Political Movies

Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009. 

Since the creation of motion pictures at the end of the nineteenth century, when the power of the moving image captivated the American imagination, movies have been used for political purposes. Although movies made purely for propaganda purposes and sponsored or made by governments for the purposes of propaganda are inherently political by nature, such as the Why We Fight documentaries during World War II, for the most part in the second half of the twentieth century there were fewer overt attempts by the American government to influence the political message of nondocumentary films. However, with the cultural and social changes from the Civil Rights Movement to the student protests of the late 1950s and 1960s, many films made from the 1960s to the present have also been far more critical of American institutions and foreign policy than in previous decades. Films such as Easy Rider, The Parallax View, andAll the President’s Men in the 1960s and 1970s, and later on films such as Bullworth, Bob Roberts, Wag the Dog, andDave in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that political films could still be critical of American values and policies, even in a time period that many critics considered to be more socially conservative. But no matter what the ultimate political orientation of the filmmaker, films that have dealt with political issues have fascinated the American public, and some of the most highly controversial political films of the past century have helped to spark and maintain debates on important issues.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, films have been a key method for analyzing the relationship of Americans to popular culture, and representations of politics or political figures in American films have been key areas for determining how Americans regard the dominant political institutions of America. Films, while not causal and not overt representations of the will or vision of the American people, still sometimes are reflections of undercurrents in society that only film can articulate in terms of popular culture. Also, many films have openly challenged the dominant ideology of America. While analyzing films cannot simply find a causal relationship to how Americans feel about politics, they do give us valuable insights into the ways in which the American film industry has had a contentious relationship with government almost since its inception. Much in the way that the American people feel a dualistic sense of reverence and ambivalence around authority, the relationship between Hollywood and politics has also been a long and contentious relationship.

Some of the best and most resonant political movies have also mirrored the American fascination with a sense of cynicism and dissatisfaction with the political arena. As writer Mark Aucoin noted in an article in the Boston Globe, “the trajectory of a political career, as seen in the movies, leads almost inevitably from idealism to compromise to cynicism” (Aucoin 1997, B.6), and Aucoin is correct in noting that in many political films (particularly biographical ones) the ascent of the major character is only matched by his or her rapid descent, as demonstrated in such films as All the King’s Men (1949), The Candidate (1972), and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979). But, many political films as diverse as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Bullworth (1998) and even Oliver Stone’s W. (2008) show some optimism in a political world that, although corrupt, still has glimmers of hope. The film industry has long attempted to follow trends in American politics in popular culture, and the trajectory of American films about politics may help to express both American ambivalence and American optimism in the political system.

Early Films and Politics

While many of the earliest films were simple experiments in an attempt to decipher the language of the new medium, early on some of the greater directors of the silent era in America were able to use film to express certain ideological aims. The common view of early films seen by most contemporary Americans is of crudely made and poorly told stories. Numerous early filmmakers were attempting to create great works of socially conscious art, including blatant “message” films about crime, poverty, social ills, and immigration. Early giants such as D.W. Griffith, one of the pioneers of cinema grammar and language, was concerned with making films that the audiences would want to watch as well as be sources of instruction and enlightenment. Griffith, who made hundreds of films early in the twentieth century long before his most fertile period, often made films that championed the underdog from wealthy interests that threatened the poor. An early film, A Corner of Wheat (1909), is a typical example of Griffith’s populist nature. In the film, a wealthy wheat baron corners the market on wheat, leading to a bread shortage. According to film historian Tom Gunning, the populist movement of the late nineteenth century had been a major influence on Griffith and “Griffith, having come to maturity during the heyday of muckraking journalism, was strongly impressed by their revelations of the gritty realities of life and the new social consciousness that inspired them” (Gunning 1991, 242). Film scholar Kay Sloan noted in the chapter “The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem film” that “small film companies often turned to the literary and political milieu of the muckrakers and the progressives for storylines” (Sloan 2002, 44). From an early age, film had already realized that the new medium was not merely an efficient and entertaining way to tell stories, but it could tackle social issues and be instructive as well as entertaining.

Many other early filmmakers were heavily influenced by the social movements at the turn of the twentieth century, as evidenced by films such as Bannister Merwin’s The Usurer’s Grip (1912), which showed the plight of a desperate couple, who get increasingly into debt until they were rescued by the financially prudent Russell Sage Foundation. The film was made as a partnership between the Edison Company and the Russell Sage Foundation and was an early precursor of modern television message films laced with advertising. According to Kay Sloan, this demonstrated how “through melodrama, the Edison Company and the Russell Sage Foundation advertised direct social reform and suggested that direct philanthropic measures might remedy urban poverty” (2002, 49). Numerous film plots at the turn of the century often involved the politics of poverty and the plight of the working class in a depressed economy. Griffith was particularly attracted to films of this nature, and his early films, such as the proto-gangster film,The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a silent film from 1914 that involves the unwitting involvement of a musician and his wife in a large-scale gang war, also illustrate the squalid working conditions that many Americans were working in at that time. Griffith, of course, is best known for his most brilliant and problematic work, The Birth of a Nation (1915), a sprawling and technically innovative epic film about the Civil War. The problematic nature of the film is in its treatment of African Americans, where marauding slaves (played mostly by white men in blackface) are represented as bestial savages in league with unscrupulous northern carpetbaggers, only contained at the end by the virtuous Ku Klux Klan, a clearly racist and repugnant position by today’s standards, but to many surviving southern veterans of the Civil War it was a vindication of sorts and the film was extremely popular. Although it is now mostly dismissed as an urban legend with little factual basis, many film scholars have cited then President Woodrow Wilson as proclaiming that the film was “history writ by lightning.” This movie also led to the rise of film criticism. Some critics at the time were impressed by the film’s technical majesty and epic length, but disgusted by its distortion of history. While the first half of the film is more or less about the tragedy of war and how it sets family against family, the second half, with its depictions of freed slaves during the Reconstruction Era haphazardly running the statehouse, and with their feet up on desks and smoking big cigars, is clearly problematic. The evil Senator Stoneman and his mulatto protégé Silas are portrayed as opportunistic invaders, with Silas in particular lusting after the white women who surround him just out of his reach. The film was a spectacular success at the box office, but was also protested by the the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who organized a successful boycott in Boston and caused the film to be banned in several states. Griffith, incidentally, was not the only filmmaker to tackle the subject of the Civil War. The great silent comedian Buster Keaton also addressed the war in his 1927 comedie masterpiece, The General, which sidestepped the question of slavery altogether. Needless to say, from a political standpoint, depictions of African Americans in early Hollywood films are unacceptable by today’s standards.

While The Birth of a Nation is seen by many as the epitome of Griffith’s career, his next film, the epic Intolerance (1916), was also an attempt at a political statement where the suffering of innocents is contrasted with the forces of good (including some politicians) working to alleviate the misery of the poor. Other silent films were just as political, if less progressive, Fred Niblo’s Dangerous Hours (1920) involved a Bolshevik plot to infiltrate American industry and foment strikes. Still other directors, such as Erich von Stroheim, with his massive truly epic film Greed (1923) (originally ten hours long, later cut down to a more manageable three hours) involved the persecution of immigrants by capitalists in California. It is interesting to note that early on, Hollywood had not yet become as politically conservative in terms of subject matter as it would be in years to come after the advent of the Hays code, which provided explicit instructions as to what was permitted in a film and what was considered lewd or obscene.

World War I also had a lasting effect on Hollywood, and while many popular actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Mary Pickford had worked on War bond drives, many were disillusioned with the war in its aftermath. In a rare early antiwar film, King Vidor examined the horror of the first great global conflict in his film The Big Parade (1925). Vidor followed that up with a parable on, according to film scholars Terry Christensen and Peter Hass, “urban alienation and isolation” (71) in The Crowd (1928). In terms of comedy, films by directors such as Chaplin and Mack Sennett also frequently targeted rich landlords and crooked businessmen, icons of repression in an age of reformist impulses. Chaplin’s every-man tramp character often fought against bureaucracy, most notably in his later films such asModern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), which attacked mechanization and fascism, respectively. Chaplin was growing increasingly political as the decades wore on, and his socialist views would later cause him to become a controversial figure in the United States until he was forced out of the country in the 1950s.

The end of the silent era in the late 1920s led to changes in not only how films were made (by then the studio system had been solidified) but also in what subjects films were allowed to broach. While certain political films were becoming increasingly successful, and antiwar epics, such as the film version of the book All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) directed by Lewis Milestone, demonstrated that politically risky films were possible, many films took the social concerns of the 1920s silent films and updated them with sensationalistic themes. Crime films and films involving the plight of “fallen woman” soon became extremely popular. In the early 1930s some of this populist message lived on in films where interests, presumably landlords and large corporations, were assailed. One of the key messages of the films of the 1930s was the lone man, often a senator or reformer, working to fight the sinister anonymous enemies of freedom who were seeking to impose fascist rule in America. Films such as Washington Masquerade (1932) and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932) both dealt with ordinary men attempting to make a difference in a world increasingly controlled by large corporate interests.

At the same time, movie studios themselves were facing a new form of censorship. The Hayes code, which curtailed taboo subjects in films such as partial nudity or use of drugs, demonstrated that no evil could win at the end of the film or crimes could go unpunished. By 1927 the Hayes code was effectively working as a form of censorship that was based not only on moral concerns but also on political concerns, as evidenced by the fact that Hayes also produced an index of books and plays deemed unsuitable for filming for moral or political reasons. The Hayes code, which would be followed by most of Hollywood for the next several decades, was a key example of how the industry sought some control over the increasingly maverick directors who challenged the studio system’s natural reflexive action of churning out films with little controversial or political content.

Some films produced during the 1930s were decidedly right wing in tone, such as the controversial Gabriel Over the White House (1933), which featured Walter Huston as a politically corrupt president who is possessed by the angel Gabriel, sends the army to shoot criminals, and disbands Congress for the good of the nation. The film, which was influenced by William Randolph Hearst (and partially written by him), suggested that a strong leader was the best solution to the problems of the depression besetting the nation. However, other films such as The President Vanishes (1934) continued in the populist vein of the little man fighting against the interests of large corporations and shadowy fascists.

The influence of Frank Capra on political films and pop culture is incalculable, and his contribution to the debate about how much influence the ordinary people should have on government seemingly gone amuck was evident in films he made in the 1930s: Forbidden (1932), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), all of which deal with outsiders taking on political corruption. In Forbidden and Mr. Deeds the forces of evil are represented by corrupt politicians and goodness is represented by lone individuals who choose to take on corruption and face down the men who really run the show. In Mr. Smith, perhaps his most famous and most evocative film, Capra again deals with an ordinary man, Jefferson Smith, who idealistically fills a Senate appointment and tries to fulfill his goal of starting a boys’ ranch for his pet project, the Boy Rangers. When Smith finds out that not only is most of Washington corrupt but so is his idol, senior senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who is also on the take, Smith leads a famous filibuster in order to stop passage of a bill that would develop a corrupt water project instead of the ranch that Smith envisioned. Smith as a representative of the people ultimately wins, as Capra heroes inevitably do, when supported by the common man. While many critics dismiss Capra’s work as sentimental, his movies in the 1930s and his work for the government in the 1940s marked Capra as a concerned American, yearning for small-town values in a world dominated increasingly by depression and looming war. Although his work was primarily in the western, iconic director John Ford also made his mark as a classic envisioner of lost America in a series of films starting with Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and continuing with his masterful exploration of the West as a sort of a representation of how American values were contested and finely honed.

Films during World War II and the 1940s

The advent of World War II drastically changed the nature of the film industry as many actors, directors, and writers wanted to do their part for the war effort, with even huge stars such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable enlisting and facing combat and others working on instructional films for the army or other branches of the armed services. Also, in terms of content, most films were no longer addressing controversial or domestic issues, except as background for larger issues—most were dealing with the war effort or patriotism. While anti-Nazi films had been made previously to the war, such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) or The Great Dictator (1940), they had been met with skepticism, particularly from those in the German American community (Confessions in particular led to some animosity, including a theater being burnt down in Milwaukee). But Warner Brothers in particular was keen for U.S. involvement in the upcoming war, and when war was declared in 1941, Warner Brothers was ready to rush films into production. One of the first major films to address the war was the classic Casablanca (1942), which portrayed the fight against the Nazis as a noble cause for even the most disinterested of the isolationist crowd. Buoyed by Casablanca’s success, the studios began to produce more and more war movies, most of them blatant propaganda, but many of them successful; however, many of them were too simplistic (such as The Hitler Gang [1944] and Hitler’s Madmen [1943]). Other films were specifically designed purely as propaganda, such as the pro-Russian Mission to Moscow (1943) and The North Star (1943).

At the same time the U.S. government was using some of the best American talent to produce instructional films in an effort to educate American soldiers on the reasons they were fighting. As many Americans had been isolationists before the war, the government knew that it needed to produce films that were both educational and entertaining. The result was the Why We Fight series of educational films directed by Frank Capra with animation from Walt Disney. Although the films were highly entertaining, equating the Nazis with American gangsters by sometimes using outright fabrications or half-truths in order to try and convince the troops of the necessity of fighting the Axis powers, the films were ultimately not that convincing according to later studies. However, the idea that training films were effective led to a whole subsection of American training films that were used in schools and for civics groups over the next two decades.

After the war was over, Hollywood began to address other issues as well, such as the plight of returning veterans to America in the award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The late 1940s, however, mostly saw Hollywood shy away from films considered too controversial, as the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against the studios and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigations of the late 1940s and early 1950s saw Hollywood return to escapist fare or treat politics as the 1930s films had, as sometimes corrupt as in State of the Union(1948), another Capra film about the corrupting power of politics, and All the King’s Men (1949), a grim look at the potential for fascism in the United States based on Robert Earl Warren’s book on populist demagogue Huey Long.Change was again in the air during the late 1940s, and certain studios found it easier to work in arenas that were not necessarily as transparent as the social problem or simple political corruption film. In the 1950s the enemy was no longer the political machine, and in many cases it was not even of this earth.

Films of the 1950s: Cold War Scares and Alien Invasions

Not all early 1950s films were overtly political, but many films did try to address the growing Cold War with the Soviet Union and the threat of a new global war. Anti-communist films soon grew in frequency, with 33 films about anti-communism being made between 1947 and 1954, some of these more apparent than others. Some films skirted political issues for social issues, such as juvenile delinquency in epics such as The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause(1955), which can be analyzed in hindsight as films that criticized the conformity of middle-class existence, but were also made as much for an excuse to appeal to a teen market as they were cautionary tales. As the studio system began to fail, many films were now being made by independent companies, leading to a rash of films in previously avoided genres such as teen exploitation films and, especially, science fiction.

Science fiction films are the perfect vehicles for cultural and political critiques, as they take place in futuristic societies or feature protagonists not of this world, but the viewer has to make a leap of recognition to see the allegory present. Sometimes that led to 1950s films that analyzed both the threat of communist military might, as well as the dangers of the atomic age, and even corporate conformity. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) film can be seen as an allegory not only of alien invasion but alien ideology as well, as the alien takeover literally removes all emotions from the transformed humans, leading to a world of conformity and unity that resembles a society of communists, or as the bland conformity of American corporate and social life during the 1950s. The film is open to interpretation depending on which side of the political aisle one is on. Likewise, films such as The Thing from Another World (1951) and Them (1954) can be seen as allegories of nuclear power causing untold havoc with nature (creating giant ants, mutants, and in Japanese films, Godzilla) and of the soulless nature of others, and perhaps ourselves. The alien in The Thing could be read as the mind-numbing effects of ideology; whether it was communism or consumer culture, the result was the same—a loss of humanity.

For all of the backward-looking historical critiques that analyzed the 1950s as an era of craven conformity, the decade was filled with as many controversial and socially mature films as it was of cheaply made propaganda. For every movie such as I Married a Communist (1949) and My Son John (1952), which simply attacked communism as a menace, there were also more nuanced films that worried about McCarthyism, such as was shown with the allegorical sellout of the townspeople of High Noon (1952), or such films as On the Waterfront (1954), which allowed that both naming names and fighting against oppressive authority might be possible at the same time.

Hollywood also came to regard the new medium of television as potentially problematic. The potential for television to be used as a source of propaganda was evident, and one of the key critiques of mass media from the 1950s, A Face in the Crowd (1957), combined the political with a critique of television, where smalltown grifter Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes rises to power by using television to become a political force, backing an isolationist senator in his attempt to become president. He is exposed as a hypocrite on live television and in the end retreats to his luxury apartment alone, shouting grandiose speeches into the night accompanied by the uproarious laughter provided by his laugh track machine. Politics were also viewed through the lens of nostalgia, of yearning for a time when things were simpler and political machinery more benevolent, as in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (1958) in which the political boss Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) knows that the new mediated age of politics via television is destroying the old localized system, with Skeffington’s opponent defeating him in an homage to Nixon’s “Checkers Speech.” The 1950s were a time when the old studio system had decayed to the point where new independent films, as well as more experimental films from the studio system, could continue to question the way Americans related to political issues. The next two decades would see this trend continue as the retirement or death of longtime directors such as Ford and Capra paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers who wished to address important political and social issues of the time.

The 1960s and 1970s: Vietnam, Easy Rider, and Watergate

The 1960s and 1970s saw the further demise of the studio system and the continuing financial success of independent films, sometimes ones that challenged the dominant political ideology of the time. While television was slow to deal with the political and social issues of the 1960s, Hollywood was not shy in approaching complex social problems; albeit many of the films that tackled issues such as free love, the hippie movement, and drug usage were exploitative cheap films, such as Russ Meyer’s camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) or the LSD-themed The Trip (1967). Other films were more explicitly political and well made. The early 1960s saw films such as the antinuclear war On the Beach (1963) that saw the last survivors of a nuclear war glumly awaiting their inevitable death from radiation poisoning. A more humorous exploration of a serious topic was Billy Wilder’s classic Cold War comedyOne, Two Three (1961), which featured James Cagney as a beleaguered Coca-Cola executive trying to strike a deal with the East Germans, while simultaneously turning his boss’s daughter’s communist new husband into a capitalist by the time the boss arrives. Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962) about a beleaguered nominee for secretary of state (Henry Fonda) also gleefully skewered the left and right as blocking consensus on important issues, while holding out hopes that compromise is still the hallmark of democracy.

As the 1960s progressed, many films began to tackle the issue of the Cold War in more detail, leading to the rise of the political thriller. One of the most successful film franchises of all time, the James Bond series, starting with Dr. No(1962) demonstrated that the Cold War was best fought by a daring and resourceful agent, battling enemy agents with a Walter PPK, his wits, and a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. Other films were more serious in tone. In films such as the Manchurian Candidate (1962) the threat of possible brainwashing and an inexplicable alliance of right-wing ideologues and communist agents almost doom America. Still more radical and more subversive than almost any political film to this day was Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which presented a world where everyone was essentially crazy, paranoid, or both, with various characters gleefully plotting how many women it would take to repopulate the world, and others worrying about how communists wanted to steal our “precious bodily fluids.” If Strangelove was a black comedy about the end of the world, other films that addressed the issue, such as Failsafe (1964) in a plot similar to Dr. Strangelove where the president is forced to make a hard decision when a plane attacking Russia cannot be recalled, took a more conciliatory tone, as did the thriller Seven Days in May (1964) where the threat was not from the Russians, but ambitious and ruthless American generals. A classic Cold War paranoia film was the James Coburn political comedy The President’s Analyst (1967), which starred Coburn as a psychiatrist treating the president and becoming increasingly unstable and paranoid himself, all the while pursued by Russian, American, and British secret agents.

Despite the fact that the controversy over the war in Vietnam was causing upheavals across the nation, Hollywood largely avoided the war during its heyday, with only John Wayne managing to get funding for his film, The Green Berets(1968), which shows the righteous American forces fighting the good fight against the cowardly and despicable North Vietnamese. Despite the fact that public opinion was turning against the war, the Wayne vehicle was the last major film to be made about Vietnam until the 1970s.

Race was also a particularly divisive issue in America during the 1960s, and soon films that dealt with America’s Civil Rights Movement were becoming more ubiquitous. Films such as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), both starring Sidney Poitier, addressed the issue of how Americans in both the South and the North, respectively, dealt with racial assimilation and animosity. Later, films that dealt with race evolved into the “blaxploitation” craze of the early 1970s with films such as Shaft (1971) and Foxy Brown (1974) that did not exactly advance the Civil Rights Movement, but did, however, provide more roles for black actors and allow a more visible on-screen presence for African Americans.

Some of the more prominent political films were released in the late 1960s. A film that explored the political implications of the counterculture (albeit in a sometimes incoherent fashion) was Easy Rider (1969), which followed two societal dropouts (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) on a motorcycle trip across an imaginary land called America, where in the end they realize there may be no hope for a dying giant. Other films share the cynicism of the late 1960s, including Haskell Wexler’s visually stunning but often-numbing Medium Cool (1969), which also attacks the media for its callousness and cynicism. As the decade closed, more explicitly political comedies, while not overtly mentioning Vietnam, could not be read outside of the time period, such as M.A.S.H. (1970) and the film adaptation of the classic antiwar novel Catch-22 (1970), both of which highlighted the absurdity of war and its often surrealistic consequences. Although these films were not always the most popular films, they did demonstrate that in the 1960s, the studio system and independent filmmakers were trying to make films that resonated more with audiences who increasingly wanted more realistic fare rather than just entertainment.

The early to mid-1970s also saw the trend toward antiestablishment films continue with thrillers such as Robert Redford’s cynical look at tarnished idealism in The Candidate (1972) and more paranoid political thrillers that hinted at shadowy conspiracies that no one could stand against in films such as The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), again with Redford, where the cynicism that rooted in American filmmaking from the Kennedy assassination onwards manifested itself in conspiracy theories and overt contempt for established authority.

By the mid-1970s, the very real specter of the Watergate scandal gave new ammunition to those who questioned the American system, and also led to impressive cinematic feats in All the President’s Men, which starred Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, the real-life reporters from the Washington Post, whose investigative journalism had led to the exposure of the Watergate scandal and the first ever resignation of a sitting president of the United States. The film, which exposed the methodical nature of the reporters’ investigation, was released in 1976, and some critics have suggested that it might have been a factor in Jimmy Carter’s victory over Gerald Ford in the presidential election that year, thanks to a growing backlash against the Republican Party. More realistically, however, Ford’s pardon of Nixon was surely more important than the film All the President’s Men—for more information about the Ford presidential campaign, see Chapter 7. Other films once again began to challenge the power of television, and a key film that exposed the vapid nature of the news industry was the classic news parody Network (1976), where the “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale is slowly seduced from his truth telling to become a corporate hack and eventually the victim of an on-air assassination. Network demonstrated the deep ambivalence that many Americans were feeling about the political situation and the influence of mass media. Although made in 1976, the script by noted television writer Paddy Chayefsky seems as timely today as it did over 30 years ago.

By the end of the 1970s the film industry had changed drastically and the Young Turk directors of the early 1970s, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, had come to dominate an industry that was increasingly becoming reliant on blockbusters. Although nuanced political films such as The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) were still being made, the shift in the industry’s focus toward blockbusters and the end of the 1970s led to a new administration and a new political trend toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. (As demonstrated in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the rise of the new directors was also tied into a new concern for box office and opening weeks, leading to less financing for more provocative films.)

The 1980s: “This Time Do We Get To Win?”

The conventional wisdom about the 1980s in general and the film world in particular is that the 1980s was a decade of entrenchment and a conservative trend both in culture and in Hollywood films. While there are certainly some grains of truth in this, the opposite may be just as true, as nothing energizes a political base and social causes more than a socially conservative president. However, while there were many films that tackled political causes, many films made in the action adventure genre were certainly right of center. The Rambo trilogy in particular has been singled out as a prime example of the latent conservatism in Hollywood at this time period, and a cursory glance at the character of John Rambo (developed and played to perfection by Sylvester Stallone) certainly has right-wing overtones, especially in the third film. However, the first Rambo film in the trilogy, Rambo: First Blood (1982), is less a feel good “let’s kill them all” movie than an indictment of the consequences of Vietnam and the neglect of deeply traumatized Vietnam veterans. When Rambo is first introduced, he is not a glorious warrior but instead is a paranoid drifter, scared, traumatized from experiences he initially will not reveal, who simply wants to be left alone to drift wherever the road takes him. When a small-town sheriff first bullies him and then arrests him, Rambo’s natural instincts kick in with disastrous consequences for local law enforcement officials who clearly do not know how to handle a threat of the magnitude of Rambo and his superior survival skills.

The second film, First Blood II, takes a turn toward wish fulfillment as Rambo is allowed to go back to Vietnam to find and rescue POWs, who were abandoned by an uncaring government. Although the film is similar to the first movie in its treatment of the scarred psyche of John Rambo, it also walks an uneasy line between action and political commentary, made plain early on in the film when Rambo, after being assigned his mission, asks his handler, Colonel Troutman (Richard Crenna), “this time, do we get to win?” By the time the third film, Rambo III (1988), was made, Rambo had gone to fight against the Russians with the mujahideen, and the silliness implicit in the material had caused the once nuanced character to be turned into caricature, albeit with sufficiently violent carnage to satisfy its younger audience. In retrospect, the popularity of the movies may have been due to the spectacular special effects of the series and the action quota more than the overt political messages of the time.

Of course, action films did dominate the screen in the 1980s, and the militaristic themes that ran through many action films were probably inspired by what Hollywood perceived as the prevailing political current of the times. Future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in a series of action films as a strong wisecracking killer, always ready to take action when no one else would take on the enemy. Other action heroes such as Chuck Norris also fought against the enemy, in this case the invading Soviets. In the film Invasion U.S.A. (1985) Norris takes on the invading hordes of Soviets and Cubans, who have inexplicably decided to invade Florida. While the film seems over the top and absurd in retrospect, it is nowhere near as absurd as the classic of the anti-Soviet genre, Red Dawn(1984), where the Soviets invade Colorado and only a small band of high school teammates, the Wolverines, stand up to them in partisan attacks. Although the teens are eventually all wiped out, it is indicated at the end that their sacrifice, much like the French partisans of World War II whom they are supposed to resemble, inspired a widespread resistance movement that eventually defeated the Soviet invasion. Other films, such as the Tom Cruise vehicle Top Gun (1986), showed American navy flyers in combat with unspecified (but presumably communist) fighters, who are easily defeated by the American airmen.

While the predominant critical view of the 1980s was that the overall emphasis was on simplistic right-wing films, from the start of the 1980s the opposite was also true, with overtly left-wing films such as Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) getting a special screening at the White House by Beatty’s old friend from his acting days, President Ronald Reagan. Newer directors, who had grown up in the 1960s, were also starting to make films that captured some of the resistance that epitomized some aspects of politics in the 1960s. Oliver Stone in particular took overt aim at capitalism in films such asScarface (1983) and Wall Street (1987), both of which, not unlike DeMille’s biblical epics, manage to both criticize and glorify their subjects. In Scarface the “hero,” Tony Montana, rises to the top of the drug trade and enjoys the fruits of his labors for much of the film, before he is gunned down in a hail of bullets. (This later inspired a cult-like devotion to the film in the hip-hop world where the authenticity of the gangster was sometimes praised to ridiculous extremes.) Wall Street (1987), based on the insider trading scandals of the 1980s, was also a grittily realistic portrayal of an Ivan Boesky-type corporate raider (Stone even includes a paraphrase of Boesky’s real-life declaration that “Greed is good”), who seduces a young trader to the dark side of capitalism. The film is almost Capra-esque in its contrast of the saintly father and longtime workingman who guides his son back to the right path. Like Scarface, the film almost revels in the trappings of capitalism before eventually getting back to the main character’s redemption. Stone’s other political films such as the Vietnam epic Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) also take critical looks at American foreign policy during the height of when the country was supposed to have gone resolutely to the right. The 1980s and the early 1990s also saw the rise of new independent films and the rise of distribution that allowed filmmakers such as John Sayles, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, and later Kevin Smith and others to succeed. However, the blockbuster had been established as the backbone of Hollywood, and political films could be financed in the 1990s by mainstream studios, as long as they were likely to turn a profit.

The 1990s and Beyond

It is unclear whether the 1990s and beyond reflected a new sense of cynicism in political films or a new sense of optimism. Many directors, intrigued by the Clinton presidency, were inspired to make movies where the protagonist showed that an ordinary American was still capable of changing the course of the country, as in the Kevin Kline vehicleDave (1993), or that politicians, although deeply flawed in many ways, were still capable of greatness, as in the Clinton presidential campaign satire Primary Colors (1998). There were some extremely cynical voices still out there, notably Tim Robbins whose overt critiques from the left were some of the angriest and most abrasive political films made in the 1990s, starting with the classic Bob Roberts (1992), a satire about a right-wing folksinger running for president while deliberately obfuscating his message, or later films such as the antideath penalty Dead Man Walking(1995) or the nostalgic but unrealistic look at socialist theater in Cradle Will Rock (1999) also demonstrated an ambivalence about American culture and politics that Robbins would pursue to the present day.

Some directors started looking to past presidents for inspiration, as Oliver Stone did in his many political films, most notably his sympathetic, but still scathing Nixon film, Nixon (1995), and his examination of the various conspiracy theories around the assassination of John F. Kennedy in JFK (1991). Despite the fact that many had argued that the country was tilted to the right, the fact that a major studio would finance the production of a film suggesting government involvement in the murder of a recent president was still a powerful indication that potential box office was a more powerful rationale for green-lighting a film than the politics of the film. As the Clinton era began in 1993, a plethora of political films were green-lighted, leading to some of the more overt nonwar related films of the past several decades. The concept of the beneficent liberal president, wise and all knowing, became a reality (at least in film) in Dave(1993) and The American President (1995) where the presidents (or as in Dave, the ordinary man who becomes president) are shown as decent people, surrounded, as in a Capra film, by schemers and political hacks who do not have the best interests of the people at heart. As the 1990s progressed, some films became more overt at attacking what they saw as the corruption of large industries, such as the Warren Beatty vehicle Bullworth (1998) where the presidential candidate is killed by the consortium due to his attacks on the health care industry.

The optimism engendered by the Clinton years seemed to lead to new optimism among the major studios, buoyed by the prosperity and relative security during this period. Even the damaging revelations of the Clinton sex scandals of the late 1990s could not damage the left’s fascination with Clinton and perhaps the most interesting film (which was originally a book by journalist Joe Klein) about the Clinton years, Primary Colors (1998). It revealed the duality of Clinton (portrayed as Governor Jack Stanton in the film) and his attempts to rein in his dark side and womanizing, along with a genuine effort to help America. Hollywood seemingly could forgive Clinton his sins, based on his enormous popularity with the American electorate. However, the hypercritical Wag the Dog (1997), which suggested that an American president might resort to simulating a war in order to divert public attention from a sex scandal, indicated that by the late 1990s the cynicism of the 1970s had not been totally dissipated. A key film that demonstrated this, and one of the few films to this day to examine the Gulf War of the early 1990s, was David O. Russell’s Three Kings(1999) where a group of bored soldiers try to steal a cache of gold bullion, leading them to conformations with members of the Iraqi military and some unpleasant realizations about the collateral damage caused by American foreign policy. While not considered an overtly political film by some, one of the most overt critiques of capitalism may have come from fantasy or science fiction films. The first Matrix (1999), directed by the Wachowski brothers, can be read in many different ways, Christian allegory, science fiction escapist film, cyberpunk adventure; but to many Marxist critics, it was not difficult to decode the film as one that attacked the capitalist system, as one that pulled the wool over the eyes of most in consumer culture, or as one that showed we live in a world where humans are enslaved and blinded to the reality of their enslavement (much like the John Carpenter film They Live [1988]). Another film, The Truman Show (1998), both satirizes the public’s fascination with reality shows and critiques a world where product placement is the norm as a human is kept captive in an imaginary world where his every movement is used as entertainment and the construction of personal meaning in a world of mindless idiots, who spend all of their time glued to the television set. It would seem that the end to the 1990s may have seen the resurgence of well-made films that critiqued and questioned the nature of politics, but by the start of the next century, it was clear that after September 11, producers and directors would have to rethink that nature of the film industry.

Political Movies after 9/11

After September 11 some pundits claimed that the political landscape had changed and that there would be fewer films that questioned the role of the United States in world affairs. Although many films made after 9/11 were patriotic in nature, it appears as though a new sensibility, one that intentionally avoided politics, was present, or at least one that did not allow for overtly critical major motion pictures to be made for several years. Even when Oliver Stone finally made a film about 9/11, it was the apolitical World Trade Center (2006) that analyzed the heroism of the rescue workers rather then presented Stone’s usual critique of American foreign policy. The only other World Trade Center films to be made so far are the realistic (and tragic) United 93 (2006), which examined the heroism of the passengers of that doomed plane, and the Adam Sandier vehicle Reign Over Me (2007) that examined the aftermath of 9/11 from the perspective of a man who lost family in the tragedy. While other films have been made that examined social issues, most notably Hotel Rwanda (2004), it seems as though many filmmakers are waiting to see what kinds of films the American public wants. It could be that as of this writing the industry is in a holding pattern, still relying on blockbusters and remakes (such as the update of the Manchurian Candidate [2004]), while waiting to see what the next trend in successful political filmmaking will be. There have been some films that were extremely critical of U.S. foreign policy, such as Syriana (2005), and those that were, in retrospect, fairly right wing or libertarian, such as Team America: World Police (2004); but these films seem to be anomalies as opposed to the norm.

Oliver Stone finally got around to making his planned biopic of George W. Bush in W. (2008), which was surprisingly not as biting or vicious as many critics had predicted. Other films, although set in the past, also seemed to evoke either directly or indirectly the ongoing war on terror. The Tom Hanks vehicle Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) was a broad comedy drama that looked at how a rogue congressman helped to originally finance the Afghanistan mujahideen warriors during the Reagan years and directed the viewer to the fact that the United States had funded fighters such as Osama Bin Laden years before they turned against the United States. Another film that addressed the concerns over civil liberties in light of the Patriot Act was the George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck (2005), which was ostensibly a dramatization of the epic slugfest between pioneering journalist Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, but could also be seen as a critique of the Bush administration. Other films that looked at contemporary politics included the Saudi Arabia-based The Kingdom (2007) and the more overtly political Rendition (2007). Additional recent political films included the biting political satirization of the tobacco industry in Thank You for Smoking, the true life story of a longtime Soviet spy in the FBI in Breach (2007), and even director Ron Howard’s film version of the play Frost/Nixon (2008) about the epic televised duel/interview between an unrepentant Richard Nixon and British journalist David Frost.