Thursday, December 27, 2007

The absurdity of politics: Five favorite political satires

When one is inundated by the political machine by all forms of the media — as we have been in the yearlong lead-up to the primaries — it is hard not to see the absurdity in the mechanism. Shining a light on that absurdity is the basis of one of the United States' great institutions: satire.

With the New Hampshire primary quickly approaching on Jan. 8, months of build-up to the primary will be replaced with the months of build-up to the election. If you find your cynicism bubbling up to a scalding boil, perhaps this is an apt time to rent a few political satires. What I provide here are five personal favorites to help you keep your sanity in the political circus.

“A Face in the Crowd”
This obscure 1957 film from director Elia Kazan features Andy Griffith brilliantly playing against his type as a charming country bumpkin, who becomes a cold, calculating megalomaniac following his overwhelming success as a TV star. The corrupting influence of power is hardly an original concept, but Kazan crafted an eerily prophetic film about the ever-blurring worlds of entertainment and politics. This is most evident in a powerful scene in which Griffith is shown coaching politicians on how to play to the camera and win audiences. Made in the early years of television, the film saw that this then-new medium was, for better or quite possibly worse, the future.

“Wag the Dog”
Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” is a satire in the very best sense of the word because it pulls no punches and targets everyone: politicians, the media and even the electorate. Robert DeNiro stars as a political analyst who hires a Hollywood director (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a fake war to distract from a scandal during a president’s campaign for re-election. The premise sounds like farce, but the film is so sharply written and performed as to make the viewer pause to wonder just how much of what the media shows is merely manufactured.

Warren Beatty stars as a suicidal, disenchanted politician who decides to end it by hiring a hit man to off him. Knowing he will die in a few days, Beatty begins to speak bluntly with incendiary language about the corruption of the political system and even adopts a hip-hop look and vernacular. Beatty is a well-known liberal, but it would be foolish to dismiss his work here as writer, director and star as nothing more than liberal propaganda. The film goes beyond mere party stereotyping, and, like its lead character, reveals the flaws of the entire system, and because of that the film is sharp and on target.

“Primary Colors”
Director Mike Nichols chronicles the primary campaign trial of a Bill Clinton-esque politician played by John Travolta in a film that feels authentic when it could’ve been mere caricature. Anyone can do a spoof of Bill Clinton as a lech and get a laugh, but comedy is at its strongest when the humor is laced with weightier, thought-provoking ideas. Travolta’s thinly disguised version of Clinton is remarkably good, but his performance and the film itself are not one-dimensional mimicry. The film features a strong line of cynicism placed next to a hopeful heart and isn’t afraid to raise hard questions about what it means to be a politician in America.

Don’t be fooled by the MTV Production’s logo as the film’s opening credits unfold. This not another dumb teen film, but rather a biting allegory for political corruption. Reese Witherspoon stars as an overachiever who will do anything to become student body president. Matthew Broderick playing against his former Ferris Bueller persona is the one teacher who attempts to oppose Witherspoon. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne's choice of setting for his lampoon of politics forces the audience to ask if national elections are any more sophisticated or meaningful than ones on a high school level. After all, high school presidential elections are popularity contests and student body presidents are figure heads who can never deliver on their promises.

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