In Election Movies, Playing By A Rule of Three Hollywood has always recognized the potential drama inherent in elections — think The Manchurian Candidate. Bob Mondello and Michele Norris talk about the intersection of ballot box and box office.
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In Election Movies, Playing By A Rule of Three

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In Election Movies, Playing By A Rule of Three

In Election Movies, Playing By A Rule of Three

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The presidential campaign has been a real rollercoaster this year. And before we accelerate into that final curve with the Democratic and Republican conventions, we decided to look at electioneering from another perspective -through the lens of Hollywood.

(Soundbite of movie "The Candidate")

Unidentified Man #1: Whatever questions they ask, just give them our answers.

Unidentified Man #2: Crime isn't an issue, it's a symptom.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, that's a good line.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, for when you write your book.

NORRIS: Hollywood has always recognized the inherent drama in elections what could inflict a hero from the film "The Candidate." Or the international intrigue of "The Manchurian Candidate."

(Soundbite of movie "The Manchurian Candidate")

Ms. ANGELA LANSBURY (Actress): (As Mrs. Iselin) I want the nominee to be dead about two minutes after he begins his acceptance speech.

(Soundbite of movie "Bob Roberts")

Unidentified Man #3: I'm going to win this thing, and when I do, we're going to make history.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: There's the satire of "Bob Roberts," the naked ambition of "Primary Colors," and most recently, the dilemma of every the every man in "Swing Vote."

(Soundbite of movie "Swing Vote")

Ms. MADELINE CARROLL (Actress): (As Molly Johnson): Don't forget today.

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): (As Bud Johnson) What's today?

Ms. CARROLL: (As Molly Johnson) Election Day, dummy.

Mr. COSTNER: (As Bud Johnson) Well, I'm not even registered.

NORRIS: Today, our movie critic Bob Mondello joins us to talk about that interception between the ballot box and the box-office. Hello, Bob.


NORRIS: When we talk about political movies, it's really a big, broad category. They're not always about elections or even campaigns?

MONDELLO: No. Political movies can be almost anything, election movies are something else. I mean, you could talk about "Citizen Kane" as being a political movie, and it's got an election in it. But to call it an election movie would be like calling "E.T." a recess pieces movie. It's about a lot of other things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: So, yeah, I have a theory about these movies that there are essentially three kinds of election movies. They fall into stories about manipulation. You are either manipulating the electorate or the process or the candidate.


MONDELLO: And almost all of these movies fall into those three.

NORRIS: But when I hear you talking about manipulating the electorate, there's one film that comes to mind, that's "Wag the Dog." Even the title suggests that that's exactly what they're doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: That's right. It's all about distracting the electorate from a possible scandal in the White House. And…

NORRIS: And a big one. The president has had a dalliance with a young girl.

MONDELLO: Absolutely, which turned out that was very interesting timing on that, and the scandal's about to burst. And so, Robert De Niro is called in as political consultant to make it go away by creating some distraction. And the distraction he creates is a war. And it's not a real war, it's a war with Albania, it doesn't make any sense. It's like, you know, just weird.

But he does it with the aid of Hollywood and puts the Hollywood director who cooks up all these scenes.

NORRIS: Played by Dustin Hoffman.

MONDELLO: Yeah. Oh, it's wonderful.

(Soundbite of movie "Wag the Dog")

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Stanley Motss): It's a suitcase bomb. We're cooking. And it's in, it's in, it's in Canada, all right? Albanian terrorists have placed a suitcase bomb in Canada in an attempt to infiltrate the bomb into the USA. Well, that's good.

NORRIS: So "Wag the Dog," obviously a film about manipulation of the electorate. When you talk about manipulating the process, I'm thinking, in that case, you're talking about something like "Manchurian Candidate."

MONDELLO: Absolutely. There's a soldier who's been brainwashed in Korea who has been sent back by the communists to assassinate a political candidate. And so, that's all about manipulating process. That's about you're going to subvert the whole system. And in that case, you had - Frank Sinatra was going to somehow stop all of this. He was one of the guys who had been with this soldier in Korea. It's a really dramatic picture that quite scared the American public at the time because it was in the middle of the Cold War. It came out right after the Cuban missile crisis.

NORRIS: The third theme that you saw emerging, manipulation of the candidate while they film the candidate, either natural there.

MONDELLO: He's perfect. Here's a guy, he's sort of a pleasant man who gets drawn into the political crisis because he knows he's going to lose. He doesn't have any problems speaking his mind. Then he realizes he's going to lose by a lot. He's going to be humiliated, and he doesn't like that idea. So he starts to follow what everybody wants him to do, what the people in the system want him to do, and he starts…

NORRIS: And he sort of wants to win at that point, too?

MONDELLO: Right. He starts to want to win, and it destroys him. It basically - his message gets thrown away and the candidate has now become just a candidate. Well, that's the worst thing that can happen.

There's another picture that sort of - that does the same sort of thing. It's "State of the Union." It was a picture with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. And it's a pretty remarkable film in 1948, all about a guy who is pushed into being a candidate by a newspaper editor, and she's having an affair with him. But he starts to sell out all the things that he's really about when he does that. And again, it's about the changing of the candidate and his wife, who - from whom he's estranged, Katharine Hepburn, who sort of tries to turn him back to what he actually believes in.

NORRIS: And Angela Lansbury is in that film as well.

MONDELLO: That's true. She's dangerous. You got to be careful with that lady.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Bob, how do these movies intersect with real life? Do they actually reflect what we experience or what we see on the campaign trail?

MONDELLO: Well, they do in a way. A picture like "The Candidate," for instance, was written by a man who was working as Eugene McCarthy's speechwriter in the 1968 campaign. And he was actually working on the script while he was in the campaign. And when it came out a few years later, it was pretty accurate to it.

We talked about "Manchurian Candidate" and the times it was in. The "Primary Colors" picture, I think, was regarded by the public as being a picture of (unintelligible).

NORRIS: Thinly veiled picture of the Clintons.

MONDELLO: Yeah, great. So that - yeah, they intersect. And actually, those are all examples of art imitating life, but there's also the case of life imitating art. "State of the Union" had a really remarkable scene in it. Spencer Tracy is supposed to be given this huge broadcast at his house. And there's this quartet, a band, plenty of kingmakers telling different constituencies that this candidate is their man, that he's good for business and all that kind of thing. And it's a really sobering moment. All of this wasn't why he wanted to run. And he changes his mind and he grabs the microphone to say that much just as his supporters are trying to stop the broadcast.

(Soundbite of movie "State of the Union")

Unidentified Man #4: …will resume from Grant Matthews' home.

Mr. SPENCER TRACY (Actor): (As Grant Matthews) Ladies and gentlemen, this is Grant Matthews. I am sorry to interrupt, but I can't take anymore of this. Don't you shut me off. I'm paying for this broadcast.

Unidentified Man #5: Don't cut him off, give him a chance.

MONDELLO: Now, does that sound all familiar?

NORRIS: Oh, yes, it does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Same line, almost rendered in exactly the same way by President Ronald Reagan when he was running for office. I believe it was in Nashua, New Hampshire doing a campaign debate.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. JON BREEN (Editor, The Telegraph): You turn that microphone off…

Mr. RONALD REAGAN (Former Governor; Republican, California): You asked me if you would - I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: (Unintelligible) it actually sounded like Spender Tracy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Yeah, it's actually a little bit. And it's interesting that he obviously knows movies like nobody's business, and it makes sense that he would be pulling that out of there and that the audience would also kind of get it. And coming from him, that kind of works.

NORRIS: Now Bob, before I let you go, I'm going to put you on the spot, what's your favorite political film of all time?

MONDELLO: Well, it's not - it wouldn't quite fit in this discussion, it's not a picture that's specifically about election, it's about how they gained an election, "All the President's Men." That one really got me. And it actually had something to do my becoming a journalist.

NORRIS: Good choice.

MONDELLO: And what's yours?

NORRIS: Well, mine is not a straight election film, either. It's "Being There," which is about someone who gets pulled into the political process and…

MONDELLO: And who is nebulous enough to be (unintelligible) as a candidate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Exactly. And it's a film that gets more interesting over time, I think.

MONDELLO: Yeah. Yeah, it really does.

NORRIS: Thank you, Bob.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure.

NORRIS: That's our movie critic Bob Mondello. We've asked members of our political team and the candidates themselves to weigh in with their top picks for best political flicks. You can see their choices at our Web site, that's

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