Fall 2012

America's Pastime

American movies have been portraying politicians on screen since the populist heroes of John Ford and Frank Capra. But it wasn’t until the advent of TV that filmmakers learned to capture the drama of the game.


Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Best Man took place entirely in and around a political convention.

What would you say is the greatest spectator sport in the country today?” asks Spencer Tracy, rhetorically, in John Ford’s 1958 drama The Last Hurrah. Tracy’s character, Frank Skeffington, is the mayor of a large New England city, so to him the answer is obvious: “It’s politics,” he says. “Politics is an exciting game to watch.” It must have seemed a surprising statement at the time, because up to that point American movies had always struggled to make the game of politics exciting; The Last Hurrah itself is, though beautifully made, one of Ford’s duller pictures. Skeffington is an old-school Irish-American pol, charming, tough, and a wee bit unscrupulous—the character is based on Boston’s notorious but hugely popular James Michael Curley—and in the course of the film he wages what will prove to be his final, unsuccessful electoral campaign. The film means to give him a big sentimental send-off, in the style to which he is accustomed: that is, the classical, Old Hollywood studio style, of which Ford was a master.

That sort of serene, measured visual storytelling had never been very effective in capturing the rough-and-tumble of American politics, though. In The Last Hurrah, it fails again, poignantly, and as decisively as Frank Skeffington falls short at the polls: Ford, like his hero, is a victim of history. The winner of the mayoral race is a vapid young man who looks good on TV. The Last Hurrah came out just as the modern era of electoral politics was dawning, and right before American filmmakers found, at last, a way of making elections seem as thrilling a spectator sport as, say, a chariot race in ancient Rome.

Before the 1950s, when television became omnipresent in the nation’s living rooms, Americans got most of their political information from radio, the daily press, weekly magazines, and newsreel clips. Politics in movies was a relative rarity, consisting mostly of reverent presidential biopics (who could forget Henry King’s 1944 Wilson?) and populist fables like Frank Capra’s beloved Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Few of these movies concentrated on the down-and-dirty business of campaigning, which is, after all, what makes the game “exciting to watch.” Among the handful that did was Preston Sturges’ directorial debut, The Great McGinty (1940), a rags-to-riches-to-rags story in which the title character starts out as a bum, becomes a governor, and ends up, after a brief stretch in jail, tending bar somewhere south of the border. Sturges’ technique is light, dry, sardonic, and features a lot of slapstick; this seems, somehow, exactly the right tone for the unlovely big-city machine politics of the 1920s and 1930s.

John Ford (center) directed The Last Hurrah, about an Irish-American’s election campaign, in the classical Hollywood style.

 But that was before the War. In the 1940s, the national mood dimmed, and Sturges’ bright, satiric tone seemed less appropriate; in filmmaking as in politics, the only constant is change. When Robert Rossen adapted Robert Penn Warren’s great, tragic 1946 novel All the King’s Men for the screen in 1949, he told the story in the visual language of film noir, which was the dominant style of the day. The central figure of the movie, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), is a rabble-rousing populist in the manner of Louisiana’s Huey Long. Although he might not actually be a worse governor than the craven, buffoonish McGinty, his corruption carries the stink of real evil—a sense of damnation reinforced by Rossen’s dark, noirish lighting and brooding compositions. (It didn’t hurt, either, that Crawford, hefty and menacing, looked so much like an underworld heavy, one of those baggy-suited goons who always made life miserable for the luckless heroes of noir.) Disturbing as the film was, it clearly captured something about the country’s unease, and was festooned with honors: three Oscars, including best picture, and the DGA Award for Rossen.

In a sense, the wildly divergent sensibilities of The Great McGinty and All the King’s Men supplied the two most durable thematic templates for American political filmmaking. Sturges’ comic tone suggests that our elected officials are to a man (they were pretty much all men then) rogues and fools, and are not under any circumstances to be taken seriously; a view that has never gone out of style, and probably never will. Rossen’s portentous, slightly moralistic tone has its constituency, too, particularly at those too-frequent moments when the voting (or blithely non-voting) public wakes to the realization that the clowns they put in office are, in some cases, dangerous clowns. As a nation, we tend to veer between the “They’re all bums” perspective and the loftier but more worrying “Elections have consequences” point of view and, naturally, our movies do, too. Even today, one can see these different approaches at work: Sturges’ in a goofy satire like Jay Roach’s recent The Campaign, and Rossen’s in George Clooney’s sobering The Ides of March (2011).

These up-to-date variations on the perennial themes don’t actually look much like their ’40s models—and not just because the older pictures were in black and white. In the ’50s, there was a great change in the way we visualized the processes of politics; the difference, of course, was TV, which leaves a good deal less to the imagination than radio, the printed word, and even the best photojournalism. As the tube became a go-to medium for both entertainment and news, citizens were able to feast their eyes on such edifying spectacles as the national nominating conventions, with the balloons, the signs, the wacky hats, and, in those days, sometimes a bit of suspense about the outcome of the balloting. The nightly network newscasts brought us the sights and sounds of campaigning. Presidential press conferences became appointment television. When something important was happening, politicians could take to the airwaves, look straight into the camera, and speak to us directly about, say, their cute little dogs and their wives’ Republican cloth coats. And when they did, we could see them sweat.

The impact of television became impossible to ignore in the presidential election of 1960 when, famously, the Republican candidate lost a televised debate because his five o’clock shadow made him appear shiftier than his handsomer, less swarthy opponent. It was reported at the time that voters who listened to the debate on radio thought Richard Nixon had bested John F. Kennedy. That same year, a photojournalist named Robert Drew took a film crew—which included directors Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker—to Wisconsin to follow the leading Democratic candidates, Hubert Humphrey and Kennedy, as they campaigned for their party’s nomination, and he came back with a documentary, called Primary, that borrowed a lot of its caught-on-the-fly technique from TV news: handheld 16 mm camera work, immersive (and not always entirely distinct) sound, abrupt cutting, natural light, and generally shallow focus. The style came to be known as cinéma vérité; Drew himself called it “direct cinema.” The movie was exhibited first at film festivals, and later on television, which was its proper home, and it changed the look of American political films forever.

Smart directors caught on quickly. Hollywood movies about politics, which were perhaps more plentiful in the early ’60s than at any time before or since, learned to stop worrying and love the immediacy of the TV-news/direct-cinema style. The studio pictures were more polished, of course: you couldn’t hand hold a 35 mm camera without risking serious injury, and Steadicam wasn’t yet even a gleam in a director’s eye. But the political films of the time—always in black and white—aimed for the you-are-there urgency to which television viewers had become accustomed. In this area, at least, the movies couldn’t beat TV, any more than Frank Skeffington could outpoll his youthful opponent. So they joined it.

Because the Cold War was then at its height and the McCarthy era wasn’t long past, some of the classic political pictures of the early ’60s were nuclear cautionary tales, like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964), while others were conspiracy thrillers, like John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). And although the styles and intents of those movies vary, all the films are shot with a flatter, more TV-like kind of lighting than Ford would have been comfortable with. Lumet and Frankenheimer were in fact veterans of live television drama, and knew how to create a sense in their audience that events were happening right before their eyes. (Lumet had among his credits a 1958 Kraft Theatre TV adaptation of All the King’s Men.) This fresh new look generated the sort of excitement political drama had mostly lacked in the pre-television age: a feeling of spontaneity, even when we knew that everything was rigged.

One visual benefit of the early-’60s style was that staged scenes meshed much more smoothly with stock footage. In the climactic sequence of The Manchurian Candidate, for example, Frankenheimer cuts news coverage of an actual party convention into the dramatic action, and the transitions are nearly undetectable, as they never were in the old studio style. (Frankenheimer’s quick, staccato editing helps hide the joins.) Our quadrennial presidential nominating jamborees were by this point pretty popular as entertainment—almost, though not quite, the national spectator sport of Mayor Skeffington’s dreams. Franklin J. Schaffner, another director who had learned his craft in television, made a picture whose action took place entirely in and around a convention, The Best Man (1964), and although the film is based on a play by Gore Vidal, its theatrical origins are barely apparent: the buzzing activity on the convention floor, shot documentary-style, keeps staginess at bay.

Later in the ’60s, the intrigues and hijinks of the major parties seemed to move off center stage in the theater of public imagination: the real action was elsewhere, on campuses and on the mean streets of the big cities, where people were voicing, at some volume, their dissatisfaction with politics as usual. No one now remembers what was said at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968. Everyone remembers what happened outside them: the protests, the police, bloodied kids, and scowling men in helmets. Haskell Wexler, who had taken the cast and crew of Medium Cool (1969) to the Democratic convention in Chicago the previous year, captured remarkable footage of the turbulent action in Lincoln Park. But by the time the rest of our cinema caught up to the new political reality, it was practically over, and besides, the aesthetic of Hollywood didn’t easily accommodate amorphous mass movements like the so-called counterculture: American movies had up to that time almost always focused more effectively on individuals, not groups.

(Top) Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty (Below) Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate.

The director who did the most to shift that emphasis in the ’70s was Robert Altman, whose 1970 Korean War comedy M*A*S*H declined to identify a clear-cut hero from the large ensemble, allowed its actors to improvise freely, and told a good deal of its shaggy story in offhand remarks and overlapping dialogue: it played like stoned Howard Hawks. This loose-limbed approach proved to be a good style for the off-center politics of the day, but Altman himself didn’t get around to making movies about politics for a while. Michael Ritchie beat him to it with The Candidate (1972), a seemingly casual satire about a California Senate election in which a young, handsome, inexperienced candidate, played by Robert Redford, takes on a crafty silver-haired incumbent (Don Porter). Although Ritchie’s technique is drier and harder-edged than Altman’s—Ritchie lights for comedy, not mood—his approach to character and narrative is similarly oblique. It feels like something new is taking place in the body politic, even though nobody, including the candidate, is quite sure what it is.

Forty years on, The Candidate seems weirdly prescient. Earlier films of the postwar era had betrayed a certain anxiety about the significance of television in politics; Ritchie’s movie, though not without ambivalence, accepts it with a wry shrug, as we all do now. And the film was among the first to pay serious attention to the people and the processes behind the candidates: the strategists, the handlers, the media consultants. It’s another way of acknowledging that the old heroic, individualistic ethos of politicians like Frank Skeffington is a thing of the past, and gone with it, perhaps, the rugged classical filmmaking style of Ford. For the last couple of decades at least, American political movies have only rarely concentrated on the candidates and officeholders themselves; they’re more typically about the staffers, the wise guys and sharp-talking women, rather than the politicians they serve, whom we assume to be merely their creations. When a film is actually about the politician, as Steven Zaillian’s ambitious 2006 remake of All the King’s Men was, it almost has to be set in an earlier era and to be made in a consciously retro style. And even then, audiences don’t know how to react.

(Top) Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (Below) and Steven Zaillian’s remake of All the King’s Men.

The technique in The Ides of March is as least as neo-noir as Zaillian’s in All the King’s Men, but Clooney’s film keeps its action mostly in the shadows, the camera prowling in the moral murk of the campaign consultants like a private eye in a seedy part of town. And in both of Jay Roach’s first-rate HBO docudramas about presidential elections, Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012), the story is largely told from the perspective of staffers; in Recount, the candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, never appear on screen. Roach, like Michael Ritchie and Preston Sturges, is by temperament and training a director of comedy, and although his HBO movies are fundamentally serious, his brisk editing gives them the snap and beady-eyed objectivity of good farce. And to many Americans, farce is precisely what our politics look like now.

When Robert Altman finally turned to politics, in Nashville (1975), he came at the subject, characteristically, without seeming to come at it at all. Nashville is a multi-character film about the country music industry, but it opens with something else: on early-morning city streets, a loudspeaker truck cruises slowly, a little ominously, trumpeting the slogans of one Hal Phillip Walker, the presidential candidate of something called the Replacement Party. Altman never gives the audience a look at Mr. Walker, but his advance man is in town trying to round up country music talent for an outdoor campaign rally at Nashville’s Parthenon; and the voice emanating from that truck, cooing vaguely populist inanities, is ubiquitous. In the movie’s astonishing climactic sequence, the stars hit the stage of the Parthenon and perform in the open air, a huge crowd in front of them and a gigantic Replacement Party banner behind. The confluence of populist politics and down-home entertainment seems, briefly, sort of magical, but as the concert goes on one begins to sense the desperation in it—the pathos of the crowd’s desire to believe in a hero or a heroine or a one-size-fits-all political movement. A shot rings out, and the audience falls silent for a few shocked moments, and then, incomprehensibly, somebody grabs a mike and begins to sing a mournful tune called “It Don’t Worry Me.” (The refrain goes, “You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.”) It’s the most complicated, and probably the most profound, moment in any movie about politics ever made in this country, and it is entirely the product of Robert Altman’s homegrown, intuitive, inclusive American style. It’s exciting, but the excitement is of a kind that the bygone America of Frank Skeffington and John Ford wouldn’t have recognized.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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