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Hollywood films and US politics

I recently had the opportunity to watch Vice. The film, starring Christian Bale as former US Vice-President ‘Dick Cheney’, recounts key events in the politician’s life that led to his assumption of power. Now, as you may expect, the politics of the film are particularly obvious – director, Adam McKay, leaves us in no doubt as to what he thinks of Cheney, making him responsible for essentially everything bad in America and depicting him with a literal black heart. Bale, after winning a Golden Globe, thanked “Satan” as his inspiration for the portrayal. Now, there’s no issue with a film having a particular political stance, but it got me thinking – where are all the films about Democrats? Hollywood won’t shy away from casting Republican politicians in an evil light, but does it offer the same view of the Democrat party?

Last year, documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, was back with Fahrenheit 11/9, a look at the Trump administration and how to ‘get out’ of it. Moore was not shy about his opinions of the current political situation – critics noted that he “romanticised the new wave of progressive action as if it were the second coming” and that he really wants to draw a Trump-Hitler parallel (at one stage, using footage to make Hitler lip-sync a Trump speech). This is the latest in a long line of films attacking Republican politicians – Watergate is normally the obvious target. We did see some films about Democrats in recent years – Hugh Jackman appeared as ‘Gary Hart’, the expected 1988 Presidential nominee, in 2018’s The Front Runner. Hart dared the press to follow him around in his free time to prove he wasn’t cheating on his wife – they took him up on the offer, and proved he was in fact up to no good. The scandal took him down, and George H. W. Bush won the presidency. In the film, Hart is the undoubted hero, and the press no-good villains for depriving America of this visionary politician (the same sentiment wasn’t expressed about 2017’s The Post, but then the target of the press’ inquiries was that no good Republican Richard Nixon).

The incident was massively controversial

The only real drama about a Democrat came in 2017’s Chappaquiddick. Jason Clarke starred as ‘Ted Kennedy’, the youngest brother of President John F. Kennedy, who drove his car into a body of water in 1969, resulting in the death of his female passenger. The film depicts the accident and the Kennedy family’s response. The incident was massively controversial – Kennedy fled the scene after the accident, but there was evidence that his passenger lived for hours afterwards before eventually drowning, and could therefore have been saved. There was also much criticism of the decision to forego a manslaughter charge, assumedly because of Kennedy’s political importance.

It’s also worth mentioning Dinesh D’Souza’s documentaries – since 2012, D’Souza has released four films attacking Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the American’s Left view of America. All of them have been much derided and, if I’m fair, they’re not particularly watchable or enjoyable as films. His most recent film, Death of a Nation (2018), received much fire for the way that it compared the contemporary Democratic with that of Hitler’s Nazi party, and therein lies one of the differences – it wasn’t an issue when Trump was a target, but it becomes a problematic label when the Right use it. The only serious film critiquing a Democrat came out nearly 50 years after the inciting incident (and ten years after Kennedy’s death), whereas we have a mainstream movie about Cheney 10 years after he left office. There’s also, of course, the question of reception – Vice and Fahrenheit 11/9 received wide releases, tons of reviews and, in Vice’s case, likely some Oscars too. Even The Front Runner was widely touted, before it grossed barely anything and received really mixed reviews. Chappaquiddick, on the other hand, was buried on release, despite strong reviews.

they should acknowledge that there are interesting stories on both sides of the political spectrum

It’s arguable, I suppose, that there’s just more material when dealing with Republican politicians, but I don’t think that’s the case. No administration is without scandal and, in the era of #MeToo, it seems to me baffling that Hollywood wouldn’t consider making a non-heroic film about JFK, or the sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Clinton. At the moment, there are large chunks of the American public that feel Hollywood is propagandistic and out-of-touch – coming down hard on Republicans while ignoring or deifying Democrats is only going to cement that opinion. The point of this article is not to suggest that Hollywood should stop making films about politicians and politics – far from it – but rather that they should acknowledge that there are interesting stories on both sides of the political spectrum, and try to cover them. People want entertaining and enjoyable films and, if every story is forced into a ‘Republican bad-Democrat good’ binary, Hollywood is massively crimping the number of stories to tell and essentially halving its potential audience. Republicans can be villains and Democrats heroes, of course, but the inverse is equally true.

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