Tag Archives: Movies

A Vote for Engaging Political Movies

person dropping paper on box
Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

by Rick Bretz

Every two years the voting public absorbs the wave of political commercials, email voting reminders, and US Postal Service flyers about getting to the polls to do their civic duty.   After election day is over and we all come up for air, we can only hope that we did not make a mistake that we can’t correct for another 2, 4 or 6 years, whichever the case may be.

Why should the movie industry be any different? The cinema has its collective lenses on all the social issues including politics.  Among the movie industry’s favorite genres is the political or election themed movie.  What follows is a list of political movies that make you think.  The Founding Fathers certainly did the movie industry a favor when they gathered in Philadelphia and engineered our representative government. So here’s my vote for a few of the best.

 

1. The Candidate- 1972-Starring Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, and Melvyn Douglas

Robert Redford portrays Bill McKay, a somewhat naive political candidate, that gets in the race for a California Senate seat for noble reasons.  He starts out the campaign without any chance of unseating the incumbent but soon momentum grows.  His political handlers want to control him, but he fights to be his own person.  Melvyn Douglas, who plays Redford’s father, a former governor of California, is a favorite character.  He is cynical, politically savvy, and opportunistic. He is not fully involved with his son’s campaign until he determines he has a viable chance to win the thing.

In a televised debate near the end of the campaign, he breaks away from the predetermined closing statement, stunning his staff, and delivers his own message.  It’s a brilliant movie about the trajectory of a campaign and of a candidate as the election cycle moves fast towards election day.  It’s has one of the best closing lines in movie ever put on screen.  After winning the election and beating the incumbent, Redford is with Peter Boyle, in a small room as he is ready to meet the adoring crowd.  Redford says to Boyle, his campaign manager, “What do we do now.”

Good Story about the Bill McKay effect

http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/Bill-Mckay-Effect.html

Quotes: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068334/quotes

 

2. Ghandi-1982-Starring Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth

When thinking of this movie, a viewer might say, “well this is a good autobiography of Ghandi.”  This is an incisive, penetrating study on the politics of getting what you want through public opinion.  Ghandi’s struggle for independence from British control over India and what is now Pakistan glued the biopic together.  Ghandi’s tactic, played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley, of fighting bad laws and oppression with non-violence, boycotts and media outrage was adopted by Martin Luther King to fight racism in the 1960s.  Ghandi studied law in England and practiced law in South Africa before returning to London and then British controlled India in in the early 1900s.

Ghandi’s ability, through out the movie, to understand the British ruling group, with their class mentality and preconceived notions of intellectual aptitude, enabled him to outmaneuver authorities.   His nonviolent strategy and willingness to sacrifice prison time made the ruling government impatient.  This led to many mistakes that turned public opinion.

About Dr. King’s trip to India

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/india-trip

https://www.biography.com/people/mahatma-gandhi-9305898

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083987/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

3. Being There-1979-Peter Sellers, Shirley MacClaine and Melvyn Douglas

Melvyn Douglas seems to be in the most perceptive movies about politics.  Sellers’ character is a an intellectually challenged gardener whose rich boss has died and he doesn’t have anywhere to go when the lawyers kick him out of the house.  He walks around until he is taken in eventually by Shirley MacClaine’s character Eve Rand.  She is married to Melvyn Douglas’ character, Benjamin Rand, who knows the President of the United States.  Sellers answers questions in terms of gardening or what he has seen on television.

For example, when the President, played by Jack Warden, asks Sellers a question about the economy and temporary incentives he responds.

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well in the garden. And all will be well in the garden.”

“In the Garden,” says the President.

Sellers responds with, “ Yes. In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

The President looks puzzled but Melvyn Douglas steps in and interprets the statement in economic terms.  After the meeting, everyone thinks Sellers’ character Chance the Gardener is a genius. 

It’s a statement about how simplistic someone can make an issue and the political environment, in their zeal to find a new idea, accepts it. Sellers is brilliant because he plays his character in calm, tightly controlled manner so it keeps everyone guessing.  But as soon as gets confirmation from the President and other political leaders, he is accepted.  The movie is also interesting in how people communicate and interpret messages and words into a deeper meaning.

Story about the ending of Being There

http://screenprism.com/insights/article/what-are-the-interpretations-of-chance-walking-on-water-at-the-end-of-being

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078841/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

 

4. The Contender-2000-Starring Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges and Advise and Consent-1962-Starring Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon and Henry Fonda

In today’s heated political world, these two movies capture the vendetta climate perfectly.  Both movies involve  a President’s selecting a choice for public office and then the political process of trying to destroy the candidate’s reputation by his opposing political group.  Joan Allen is the target in the Contender while Henry Fonda receives the smear campaign in the form of a communist sympathizer in Advise and Consent.  Both Presidents dig in and back their choice through the process but both outcomes at the end are less than satisfying.  Each movie analyzes how far the process will go toward achieving their goal of ousting a candidate for office. In today’s climate, both movies dive into themes the public should be rethinking.  How much is enough and how far will we go to win against the other side.  Will both political parties work with each other or will there always be a chasm from now on, with the in-power pendulum swinging back and forth between the left and the right.

Article on the confirmation process

http://themoderatevoice.com/the-broken-confirmation-process/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055728/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0208874/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

 

5. All the Kings Men-1949-Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru and Mercedes McCambridge

Based on the Robert Penn Warren book, “All The Kings Men”, the movie and the book is based on Louisiana 1920s and 1930s politician Huey P. Long’s rise to power and ultimate death.  He was the state’s governor and later a US Senator who was shot in Baton Rouge, LA, on September 8, 1935, and died two days later.  The movie’s title refers to Huey Long’s share-the-wealth motto, “Every Man A King.” Broderick Crawford delivers an award  winning performance as a populist, fighter for the poor and disenfranchised citizens of Louisiana.  He quickly falls into a power trap of intimidating enemies, with plenty of corruption and blackmail to achieve his goals. It asks the question are Machiavellian ways justified as long as the outcome is righteous.  Crawford’s performance hit all the personality traits that first endears someone to the people and then how absolute power poisons the relationships close to a person.  This movie mirrors another that explores the idea that power reveals a personality deep within a soul.  Power doesn’t change a person but reveals the true self.   That movie starred Andy Griffith in the movie that predicted the future titled, “ A Face in the Crowd.”

PBS article on Huey Long

https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/hueylong/educators/

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Huey-Long-American-politician

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041113/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

Henry Fonda's Lincoln

6. Lincoln-2012-Starring Daniel Day-Lewis——-Abe Lincoln in Illinois-1940-Starring Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon——Young Mr. Lincoln-1939-Starring Henry Fonda and Marjorie Weaver

These 3 movies together capture the substance of our 16th President.  What they all capture with performances by Daniel Day Lewis, Raymond Massey and Henry Fonda is his ability to understand people and react to the moment.  His gift for moving people to his side on a political issue aided him as he moved through the political ladder.   The earlier movies with Massey and Fonda gives the audience a window into how his personality worked for him.   Massey’s interpretation of Lincoln reflects Lincoln’s moodiness in addition to his sense of humor.  Fonda’s portrayal highlights his sense of humor but also his intellectual ability to handle professional challenges with poise.

In Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis shows the President’s ability to command a room and work with people. In fact, most of his cabinet was composed of people who ran against him for the Republican nomination for President, Secretary of State William Seward being one who ended up being a strong support and friend after the 1960 election.

Website about Lincoln’s personality and other aspects of his life

http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/abraham-lincoln-in-depth/abraham-lincolns-personality/

7. The Manchurian Candidate-1962-Starring Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Lawrence Harvey and Janet Leigh

This is a film noir thriller about McCarthyism, communist sympathizers, assassinations, and brainwashing and psychological control.  The most politically motivated and strategically ruthless personality jumping off the screen is Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of the controlling mother to Lawrence Harvey.  The movie is released during the height of the cold war when espionage, the nuclear arms race and the domino theory concerning Vietnam, North Korea, China, Cuba, the Soviet Union and their motivations to spread Marxist and Communist ideology.

Article on the Manchurian Candidate

https://www.realclearhistory.com/articles/2012/10/30/manchurian_candidate_was_no_mere_fiction.html

8. All the President’s Men-1976=Starring Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, and Hal Holbrook

No movie list about politics is legitimate without the inclusion of this movie based on the Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward book of he same name.  In addition to the Watergate break in and the election slush funds and cover up, the movie is an excellent demonstration about how journalist work and the decisions that lead to printing a story.  The scenes where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman put in the leg work to confirm facts and get additional sources for the details make the movie authentic.   The movies shows the audience is behind the front page story and headline so when government officials denounce the story, the newspaper or television news program can fight back.

Story about the source behind the Watergate story and why he became a source

https://slate.com/culture/2013/04/robert-redford-watergate-documentary-all-the-presidents-men-revisited.html

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074119/

9. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-1939-Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains

Stewart’s Mr. Smith fills a US Senate position and gets an education in how some of Washington’s power players work the system.  His reality check sours him on the whole system but Jean Arthur coaches him parliamentary procedures as he fights his way toward a dramatic conclusion.  This is another movie that is required for any movie list about the nature of politics.

Article about the making of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/133569%7C0/Behind-the-Camera.html

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031679/

10. The Mortal Storm-1940-Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, and Robert Young

Another movie with James Stewart that is not at top of most James Stewart movie lists, This is a story about politics dividing a family and the slow disintegration of civility and rational thought.  The Roth family is caught up in the pre-war Nazi hype.  Nazi policies and propaganda divide the family as the country moves toward inevitable war. James Stewart is against the Nazi ideology and it pits him against his former Roth family friends.   The movie is a study in how a cult of personality can poison a whole country and divide a family living in a small village in the Alps.  It leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Article on the rise of Nazism and the power of propaganda 

https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-holocaust-and-human-behavior/power-propaganda

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032811/

Considered: Nixon, Frost/Nixon, American President, Dave

It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD World

by Rick Bretz

Two movies, one bomb. The movies Fail Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) will always be linked together for the year they were released and the different take that each had on the same idea of nuclear proliferation. One really isn’t better than the other movie.  Each approach the idea of nuclear war during the Cold War in different ways.

Dr_-Strangelove-War-Room

There’s nothing like a discussion about Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and movies that speak to the topic. With all of this talk about Rocket Man, North Korea’s testing program and nuclear build up and proliferation, I think it is time to revisit two movies which came out at the same time that addressed the idea of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The two movies are Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  They are both classic movies and meet the idea of a doomsday scenario with fear and dismay.

One was a serious look at how mankind could be destroyed if weapon use, policies and procedures were not well thought out.  The other was a brilliant movie about the absurdity of it all and the personalities that could bring to fruition such a chain of events.

Both featured military officers who lost their composure due to personal issues.  At the same time, these officers were also with people who provided a reasonable voice during the madness. Strangelove, memorably, also featured Peter Sellers playing three roles.  In one of my favorite characters of all time, Sterling Hayden gives us General Jack D. Ripper, a general who doesn’t have all of his chess pieces.

In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Dr. Strangelove one of the best satire movies of all time. Just about every line in the script is brilliant.  The idea that man would destroy itself is a concept to horrifying to contemplate for an extended time.  Therefore, the only real course of action is to just ridicule and laugh at the thought.

Fail Safe

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fail Safe, directed by the equally legendary Sydney Lumet, is a serious study of policy, procedure and the decision making process required to save mankind.  Spoiler alert here…. Henry Fonda portrayed the President of the United States with a likable quality in a situation where he had to make decisions no one would want to make, namely taking out an American city to save the world.   The movie had the unfortunate luck of being released after Dr. Strangelove thanks to Kubrick employing the court system after he  found out the serious movie Fail Safe was being produced.  He knew the first one to be released would be the most successful.  Strangelove was released first and did well while Fail Safe didn’t not sell well.   Time has elevated both movies to cult status.  Fail Safe is considered a well thought out, intelligent perspective on nuclear warfare while Dr. Strangelove is considered a classic satire with several quotable lines in the dialogue.

Lines from Dr. Strangelove

General Jack D. Ripper: But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.

General Jack D. Ripper: Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.

Major T. J. “King” Kong: Goldie, how many times have I told you guys that I don’t want no horsing around on the airplane?

General Jack D. Ripper: For God’s sake, Mandrake! In the name of Her Majesty and the continental congress, get over here and feed me this belt.

Major T. J. “King” Kong: Well, I’ve been to one World Fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJjMPHhuoXQ

Lines from Fail Safe

The President: How did you get to be a translator, Buck? You don’t seem the academic type.

Buck:  I guess I have a talent for languages, sir. I hear a language once I pick it right up. I don’t even know how. They found out about it in the Army.

Gordon Knapp: We’ve told them how to blow up our air-to-air missiles, and with them our planes.

Professor Groeteschele: They know we might have a doomsday system, missiles that would go into action days, even weeks after a war is over and destroy an enemy even after that enemy has already destroyed us.

Gordon Knapp: The more complex an electronic system gets, the more accident prone it is. Sooner or later it breaks

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9R3w8wDrmM

 

Definitions:

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)- is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender (see pre-emptive nuclear strike and second strike).[1] It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.

Game theory is the analysis of how decision makers interact in decision making to take into account reactions and choices of the other decision makers. International conflict and other phenomena in international relations occur as a result of decisions made by people

Notable Links:

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/10/fail_safe_50th_anniversary_sidney_lumet_s_nuclear_war_movie_is_better_than.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058083/?ref_=nv_sr_1

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057012/?ref_=nv_sr_1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Glasl%27s_model_of_conflict_escalation

http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0071.xml

 

 

The Best of Cleopatra

Harvard_Theatre_Collection_-_Sarah_Bernhardt_TCS_2_(Cleopatra)

by Rick Bretz

 

As Egyptian Queens go, my favorite is Nefertiti, a name meaning “A beautiful woman has come.”

http://www.biography.com/people/nefertiti-9421166

In spite of preferences, there was another queen that gets most of the headlines and movie titles.  She would be Cleopatra.  It’s interesting to note that Cleopatra as a movie role has been taken on by many actresses.  She might be the most attempted historic role attempted by actresses, other than Queen Elizabeth I and the current Queen Elizabeth, since the first frame of celluloid was run through a projector. It’s interesting to compare how actresses interpret one personality in history.

The portrayals that stand out in history are delivered by Theda Bera, Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.  Other actresses have also attempted Cleopatra such as Monica Belucci but I want to concentrate on the five.

The Face of Cleopatra? Find out.

http://www.historyextra.com/article/ancient-egypt/face-cleopatra-was-she-really-so-beautiful

Cleopatra was of Greek Macedonian heritage but quickly learned the Egyptian language and identified with the Egyptian culture. This effort endeared her to the Egyptian people. She was a shrewd politician who maneuvered her way to be the sole ruler of Egypt. Empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia in the 1700s, followed this example by learning the Russian language early on in her education and immersing herself in the Russian culture when she came from Prussia to marry the future Peter III.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-cleopatra-151356013/

The comparison among the five portrayals of Cleopatra is an interesting exercise but for the time they were released they were all noteworthy.

theda bera as cleopatra

Theda Bera-1917

Theda Bera, the silent screen’s first sex symbol, took on the role of Cleopatra in the silent film days in 1917.  This one is a challenge to assess because only a few seconds of her performance exists.  Since she was one of, if not the first, to take on the role of Cleopatra, you have to give her credit.   She set a standard for others to follow.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000847/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWn7L2pL5dI

-claudette-colbert-cleopatra

Claudette Colbert-1934

Claudette Colbert appeared on-screen in “It Happened One Night” and “Cleopatra” in the same year, 1934.  She showed some range that year.  Colbert had to have the look for Cleopatra but also at that time a speaking voice that recorded well for the movies. During the transition from silent film to “talkies” many actresses and actors were left behind due to poor speaking voices or voices that didn’t match their appearances on screen.  She had both, the look and the voice, and her portrayal shows it in the strong personality she shows on film in the Cecil B. DeMille production.  Cecil B. DeMille knew how to stage an epic. Although this film is shot in black and white, the pageantry of it competes with epics of today,  Colbert, however, takes over the screen next to her co-stars and displays a strong national leader from the beginning to the final frame.   In a nod to her hitchhiking scene with Clark Gable for “It Happened One Night”, she essentially did the same thing for Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as they applied their brakes to their horse and carriages to court Cleopatra.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001055/

http://www.cinemagraphe.com/cleopatra-1934.php

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTbs3va862A

 

 

Vivien Leigh-1945

If Vivien Leigh can seduce Rhett Butler, she can certainly do the same with Julius Caesar.  Although she has the look, she is not an actress that you think about when considering for the role of Cleopatra. She seems to play the part more playfully than being a tactful political rival and nation ruler. Leigh’s Cheshire cat smile seems to take away from cunning and ambitiousness.  Leigh does an admirable job as well as the supporting cast, especially Claude Rains as Caesar, but it is not the best of the lot.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038390/

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000046/?ref_=tt_cl_t2

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzPbWQ1yeZk

 

Sophia Loren-1954

This Italian film is more famous for Sophia Loren playing Cleopatra and the dual role of the slave girl look-alike who tries, with help, to make her way into the royal palace pretending to be Cleopatra.  It’s more of a comedy than a serious epic but Loren as Cleopatra is intriguing.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045712/

 

 

cleopatra Elizabeth taylor

Elizabeth Taylor-1963

Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra is perhaps the most well known or notorious of the actresses depending on your point of view.  The film’s cost over runs due to production problems, actor’s salaries and the cost of building the sets ballooned the budget from 2 million to some reports say 44 million, and that’s 1963 money. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t a disaster it eventually made money and garnered 9 Academy Award nominations.  The on-set romance between Taylor and Richard Burton notwithstanding, Taylor’s version of Cleopatra rivals that of Claudette Colbert in its sexual nature and she portrays Cleopatra as a political figure and manipulator.  She captures the film the moment she rolls out of the carpet.  At that time, she was as powerful in Hollywood as Cleopatra was in Egypt and her 1 million plus salary proved it.   Despite the negative publicity it remains an epic to this day.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056937/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra_(1963_film)

http://time.com/3877380/cleopatra-rare-photos-of-liz-taylor-richard-burton-on-set-in-1962/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-IxtDdeL7

https://www.buzzfeed.com/briangalindo/15-things-you-might-not-know-about-the-movie-cleopatra?utm_term=.pboz6AQRx#.vbQEVb7Br

 

The rankings:

  1. Elizabeth Taylor (Because it was shot in color and had terrific sets)
  2. Claudette Colbert ( A close second)
  3. Theda Bera (She was the first)
  4. Vivien Leigh (She ‘s Vivien Leigh, worth a look)
  5. Sophia Loren (Only because it was comedy and not an epic)