Do Political Films Matter?
Hollywood and Washington have never been the most comfortable of bedfellows. There is a mutual skepticism—sometimes disdain—between the two, and yet they are bound up together as closely as two American cultural institutions could possibly be. Politics and Hollywood go together like baseball and hot dogs, fireworks and the 4th of July.
Movies are constantly being made about politics, and politicians—particularly Democrats—often use Hollywood for their own purposes. The relationship is typically amplified in election years, when partisans on both sides use any and all media to sway voters one way or another—and mud-slinging 30-second TV commercials are only the beginning.
The latest example of this hits theaters this week: Oliver Stone's W, a biopic about George W. Bush, releases on Friday—conveniently, just two weeks before the presidential election. Though Stone claims the film is a "fair and balanced" portrait of the President, he also admits, "A lot will shock you … I think in this present political state, the real George W. Bush might not approve of this movie. But this movie tries to understand George W. Bush—the good, the bad and the ugly."
Josh Brolin, who plays the title role, is a little more pointed: "It's about a guy who was flailing around, who pulled his life together at 40 and became president, and asks if he really wanted to be, should he have been, would it be better if he hadn't been and whether we all would have been better off if he'd become baseball commissioner." Still, Newsweek says "the widely reviled Bush comes off better than you'd think." At any rate, W will doubtless be a polemic for Bush-haters and defenders.
W is just one example of "election year cinema" that may or may not have been made in an attempt to sway voters. Exhibit A in the genre, of course, is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the summer of 2004. The film—the highest grossing documentary of all time—attacked Bush relentlessly on the Iraq war (among other things) in an effort to galvanize the anti-Dubya camp and stymie his bid for re-election. The film, which released on DVD just weeks before the election, may have stirred up emotions and even swayed some voters, but it didn't keep Bush from seeing a second term in office.
So, do these films "work"? I.e., do they sway voters?USA Today considered the question in 2004 with the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 and the lesser-known Silver City (starring Chris Cooper as a grammatically challenged, born-again president—clearly spoofing Dubya). "Nobody walks out of a film and says, 'That's it. I'm changing my vote,'" said Silver City director John Sayles says. "It's part of a conversation, which includes CNN, Fox News and the entertainment media."
Moore still on the screen
There's no Fahrenheit 9/11 this year, but Moore—never one to sit idly during an election battle—does have a small contribution. Slacker Uprising, a 97-minute documentary of Moore's 2004 tour of college campuses (where he urged young people to vote for John Kerry), didn't get a theatrical release, but is available for free download online at slackeruprising.com. Apparently Moore—who personally financed half of the film's $2 million budget—hopes to bolster grassroots momentum for Barack Obama by giving a "reward film" to his fans and hoping they share it with their friends, host viewing parties, etc. Moore admits that he's preaching to the choir, but he hopes it will energize the left and give them momentum to push through to the election's end. "The choir needs a song to sing every now and then," Moore has said.