Readers of these notes from a warm Island know that I have sworn off partisan politics and acceded to the requests that I stick with things show business related. That said, Washington and Hollywood are hardly mutually exclusive. No one seems to know exactly who it was that coined the phrase “Washington is show business for ugly people,” but that does not keep it from resonating.
From D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Oliver Stone’s JFK and beyond, film makers have plowed this rich field of Presidents, congresswomen and men, anarchists, and advocates. To attempt to list them all would make more of a book than a blog, for almost everything is political, whether it is what I was trying to say about and for women in Cagney & Lacey or what Amy Sherman-Palladino has done so brilliantly in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or what was so proudly put forth (justifiably) by Netflix with Unorthodox.
Sometimes the political, coupled with film, produces real social change; sometimes there are unintended consequences. In the 1930s, the American communist party was overjoyed with the newsreel coverage of thugs and national guardsmen coming together to beat (and even kill) American workers seeking a living wage by striking against the Midwest plants where they had been employed. The filmed footage of this carnage… and of workers attempting to unite against “the bosses” and the unbridled power of their capitalistic governors was, from the radical left’s point of view, sure-fire material. They could not wait to send the reels off to Moscow.
There, in the USSR, with a silver screen in front of them and the projector’s flickering light behind, the Russian audience saw what was “really going on in America.” This, it seemed, was perfect political propaganda… American newsmen filming American soldiers firing on American workers who were doing no more than demanding their rights. It was simply perfect, until someone from that impoverished, ragged audience yelled out,
“Look, they’re wearing shoes!”
The audience erupted, and propaganda took a back seat to spontaneous outburst. “Life is (indeed) something that happens while you are busy making plans.”
Producer Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong was well planned, with the very primitive, giant dark ape, lusting after the blonde starlet and ultimately going on a destructive rampage before being shot down atop the Empire State Building.
Is King Kong political? Cooper knew what he was up to and it is no accident that Kong’s facial features were emphasized for anyone in the audience who might otherwise fail to notice the producer’s racist message. Ironically, the audience focused on something else. Released in 1933, at the height of the depression, American audiences found the giant ape to be a sympathetic character. It seems they identified with Kong who had been so cruelly used by the men who had hunted him, captured him, and brought him to their shores. Turns out, in the 1930s, Kong’s exploitation was something with which Americans could empathize.
Some movies become political well after their time in the marketplace: Gone with the Wind unhappily finds itself at the top of that list. Easily one of the best films ever made… and certainly one of the most successful in cinema history…you would have a tough time screening it today without a major pre-amble. Even then I have a pretty clear picture of the hooting that would come from today’s audience as Margaret Mitchell’s intro is heard as voice over, illuminating the meaning of her title: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave… look for it only in books, for it is not more than a dream remembered. A civilization Gone with the Wind.”
The masterly Aaron Sorkin does some remembering of his own with his latest screenplay, which he also directs.I broke away from Netflix and the streaming of Sorkin’s brilliant television series The West Wing (where I am currently in season five at something like the 100th episode of the seven season-long series that debuted on NBC 20 years ago). I did not have to break away very far. Netflix is also presenting Sorkin’s brilliantly executed Trial of the Chicago 7. There are no unintended consequences here. Sorkin set out (as he almost always does) to do great work and (once again) he succeeded.
The cast is sensational: Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Joseph Gordon Levitt as Richard Schultz, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass and John Doman as John Mitchell. There are, of course, many more actors as well as others to be credited. I have listed only those I felt compelled to acknowledge. Dorman’s lone scene at the very beginning of the film is so compelling…so well acted, written, and directed that I instantly relaxed (knowing I was in the hands of true professionals). My sense of envy was palatable as I imagined what my fate might have been had I been lucky enough to have found Aaron Sorkin 40 years ago and convinced him to be my television partner for life.
See this glorious historical and very political re-creation and, if you are anywhere close to my age, reflect on where you were and what you were thinking while this was all going on in the streets and the courts of Chicago in the 1960s. One more shout out: I almost wrote that Mark Rylance is a “national treasure,” but then remembered he is English, so fuhgeddaboudit. That tiny country has enough of those.
Stay with Netflix for one more limited series in The Queen’s Gambit. It has a touch of politics and a whole lot of genius, mostly in the leading role, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. She is mesmerizing and the directoral visualizations of both the real and imagined game of chess deserves a shout out as well. It is seven episodes long. You should see each one of them.
As politics dominates our television screens on an hourly basis… you just might be feeling a little nostalgia for how we got here and the way we all once were. Here, off the top of my head and in no particular order, is a partial list of must-see movies with obvious political themes (in every case, the title referenced is to the original… not the re-make):
All the King’s Men, JFK, Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, All the President’s Men, Nixon, The Candidate, Primary Colors, The American President, Bulworth, Wag The Dog, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Grapes of Wrath, Meet John Doe, Bob Roberts, Inherit The Wind, Coming Home, Being There, Reds, Spielberg’s Lincoln, Dr. Strangelove, The Way We Were, Face in the Crowd, The President’s Analyst, Frost/Nixon, State of the Union, the aforementioned television series The West Wing as well as other TV series, including: Berlin Babylon, The Good Wife, Scandal, Brain Dead, Veep, Newsroom.
Along with others, the above films feature such luminaries as Burt Lancaster, Angela Lansbury, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Michael Douglas, Annette Benning, Warren Beatty, Robert DeNiro, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Julianna Margulies Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Barbra Streisand, Kerry Washington, Spencer Tracey, Katharine Hepburn… this is more than Washington for pretty people, this is America, the beautiful.
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