Hollywood's Impact on American Politics

Movies have portrayed national politicians and the political process as both honest and corrupt over the years. Several experts examine how films affect the political views of the American public.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a series this week called Crossing the Divide, we're sharing stories across NPR that look at where Americans find common ground.

CHADWICK: And one of those places is at the movies. Some of our most noble images of politics and some of our least flattering come from American cinema. So how do they affect our political outlook?

NPR's Karen Grigsby-Bates has this report.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington")

Mr. JAMES STEWART (Actor): (as Jefferson Smith) You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked and I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with flies like these.

KAREN GRIGSBY-BATES: That's Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It's one of the best known and most loved movies about politics ever made.

How you think about politics and politicians might have something to do with how long you've been going to the movies, says Mark Sockleaven, a professor of Political Science at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Sockleaven uses film to explain to his students how American politics has evolved over the years.

Professor MARK SOCKLEAVEN (Shippensburg University): Clearly, in the earlier part of the 20th century American institutions were romanticized, flaws were glossed over. And then in the last part, certainly in the 1990s, political institutions, politicians were seen as dark and sinister in many ways.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Even sometimes prone to manufacturing wars or the threat of one, as this scene shows in the 1997 satire "Wag the Dog." In it, presidential aide Robert DeNiro is trying to convince Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman to create a White House hoax, which DeNiro's character points out has precedent.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wag the Dog")

Mr. ROBERT DENIRO (Actor): (as Conrad Brean) He wants to go for it. What do you see day after day? The one smart bomb falling down a chimney. The truth? I was in the building when we shot that shot. We shot it in a studio, Fallschurch, Virginia, one tenth scale model of a building.

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (as Stanley Motts) Is that true?

Mr. DENIRO: How the (expletive) do we know. You take my point?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes.

GRIGSBY-BATES: But it's not always cynicism, Sockleaven says. In Rob Reiner's 1995 movie "The American President," a liberal president, after months of trying to get along with the opposition, issues a public challenge to a key critic in the senate.

(Soundbite of "The American President")

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): (as President Shephard) We've got serious problems and we need serious people. And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when and I'll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and you're fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepard and I am the President.

GRIGSBY-BATES: American's like take charge presidents on film, says Dennis Simon. He teaches politics in film at Southern Methodist University. The ideal modern president, Simon says, is a manly multi-tasker - like this guy.

(Soundbite of "Air Force One")

Mr. HARRISON FORD (Actor): (as President Marshall) Get off my plane.

Professor DENNIS SIMON (Southern Methodist University): Harrison Ford in "Air Force One," who can fly a 747, engage in hand to hand combat with terrorists and negotiate with the Russians.

GRIGSBY-BATES: It's the kind of image former actor Ronald Reagan projected as president, drawing on skills he honed in Hollywood. Whether you're attracted to or appalled by the image of a president who can throw down with terrorists, Mark Sockleaven says the movies provide a way for us to explore our political differences safely.

Professor SOCKLEAVEN: This is a common reference point for us to discuss these issues about what is the role of a politician? Are our institutions working, are they not working? And in popular culture gives us a common language to refer to these things as.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Neal Gabler, the prominent biographer, critic and film historian, says important public issues do tend to show up in film eventually.

Mr. NEAL GABLER (Film Historian): Well, it takes time for films to move through a pipeline. And since the American people generally feel that they've been lied to by this administration and have turned on the war in Iraq, we may see a year or two from now films that reflect the current public attitude.

(Soundbite of music)

GRIGSBY-BATES: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is usually seen as a vindication of democracy, a testament to how one individual can make a difference. But, says Neal Gabler, people who only get that from the movie are missing an important facet of Capra's message.

Mr. GABLER: That Frank Capra film is much more complicated in terms of its attitude towards American politics. It's not Polly Ann-ish, it's not oh he goes there and everything is wonderful and through force of his goodness and will everything is perfect. In point of fact, everything is imperfect, and he's destroyed by that system before he rises again.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Near the film's end, disheartened freshman congressman Jefferson Smith visits the Lincoln Memorial at night before he leaves the city that's beaten him down. But a former enemy turned supporter, played by Jean Arthur, convinces him that dumping out is the wrong thing to do.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington")

Ms. JEAN ARTHUR (Actress): (as Clarissa) (Unintelligible) didn't stop those men, they were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that, you know that, Jeff. You can't quit now, not you. They aren't all tales and pains in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that's all.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Of course, in the end Senator Smith triumphs and viewers go home feeling better about our political process.

(Soundbite of movie, "Can Mr. Smith Even Get to Washington Anymore?")

Mr. JEFF SMITH: Hi, I was knocking at your door. I'm running for congress.

GRIGSBY-BATES: In "Can Mr. Smith Even Get to Washington Anymore?" documentary filmmaker Frank Popper followed another Jeff Smith, a Missouri college professor, during his 2004 primary race against the son of a powerful political dynasty. Jeff Smith had no money, no political connections and no prominent supporters. His race was considered quixotic even his father warned him not to run.

Mr. SMITH: My dad just pretty much laughed in my face.

Unidentified man: He said I'm going to run for Dick Gephardt's spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. And I said what, are you nuts?

GRIGSBY-BATES: In the end this Mr. Smith doesn't get to Washington. That's not a Capra ending, but a real life one. SMU's Dennis Simon says whatever a film's genre or political bent, all movies are handicapped by one inescapable fact.

Professor SIMON: One of the points we discuss at the end of the course is can any filmmaker do justice to a very complex and important event in two hours?

GRIGSBY-BATES: The answer is probably not, but audiences will continue to search for films that reflect their hopes.

Karen Grigsby-Bates NPR News.

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