All the President’s Movies
Politics on the big screen
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Because I love Jon Stewart like I love few other people who exist in the overlapping spheres of politics and media, I was eager to watch the movie he wrote, directed and produced, Irresistible, released June 26 on various streaming services. I paid the $19.99 premium that new movies net these days and settled in to be entertained by a top-notch cast that includes Steve Carell and Rose Byrne as dueling political consultants from either side of the aisle, and Chris Cooper as a small-town Wisconsin farmer running for mayor. The plot revolves around the mayoral race and the movie is intended to be a humorous-yet-scathing indictment of consultant culture and big money in politics set against a small-town, swing-state backdrop.
At least, I think that was what it was intended to be.
It was hard to tell what Stewart was getting at because as much as it pains me to say it, Irresistible is not a good movie. In fact, it’s just plain bad. It’s tough to put my finger on what was wrong with it, namely because I don’t have enough fingers for the job. The one thing I can say in its favor was that not even Stewart’s uneven script and ham-fisted direction could kill Byrne’s impeccable gift for comedy—but she was only in about 10 minutes of the movie altogether.
All of that is my longwinded way of saying that I watched Irresistible so you don’t have to. But if you’re interested in turning off the endless opining and permanent punditry of cable news in favor of some top-notch political cinema, you have a rich field of candidates from which to choose. Cable news will still be there when you get back. It’s not going anywhere, even when it goes nowhere.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: When cataloguing political cinema, it makes sense to begin at the beginning and with a 1939 movie widely considered to be one of the most incisive pieces of political commentary ever committed to film—much of it still cogent in today’s era and climate. Jimmy Stewart stars as the titular Mr. Smith in this Frank Capra-helmed affair, and he plays a naive Boy Ranger leader from Montana selected to fill a Senate vacancy precisely because he’s seen as being easy to control and manipulate. However, despite efforts to lure him into a scheme involving a dam in his home state and a whole lot of graft, and then a vicious campaign to discredit him when he declines to take part, Mr. Smith proves himself to be a man of rare character in politics (even rarer these days), and his heroic 24-hour filibuster and epic “I will not yield” speech is cinema for the ages.
All the President’s Men: If the intersection of politics with the news media is your thing, Hollywood has many examples from which to choose, going all the way back to Citizen Kane. But the standard-bearer is no doubt the 1976 quadruple Oscar winner, All the President’s Men, which details the investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate break-in, an investigation that would nab them a shared Pulitzer Prize and end in President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Watching the duo (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) chase the story and meticulously assemble facts and sources (including the infamous Deep Throat) as they begin to realize this was no mere break-in makes for a riveting docudrama—and the fact that Redford stars in it definitely ups the sex appeal of a decidedly unsexy chapter in American politics. For a companion watch, check out Stephen Spielberg’s The Post, detailing the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers two years before the newspaper’s Watergate investigation.
In the Loop: In the realm of razor-sharp, wickedly funny political satire that hits every mark Irresistible misses by a mile, you can do no better than Armando Iannucci’s 2009 send-up of government in both the United States and the United Kingdom, In the Loop. Rife with colorful jokes, creative backstabbing and pointless posturing, the movie imagines what would happen if a low-level government employee were to unintentionally start a rumor about a war in the Middle East while giving an otherwise innocuous radio interview. Government officials on both sides of the pond mobilize, secret committees are formed, deals are struck and all is chaos for the 106 glorious minutes of the movie’s runtime. Be warned: Iannucci’s scripts are like masterworks of profanity and the art of vicious insults, and In the Loop makes his later work on Veep look positively tame by comparison. But if profane politics are your thing, Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, is your new god. For something slightly tamer, try Wag the Dog or even Bulworth.