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Politics and Polemics in Movies

I’m excited about attending a press screening of “The Ides of March” next week, but also a little nervous. One of the films expected to vie for Oscar nominations this year, the film was directed and co-written by, and co-stars, George Clooney.

From what I’ve heard, it’s sort of a combination of “The Candidate” and “Primary Colors,” in which Ryan Gosling plays a young campaign worker who becomes disillusioned while helping Mike Morris, a Midwestern governor played by Clooney, run for president.

Clooney is well-known for his left- leaning politics, which he’s hardly been shy about expressing. His character in “March” reflects that, reportedly being a Democrat and an atheist.

In general, I’m not enthused about filmmakers expressing their political beliefs through their movies. Most political movies tend to exist in a zone of vague neutrality, in which a character’s party is never even mentioned. This can be frustrating to the audience, but in my view it’s preferable to the polemics that usually happen when people making fictional films are let loose to feel their partisan oats.

Michael Moore is the obvious example. He went from being an insightful, rabble-rousing figure whose documentaries examined uncomfortable subjects -- “Roger & Me,” “Bowling for Columbine” -- into somebody who essentially makes film versions of newspaper op-eds.

Moore openly stated that he hoped his anti-George W. Bush screed “Fahrenheit 9/11” would tip the 2004 election in John Kerry’s favor. Instead of being a guy who tries to make audiences think, Moore became a guy telling people what to think.

The dynamic works in subtler ways with fictional films. Rod Lurie, a film critic turned director, just remade “Straw Dogs,” about an intellectual facing off with rubes. Instead of England, where the original film was set, Lurie transported the action to the deep South, where the progressive hero is antagonized by Red State hooligans.

Lurie did the same with his first big film, “The Contender,” in which Republicans try to vanquish a woman nominated to replace the deceased vice president. Gary Oldman, as the GOP ringleader, was depicted as a cannibal looking to figuratively eat the poor woman alive.

Rob Reiner, known more for his liberal activism than his movies lately, didn’t do much better with 1995’s “The American President,” in which Richard Dreyfuss played a heartless senator who targets the single president’s girlfriend.

Since Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal, the polarity of these politicized films tends to run in one direction.

The answer, though, isn’t a bunch of movies infused with right-wing sensibilities. It’s understanding that in works of art, or even mere entertainment, audiences don’t like to pay to hear some movie star or filmmaker spout off. Movies are a piece of real estate where it’s best not to pound political stakes.

Posted on February 15, 2012 by Christopher Lloyd
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