The Unfettered Critic – June 2016

Step right up, folks, for the most captivating show of the era. It’s everything a big-budget entertainment should be: edgy, unpredictable, alternately hilarious and horrific. Yes, it’s that character-driven competition known as The 2016 Presidential Election.

We’re fascinated by this big show. But as absorbed as we are, we can’t bring ourselves to discuss it with friends and neighbors. An old adage states, “Never talk about politics or religion.” (Not that the people behind the podium adhere to that.) However, we are comfortable reminding you of the works of some astute filmmakers on the subject. Movies about elections abound. Perhaps it’s time to revisit a few.

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Andy Griffith (yes, of “Mayberry” fame) made his film debut in this cautionary story about a drunken hillbilly named Lonesome Rhodes, who skyrockets to political prominence by wielding the sharp edge of his down-home wit on an adoring public. Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, the movie is a biting look at the dangers of ambition and of the public’s need to believe in someone who seems to talk plain sense. When Oscar-winner Patricia Neal silently clutches her face in horror as she realizes Rhodes’s ruthless addiction to power, you may experience an unsettling feeling of your own. Is it déjà vu or just your imagination?

Election (1999): With stars Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, Election sounds like just another high school movie. Witherspoon plays Tracy, a perky, tightly-wound overachiever who decides to run for class president—and run hard. Broderick plays a vindictive civics teacher who just can’t stand overbearing students like her. He decides to stop her efforts by convincing a less-than-brilliant male jock into campaigning against her. But the plotline isn’t that simple; it’s a smart, surprising parable about the insidious nature of elections that’s actually educational.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) tells the story of young, naïve Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), who’s picked by corrupt politicians to replace a deceased senator. They plan to make Smith support a bill that involves building a dam in his home state—and coincidentally put a lot of money into their pockets. When Smith altruistically proposes that a boys’ camp be built instead, the politicians attempt to destroy his reputation. Directed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), the movie is as much fantasy as political reality, but given the current atmosphere in Washington, is embracing a hopeful little fantasy a bad thing?

All the King’s Men (1949), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, won a “Best Picture” Oscar. Broderick Crawford, who won the Oscar for “Best Actor,” plays Willie Stark, a Southern lawyer who musters supporters by bucking his state’s corrupt government. But once he reaches the governor’s mansion, he proves to be just as dishonest as the people he’s replaced. Uh oh—there’s that feeling of déjà vu again.

The Candidate (1972) was promoted with the tagline: “Too Handsome. Too Young. Too Liberal. Doesn’t have a chance. He’s PERFECT!” The film stars Robert Redford as an idealistic lawyer who runs for the Senate to bring some political issues into the open—but he doesn’t plan to win. Once his former-governor father (Melvyn Douglas) and campaign manager (Peter Boyle) get involved, however, losing is out of the question. Perhaps the most realistic election/politician movies ever made, The Candidate reveals the machinations and mind-numbing experience of campaigning. When the idealistic lawyer wins the race and helplessly asks, “What do we do now?”, chills may run down your spine.

It’s a question we’ll each have to ponder this coming November.