972, and Democrats figuring out the way to win was to drift to the Senator while the Republicans drifted to the right and obviously if one party drifts to the center, then the other party drifts to the right, the whole country drifts to the right.
Beth Accomando: Well, these, ‘to tell the truth’ films tackle politics from a very serious point of view. You also have a group of films that are a little less serious which are the political comedies. And if I had to recommend just two films from this group of films, it would be, The Candidate and The Great McGinty. I love that movie.
Ben Mankiewicz: I have nothing wrong with recommending The Great McGinty. First of all, it’s never wrong to recommend Preston Sturges' movie. This was made really at the beginning of what was an amazing four-year run for Sturges. I think eight or nine films between '40, really a five-year run, totally '40 through 19 – beginning at '40 through the end of 1944. Just a remarkable set of movies and it begins in many ways with, The Great McGinty which again he wrote directed by Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest. It’s such a terrific, terrific political movie and funny, and genuinely funny.
Beth Accomando: It’s hilarious and it just comes at you rapid fire and almost every line seems to be a punch line. That still kind of stings.
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah. And that’s where, you know, I mean Sturges is in many ways probably the inspiration, the predecessor for, you know, Air Plane. I mean like, hey man, you didn’t think that line was funny, don’t worry, wait 12 seconds there’s another one coming. And also just the sort of way Sturges manages to give you extreme circumstances without making them seem so silly that you lost interest in the movie. Because on paper, you know, like the idea of a hobo, forgive the terminology, but it was 1940, who just sort of rises one rung up the political ladder at a time until he’s at the top of the political ladder. It’s absurd except somehow in The Great McGinty it makes sense while also, sort of, amusing you every step of the way.
Beth Accomando: Well, it's interesting too because on a certain level, it's extremely cynical about the whole process and yet there’re still kind of a warmth to it that engages you.
Ben Mankiewicz: Oh, no question, yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, of course. There’s some good in it, no question, but yes it is incredibly cynical about the process. And it also just shows you that as cynical as we think we are now in 2016 about American politics, you know, well, we were plenty cynical in 1940 and again this movie was released basically a year, a little over a year before we actually joined the fight in World War II and you’d imagine the sort of patriotism and belief in our political leaders was at an all time high.
Beth Accomando: Another one of these political comedies is very interesting to run in this particular election, Kisses for My President because that presents a first lady, I mean a female President with a first lady male.
Ben Mankiewicz: Well, we’ll never of course have that in this country everybody knows that. Yeah, this is Polly Bergen is the President and Fred MacMurray is her ‘Bill Clinton,’ is her, you know, and it deals with everything you’d sort of imagine the 1960’s would think was funny about that. That oh, you know, he has to worry about things to do with the State dinner and but now what we realize or you know, somewhat the menial tasks we, sort of, ascribed to the first ladies for the first whatever, 240 years of this country, minus the four years of James Buchanan, he had no first lady. But yeah, and it’s totally amusing because it’s Fred MacMurray and he is so unbelievably likable all the time but you know this has no question. This movie is heavy with 1960’s sexism even as it’s about a movie about the first female President of the United States.
Ben Mankiewicz: But it’s funny, it’s amusing, it’s fun to watch.
Beth Accomando: If you could pick from any film, outside of the ones that TCM is running, do you have a favorite onscreen president? It could be somebody playing a real President or a fictional one?
Ben Mankiewicz: Henry Fonda in Fail Safe is really my favorite onscreen president. You know, politics had nothing to do with it. I mean, we know Henry Fonda’s politics but they don’t enter into it in this movie and it is a President faced with the worst possible decision you could make. It's Sidney Lumet is an incredibly – as the director, an incredibly claustrophobic movie, much of the most dramatic moments or just Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman in a tiny small office on the phone talking to different people as he tries to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. 64 comes out the same year as Dr Strange Love but in this, Fail Safe takes the moment of an accidental nuclear war seriously where it’s [indiscernible] [00:25:28] and in Dr Strange Love made it farcical. Both remarkable movies, taken from different books with similar ideas, and it’s really terrific and interesting if you have the opportunity to see those movies together on the same night or the weekend. It would be a pretty good film festival for you, Dr Strange Love and Fail Safe. But that's my favorite onscreen president. Of course, not to leave out the impressive performance that Jamie Fox turned in, in White House Down, which I am also in, which by the way is actually pretty good. It’s way better than Olympus Has Fallen.
Beth Accomando: Now, for people who want to see these films, you can watch them on TCM but you can also watch them with the TCM app as well, correct?
Ben Mankiewicz: Yeah, I mean look I’m not a – I don’t have anything to do with designing the app, but I will tell you that it is literally the greatest app I've ever seen. In addition to allowing you to watch what we have on live, on two different feeds, the West Coast feed and the East Coast feed, we also have, in the neighborhood of 100 movies, from days before available to watch on demand at any time. On the app, you just sign in using your cable provider. It looks fantastic on an iPad or any sort of tablet, looks great on your laptop, it’s really, really great. And includes the – most importantly, includes the host introduction because that’s really why people come to TCM. I’m kidding, of course, but it does include the host introduction.
Beth Accomando: Well, that’s great. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking politics with me.
Ben Mankiewicz: Well, the only thing I like talking about more than movies is politics, so I’m happy to do it.
Female Speaker: Thanks for listening to another edition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junky podcast. This was a special bonus edition podcast where I didn’t have as much time to drop in clips and things like that, but I wanted to make sure that my interview with Ben Mankiewicz, about the political films airing on TCM, got on the air as quickly as possible. So, if you missed any of the films from the beginning of the series, you can catch them on the Watch TCM app. So, thanks for listening to this bonus edition podcast. Till our next film fix. I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junky.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place