Hollywood Strikes Back

If Bob Dole has been looking at the movies lately and not liking what he sees, it's really not all that surprising -- the movies have been looking at politicians ever since Birth of a Nation and Washington has always seemed to be full of crooks. In fact, recently Hollywood has depicted the influence of money on American politics with increasingly bitter cynicism. In just the past year and a half, there have been four movies -- Speechless, Clear and Present Danger, The Pelican Brief, and Time Cop -- that have depicted every elected official as either a blackmailer, a bribe taker, a partner to drug money launderers, a murderer, or a psychopath who wants to travel back in time to rig the stock market so he has enough money to win the presidency in 2016. If you were Bob Dole, you wouldn't like the movies either. It hasn't been this bad for politicians since the Great Depression. As a role, the corrupt politician developed as a supporting character in the gangster movies of the 1930s, where he quickly became a stereotype. These films -- Little Caesar, The Glass Key, and just about everything made for Warner Bros. in those days -- have their roots in turn-of-the- century big city muckraking, which often saw pols as hirelings of the machines that dominated American politics. In Bullets or Ballots (1936), Edward G. Robinson plays an honest cop who goes undercover with the ethnic mobs only to discover that they are skimming their rackets to pay off "the big boys" -- that is, the old-line Wall Street WASPs, who spend millions fixing grand juries and bribing mayors, even governors, to look the other way. Robinson dies to expose their schemes. There are literally dozens of similar films from the '30s whose pessimism about the system would make Oliver Stone blush. There is no pretense of one-man-one-vote politics: Vote if you want to, but both candidates have been hand-picked by the bosses who control the machines. The common man is more a cynical spectator to this process than a player in it. This grim view of the Machine Age lightens with Frank Capra's 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the overture to a 20-year-long celebration of the common man as politician in the movies. Jimmy Stewart plays an earnest young senator determined to build a boy scout camp in his home district who finds that his senior colleague and mentor intends to make that dream impossible with a dam project that will enrich himself and a gang of cronies. In the end the senior senator, played by Claude Rains, is so shamed by Smith's oratory that he attempts suicide in the Senate cloak room and shouts an abject confession on the floor. Where once corruption symbolized an order that locks out the average American, in Mr. Smith it becomes a mark of personal moral failure. The system, thank you very much, works. With the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, American-style corruption suddenly seems less than ominous, even rather touchingly human. Hollywood produced several political comedies that wink at graft during the war and post-war years, beginning with Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty (1940), the first movie to depict the corruption of the voting process itself. McGinty opens with the homeless Brian Donleavy voting 37 times in the same election for two dollars a pop; the Irish machine hacks are so impressed that they bring him on board, first as party muscle and then as candidate for mayor and finally governor. Once there, he is shown the error of his ways by the love of a goo-goo woman, and lams to South America with the pals he'd double-crossed. Except for Hollywood's two serious treatments of the Huey Long saga -- All the King's Men (1949) and A Lion Is In the Streets (1953) -- from the release of McGinty to John F. Kennedy's election, most movies see political corruption as a side effect of Irish charm, like singing sad songs or talking in brogue. The last and most interesting of these political romances -- and the one that completes the circle begun by the gangster epics -- is The Last Hurrah (1959). Spencer Tracy plays an aging mayor whose ward-heeling style is contrasted favorably with the made-for-TV cypher who defeats him in his last race. Released in the same year as Kennedy's TV debate with Nixon, The Last Hurrah is essentially a paean to old-style machine graft, which it depicts as far more human, in scale and intent, than the television-driven fund-raising juggernaut of modern political campaigning. Prescient in the way it pokes fun at television's influence, The Last Hurrah manages to suggest most of the modern themes of political corruption -- and the disintegration of community that underlies them. With The Last Hurrah, the influence of money on politics disappears as a central theme for a decade. It is replaced by the Cold War, assassinations, racial tensions, hidden homosexuality, and the counter culture in '60s movies like The Best Man, Advise and Consent, Seven Days in May, The Man, and Dr. Strangelove. When the theme of corruption returns, in Robert Redford's brilliant The Candidate (1972), it picks up right where The Last Hurrah left off, with fundraising pressures, manufactured TV imagery, and the fundamental dissonance between modern political campaigning and real life. The cynicism of The Candidate and a handful of other negative '70s movies is so profound as to give corruption an almost existential noire feeling. By the time Ronald Reagan clinches the Republican nomination by quoting 1948's State of the Union, ("I paid for this microphone!"), Hollywood is clearly ready to draft a new Frank Capra. But the old white magic is elusive. Marie (1985), the first hit political film of the '80s, is based on a true story about a Tennessee prison official who brings down the governor that appointed her when she discovers he is selling pardons and paroles to convicted criminals. And who needs Frank Capra? Marie marks the movie debut of a Tennessee lawyer, Fred Thompson, who goes on to play many corrupt politicians and then uses his actor's celebrity as a springboard to the 1994 Senate (as a member of Bob Dole's party). Two Capraesque comedies of the early '90s -- The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) and Dave (1993) -- seem disappointingly believable by comparison. Somehow, the Capracat movies are more convincing when they gleefully parody the greed of politicians on the take than when they try to inspire their heroes to deeds of patriotism. By the time of In the Line of Fire (1993), the idea that money buys access to politicians who are otherwise unapproachable is utterly commonplace; we barely notice that the assassin gets within range of his presidential target by buying a ticket to a fund-raiser. It's hard to imagine a film that could be made now that would show a professional politician as anything more than a con artist, just as it is difficult to think of a politician today who couldn't score points by attacking the low morals of Hollywood.

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