Washington, D.C., has been called "Hollywood for ugly people."
Ugly may be a matter of opinion, but there's little doubt the road to power runs through Tinseltown.
Just take a look at the ad for Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty's book, Courage to Stand. With a soaring, heart-pounding score and lightning-fast edits, it could be the trailer for a Hollywood action flick.
A commercial from now-official candidate Mitt Romney isn't quite as dramatic, but it does share a technique with Pawlenty's ad: The candidate never speaks directly to the camera. It's almost as if you're watching something produced by a documentary filmmaker.
Not-exactly-official candidate Sarah Palin has perhaps the most cinematic call to action this summer: She's the subject of a $1 million feature-length documentary that will screen in more than 50 markets across the country starting this month.
Is this the 2012 presidential election — or a film festival?
"They're very good ads," Darrell West tells Rachel Martin, guest host for weekends on All Things Considered. West is the author of Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns.
"They demonstrate a new, emerging trend in campaign advertising. We're seeing a blurring of the line between politics and entertainment."
Roots In 2008
So far in this campaign, only Republican candidates have gotten into the cinematic ad game. But West says their inspiration may lie in the 2008 presidential election. During that race, Barack Obama aired a half-hour prime-time special that West calls "essentially the movie version of the campaign ad."
Barack Obama's half-hour movie-style campaign ad aired just before Election Day in 2008.
The special opened with somber music playing over images of a wheat field. As it went on, Obama used the stories of ordinary Americans to lend a narrative to the problems he promised to solve.
"Campaigns today really require a very strong storyline," West says. "There's just so much information out there, you need a strong narrative to break through all that information clutter."
And the rewards of breaking through that clutter are huge. In 2008, West says, 80 percent of voters said TV was the most likely way they'd learn about a political candidate. Seventy-one percent said "political ads help me understand what a candidate stands for."
"This is one of the reasons why, if you look at a campaign budget, about half of the money still goes for television ads," West says. "Campaign strategists understand that's still, even in an Internet era, where people get much of their information."
Film Techniques At Work
What is it, exactly, about these ads that catches our attention?
NPR's film critic Bob Mondello says they're built like trailers for a big-budget action movie.
In the case of Pawlenty's flash-edited American iconography — video of historic American Olympic victories, the Berlin Wall coming down, an F-15 flyover — "it's designed to place him in the context of Americana by making him look very forceful," Mondello says
The sweeping soundtrack doesn't hurt, either. And there's a history of using soundtracks to pump up speeches in Hollywood, Mondello says.
Take Laurence Olivier's 1944's production of Henry V. He delivers that film's famous Saint Crispin's Day speech against a background of silence, using only the power of Olivier's voice to lend emotion.
Then, fast-forward to Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version.
"That's a different era," Mondello says. "After Vietnam, war doesn't sound as appealing to a contemporary audience."
Branagh's sweeping music gave the scene a new, dramatic optimism.
"In film, you want to use everything at your disposal — you use the sounds and you use the visuals, and these days you use the 3-D — to try to make it as full an experience as possible," Mondello says.
"I assume that in politics, they are trying to do exactly the same thing."
Palin As 'The Undefeated'
Palin's feature-length documentary, The Undefeated, is produced by conservative filmmaker Stephen Bannon. It will air in at least 50 markets across the country this summer.
Bannon says he made the film without any editorial input from the Palin camp. But when he screened it for the Palins last month, they loved it, Bannon tells NPR's Martin.
"I needed to get to the people in Alaska," he says. "They were like the Greek chorus."
Bannon used interviews with natives and local newsmakers to place the viewer in what he calls the "whirlwind" that was Palin's time as governor.
"You bring in news video, you bring in interviews, you bring in speeches, you bring in all this great footage they had out there in Alaska television," he says. (It's been called "epic" by one reporter who's seen it.)
And like the Pawlenty and Romney ads, Palin never narrates to the camera. The audio version of her book Going Rogue serves as the film's narration.
Bannon says he's aware that Pawlenty and other candidates are increasingly blurring the line between politics and entertainment.
"I think people are putting out videos and understanding that media is much more sophisticated," he says. "Feature film can have a major role in explaining ideas and describing peoples' lives and their struggles."
Bannon describes Palin's story as "like something out of a screenplay." And he says the same goes for President Obama.
"We have some Shakespearean characters in our politics. So these things lend themselves to dramatic interpretation, and I think you're going to see a lot more of it in the future."
But Bannon wouldn't compare his work to the 2008 Obama TV special. He says his style owes more to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, whom he calls a "master of the craft."
"I'm just learning the craft," Bannon says.
Is Sarah Palin running for president? Bannon says he doesn't know.
"But I do think it's very important for Republicans to have a campaign like they had in 1976, where you had Ronald Reagan running as an outsider," he says.
Republicans, of course, lost that campaign to Democrat Jimmy Carter. But Bannon argues that the Reagan revolution that swept the country in 1980 would not have been possible had its seeds not been planted four years earlier.
And what about the film's title? The Undefeated has already become a target for left-leaning bloggers.
"You have to see the film," Bannon says. "It's about some of the values she stands for. The American working class, these things of self-reliance and self-determination. That's really 'the undefeated.' "
And Bannon put up $1 million to produce the film. "I made a bet at the beginning of this that the American people are not just a fair people, they're an open-minded people. If they see this film, I believe they'll see Gov. Palin in a very different light."