On Cinema

Polls at the pics

Films offer windows into the British and American political processes

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s a testament to how well things are going in the current Conservative campaign that when I asked politically-minded friends what election films they could think of, the most popular reply was Brewster’s Millions. Who knows what will be happening when you read this, but at the time of writing, a good explanation for Rishi Sunak’s approach is that he’s trying to lose.

Based on a 1902 novel, which had already been filmed four times, the 1985 movie starred Richard Pryor as a baseball player who has to spend $30 million in a month without having anything to show for it. It’s still enjoyable four decades later, though like a lot of 1980s films, there’s an oddly unfinished quality to it, as though the script needed another draft, or a vital scene was left on the cutting room floor. 

The film’s election is the solution to the problem of how to waste a fortune. Pryor runs for New York mayor on a “None of the Above” ticket. One of the enduring themes of politics as depicted on screen is that career politicians are all as bad as each other, and that the world’s problems will be solved by replacing them with outsiders. Think of it as the Nigel Farage position. In the minds of screenwriters, the new politicians will be good honest folk like James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The danger, as Orson Welles showed in Citizen Kane, is that they will be monsters. 

My favourite depiction of life on the inside of a campaign is 1972’s The Candidate, which gave us Robert Redford as a radical lawyer reluctantly persuaded to go into politics. Here the story is of the struggle to stay true to your beliefs inside an election machine — the compromise of integrity is another Hollywood political trope. We see the craziness, the confusion, the campaign operatives snapping at each other, the candidate driving himself insane repeating the same soundbites. “Give ’em our answers no matter what the questions are,” Redford is told going into a TV debate, advice that is clearly still current 50 years later. 

The film opens with a rally by a defeated candidate, something it has in common with The Adjustment Bureau, a magical fantasy romance starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Damon is like a young Redford: handsome, rogueish, determined to chart his own course. There isn’t really much politics in it, but if you want a film to curl up in front of, I recommend it. 

In 1992 Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in Bob Roberts, a savage black comedy about a right-wing folk singer running for the Senate. If you can track it down, it’s worth it not least for the pastiche Bob Dylan songs, retooled with a conservative bent: one of Roberts’ albums is “The Times They Are A-Changin’ Back”. 

Wag The Dog is a lighter comedy, in which political operative Robert De Niro and movie producer Dustin Hoffman fake a foreign war to distract from a presidential sex scandal. In a happy moment of timing, the film was released a month before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. These films have their own trope in common: the idea that voters are being manipulated by a secret conspiracy. In Hollywood narratives, the evil manipulators are conservatives, but in real life it turns out the people who have swallowed that idea, certainly in America, are on the right themselves. 

It’s hard to say where US politics began its shift into conspiratorial populism, but a key moment was in 2008, when John McCain — struggling to fight back in the presidential contest against Barack Obama — picked a Washington outsider as a running mate. 

The film also, to an uncanny degree for something released in 2012, foreshadows the era of Donald Trump

Game Change is about how Sarah Palin changed, and was changed by, that decision. It’s well worth looking out. Julianne Moore, as the Alaska governor, gives a performance that is clear about both her great merits and her appalling weaknesses as a candidate: voters feel she’s one of them, and she loves them back, but her total ignorance of the world beyond Alaska terrifies McCain’s staff. It’s not exactly a sympathetic portrait, but you do come away feeling that it’s unfair to blame Palin for her own unsuitability. 

The film also, to an uncanny degree for something released in 2012, foreshadows the era of Donald Trump. “You’re one of the leaders of the party now,” a defeated McCain tells Palin at the end, warning her not to get dragged in with Republican extremists. “They’ll destroy the party if you let them.” 

But these are all American films. Hollywood has shown no interest in telling the story of British elections. Has no one tried to pitch a script on 1992, or 2017? Cowards all. 

So I’ll leave you with a British film that has drama, romance and comedy — and voting. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version of The 39 Steps stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay and Madeleine Carroll as his love interest. It is great on every level — has any subsequent movie, however adult the rating, matched the erotic charge of Carroll, handcuffed to Donat, removing her stockings? — but, in one of its funniest scenes, it also gives a window into the British political process. Donat, mistaken for a visitor from London, finds himself addressing a Liberal meeting. I have consulted experts, and we believe this to be the first screen portrayal of a British by-election. Perfect viewing while you wait for the exit poll.

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