Without any pretence at front-line criticism, Peter Wix presents a quarterly digest of armchair observation to help in your search for the best of old and new movies. Here, he selects a handful of political films worth your vote.
Provoking the self-deception of the millions is not only the work of filmmakers. Elections, generally and locally inflicted, are another event to which people flock en masse, suspending disbelief, their cynicism detectors nullified through hypnosis practiced by clever manipulators and illusionists (politicians and their election campaign designers). Yet portrayals of elections have been largely absent from cinema, certainly in the mainstream, perhaps because, for the great majority, politics is a dense and boring subject. Search the big screen over the decades (and the small screen in the UK) and you will find among the interesting candidates the following works. They combine honesty and courage in educating us as to the truth of the political situations some hope to influence with their votes.
Back in 1939, and representing the Unspun Lachrymose True Democratic Party (ULTD), James Stewart gave an early demonstration of his acting might as the eponymous hero in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Watch this and wonder where this sentiment for truth lies these days, as a rookie senator hunts down and punches every hack that misreports him. Capra even showed us how children could be cold-bloodedly murdered to stop corruption from being revealed. Two years later, the intrepid Capra tried again to create hope in Meet John Doe, which lays bare the media manipulation of the electorate by casting Gary Cooper in an almost messianic role.
Ambition undoubtedly drives the figures who rise in and around politics, but a more subtle portrayal of pride and lust power can be found more recently in the 2011 George Clooney-directed drama The Ides of March, the candidate for the Save the US Politician [blame his lackeys] Party (SUSP). While you should not completely swallow the success of campaign manager Ryan Gosling’s blackmailing of the governorship candidate, the film asks what the limits are of the development of election campaign techniques, and shows that campaign teams from both camps are part of the same family, with the public their eternal victims and enemies.
In the UK, mainstream cinema concedes to television in presenting great political drama, perhaps because big screen attempts to reveal truths by the likes of directors such as Peter Watkins (The War Game, 1965) were produced underground or immediately censored. One teasing but essentially subversive 1949 Ealing comedy was Passport to Pimlico, a boutique British coup story based on the claims to secession from Westminster’s control of a small London district. Significant in this Old Labour Nostalgia Party (OLNP) candidate is its portrayal of the pervading fear that any serious challenge to the British establishment will be met with brutal repression.
A battling contender, certainly in terms of sincerity and realism, is the Disillusioned Left-wing Enthusiasts Party (DEP) candidate, Our Friends in the North, a 1996 mini-series that brilliantly combined social history from the ’60s to the ’90s with credible stories – superbly acted – of personalities brought to heel by corruption, poverty, pride, errors of choice and judgment, and the steady whittling away of hope in the face of an unchangeable political system.
My vote, though, and I’ll make no secret of it, is for the Mick Jackson-directed 1988 mini-series A Very British Coup, for its daring and skill in envisioning the grim machinations and ineluctable orchestrations by Albion’s old order should a genuine socialist be voted to power in Downing Street. The series is so lean in its depiction, and superior to its 2012 remake Secret State, and the acting closes the gap between character and reality. Ray McAnally, so believable as Prime Minister Harry Perkins, is engaging, smart, and downright honest. He is the Decent Public-minded True, True Socialist (DPTTS) candidate, although in his struggle you’ll see how our political fiction is never immune to the fear of those who really control the world and the chill of their plausibly imagined reaction to any serious threat of change.