I’ll have longer thoughts on Game Change, HBO’s adaptation of John Heilmann and Mark Halperin’s 2008 campaign book, closer to the movie’s air date. But one thing that struck me as strange about the movie was that it focuses entirely on John McCain and Sarah Palin, a story that’s both been done to death and is essentially irrelevant: Palin is a PR phenomenon and McCain will never be president. They’ve both returned from whence they came. By contrast, the story of how President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarded each other in the buildup to and during the 2008 campaign, and how they came to be partners rather than enemies, is both directly relevant to ongoing events and a much richer story than that of John McCain’s taking a flyer on his VP selection.
But I wonder if part of the problem is that it would be extremely difficult to cast a credible Obama. Fred Armisen’s impression of the president is laughable. Jordan Peele has Obama’s voice entirely locked down, but he doesn’t particularly look like him. I have no idea if Adrian Lester has the voice, or could figure out how to do it, but he’s got the look, or could pull it off plausibly. I also really like the idea of the main character from Primary Colors, who was responsible for wrangling John Travolta’s Bill Clinton stand-in character, returning to the movies as Obama. There are obvious decent stand-ins for Hillary: Emma Thompson could also step back into those shoes post Primary Colors, not to mention my personal favorite candidate Judith Light. But Obama is tricky—and important—to get right.
Thanks to the vast expansion of our cable news industry, you could spend hours tonight watching talking heads speculate about the potential results of the Iowa Caucuses tonight. But fortunately, you don’t have to! You can keep hitting refresh on Twitter or the news site of your choice while watching any one of these movies, which actually get the mechanics of politics right in a way that most others don’t, and that most snap-judgment analysts won’t.
1. Primary Colors (1998): Unlike most political movies, which set up a dichotomy between often-unnamed but clearly defined members of opposite parties, the vast majority of Primary Colors takes place during the Democratic primary. That means you get tough debates, hilariously incompetent campaign volunteers who get whipped into a professional fighting force, the entrance of a late-breaking messiah candidate who turns out to be not-so-messianic, and best of all, a deeply cranky conversation about a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This is politics as informed and presented by people who have actually been there.
2. Definitely, Maybe (2008): This movie may be disguised as a romantic comedy, but it’s a savvy look at the disappointment of the Clinton years that draws its small dramas from an actual understanding of political pressure points. Fundraising gets you places. Both candidates and journalists have a dangerous desire to be liked. Not putting union bugs on Democratic paper goods during a campaign is disastrous. The president probably will not remember his early volunteers years down the road.
3. The American President (1995) and Thank You For Smoking (2005): It’s sort of amazing how naive Aaron Sorkin is about lobbying in The American President, a movie that makes the profession look so sexy and principled it’s sort of shocking it wasn’t a product of the influence industry itself. Thank You For Smoking is a loopy tonic to that misconception. Watch this double-header as we gear up for a Super PAC-filled election year, and vow not to get fooled again.
4. Contagion (2011): In the hysteria of an election year, it can be easy to forget that there’s life beyond politics and elected officials. But a lot of what’s important about presidential candidates is the people they’d appoint to serve under them, and any administration is limited in the changes it can make by layers of existing bureaucracy, regulations, and the time it takes to turn a ship much bigger than the Titanic around. Contagion‘s a critically important reminder that in crisis, it’s not always a matter of whose finger is on the button.
5. All the President’s Men (1976) and Dick (1999): These two very different retellings of the same essential story make two different but critically important points. First, journalism is hard, and it’s difficult to do it even when you have all the right breaks and time in which to do it: so how hard must it be to nail down true stories on the campaign trail, where everyone is sleep-deprived and exhausted, and events are moving extraordinarily rapidly. Second, politicians are people, often eccentric, obnoxious people. They want power, but they want other things too, including pot brownies and to kick their dogs.
The Ides of March, George Clooney’s adaptation of the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, is the kind of movie that will be mistaken for a profound meditation on the state of American politics. This strikes me as deeply unfortunate, not just because it’s not a particularly good movie, but because what few ideas it has back up a reactionary idea of what makes someone good at governing. Spoilers to follow.
Gov. Mike Morris, the Democratic frontrunner, may be the silliest Hollywood conception of a politician since The American President. He is, apparently, a veteran of President Bush’s Gulf War, an opponent of President Bush’s son’s incursions into the same reason, a genius who’s managed to dramatically improve the educational performance of Pennsylvania students (take that, skeptics of education reform!) and balance his state’s budget in a recession. When he’s asked about how he’d feel about the death penalty if his wife (the always welcome but woefully under-used Jennifer Ehle) were murdered, Morris says he’d kill the killer himself and then accept the consequences. These are no positions that have a basis in political reality. If Andrew Shepherd’s speech and declaration of ACLU membership in The American President is a parody of liberal dreams of progressive toughness
the idea that a candidate could declare in a debate “I’m not a Christian…my religion, what i believe in, is called the Constitution of the United States of America,” and win over an electorate that isn’t even close to electing a Jewish president, that’s skeptical of a Mormon, much less an atheist, is just woefully out of touch. Saying, as one character does, that “we know they’ve nominated a jackass,” in response to a question about whether Democrats have nominated an atheist is not an answer to that plausibility problem. It’s just smug.
Morris is a paper man, composed of position papers rather than blood and guts, and that’s a problem when we’re supposed to believe that a moment of marital infidelity is utterly damning. We have no idea what his relationship with his wife is like. If the movie made an argument that Morris’ relationship with his family is a repudiation of an idea that Christianity is a necessary guarantor of values, his decision to sleep with an intern might be momentous. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors and the movie adaptation of the novel made the argument that the emotional profligacy that led fictional candidate Jack Stanton to sleep around was also critical to his success because it bound potential supporters to him for life. But we have absolutely no sense of what Morris is like as a human being, so it’s hard to know what his infidelity means. Is his aura of control a facade? Was it just a stupid mistake? Do we actually want to promulgate the idea that your personal life is a litmus test for your ability to do meaningful political work? Read more