Cinema takes on the US elections

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Amid the mud-slinging and hog-calling of the ’08 race to the Oval Office, a high turnout of politically motivated movies are vying to make the most of election fever. Ben Walters casts his deciding vote

It’s hardly news that politics and show business enjoy a symbiotic relationship in the United States – it’s all about presentation, presentation, presentation, as Franklin Roosevelt could have told you in one of his radio addresses, or Ronald Reagan as he proved how far a reassuring screen presence could get you, or George W.Bush as he posed in that fighter-pilot jacket. Nor has Hollywood been shy about getting stuck in to politics, from DW.Griffith’s gruesome ‘Birth of a Nation’ through Frank Capra’s brotherhood-of-man cycle to the recent slew of war-on-terror-themed box-office duds.

This, you might have noticed, is an election year in the US, and while most of the campaign action these days takes place on TV and computer screens, the run-up to November 4 will also give American moviegoers a number of topical options. Of course, production schedules being what they are, the particularities of the race between Barack Obama and John McCain won’t be directly reflected at the cinema. The outgoing Commander-in-Chief, however, has an entire feature dedicated to him.

Oliver Stone has already delivered ‘JFK’ and ‘Nixon’, distinctive takes on the two politicians whose 1960 TV debate is generally acknowledged to have inaugurated the modern age of media politics. His new film, W. (out on October 17 in the US and November 7 here) – which follows George W.Bush (Josh Brolin) from his misspent youth to the invasion of Iraq – will be perhaps the first biopic of a president to reach the screen while its subject is still in office. Stone insists the characterisation will be rounded, citing Peter Morgan’s script for ‘The Queen’ as a model, but its filleting of various biographies already has some Republicans foaming. The movie includes a version of the possibly apocryphal incident in which Bushes père et fils squared off against each other: ‘You want an ass-whipping?’ ‘Try it, old man.’

Another picture unlikely to find many cheerleaders in red states is Michael Moore’s latest doc, ‘Slacker Uprising’. Just as ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ was timed to coincide with the 2004 presidential campaign, this picture – which is also about the ’04 race – is designed to play into this current cycle. It follows Moore’s tour of battleground states, trying to rouse American youth into participation through grand-scale speaking engagements. Although it’s unlikely to mitigate the director’s reputation for egoism, Obama’s massively motivated under-30 following might bear out Moore’s contention that ‘the young people of America – you’re the ones that are going to do it!’ The film will be downloadable for free in North America from September 23.

Less than a fortnight later, on its October 3 US release, ‘An American Carol’ will give the documentarian’s fanbase something to foam about. A conservative spin on ‘A Christmas Carol’, it casts Moore – sorry, Michael Malone (Kevin P Farley), director of ‘Die You American Pigs’ and vociferous anti-July 4 campaigner – in the Scrooge role, with visitations from the likes of W.shington (Jon Voight) and Patton (Kelsey Grammer) setting him on the Right track. It also features Dennis Hopper, Fox News pit bull Bill O’Reilly and Leslie Nielsen, and is directed by David Zucker who, like Oliver Stone, insists this is no partisan hatchet job. W.th comedy suicide bombers, pro-civil-liberty ‘zombies’ and hilariously butch lesbians, who could disagree? (It’s not yet clear whether British audiences will get a chance to watch Moore’s or Zucker’s efforts.)

One movie that aims both to capitalise on election fever and remain scrupulously impartial is Swing Vote. Released last month in the US and next week here, it stars Kevin Costner as the New Mexico shlub on whose vote the entire presidential election hangs (don’t ask). Its main target is opportunistic flip-flopping, with Costner’s most casual comment prompting U-turns on abortion and gay rights from the Republican and Democratic candidates (‘American Carol’ alumni Grammer and Hopper). Suggesting on the one hand that engagement is better than apathy and on the other that politics is a pretty hollow game, the picture couldn’t really be described as inspirational, though Costner was sufficiently motivated to ensure a pre-election release that he secured its funding himself. American filmgoers were not conspicuously grateful. If the movies are going to the polls, it’s worth noting that the politicians also seem to have been looking to the entertainment industry. The Democratic and Republican national conventions offered insights into how their candidates see themselves.

The coronation of Obama at Denver’s 75,000-seat Invesco Stadium was crowned not just by fireworks and confetti but TV coverage that eschewed any pretence of journalism to deliver rousing music and massed compositions that might get Leni Riefenstahl’s (or at least Paul Verhoeven’s) approval. The Republicans, meanwhile, plumped for the story of the Palin clan, hoping viewers would accept juicy details of teenage pregnancy and hockey-mom anecdotes in place of more sustained political engagement. It all felt a bit Britney Spears goes to W.shington.

On December 5 – a month after the election and seven weeks before George W.Bush finally vacates the Oval Office – Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon will come out in the US. (It’s released here on January 9 and, like ‘W.’, will also play at the London Film Festival.) It’s the story of an unpopular president taking a chance by jousting with a shrewd media operator in the hope of rehabilitating his crummy reputation. It didn’t work out too well for Nixon, but it might just give his most recent successor – another man accustomed to public opprobrium and boundless self-regard – a little food for thought.

Author: Ben Walters



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