The movie The American President was a box-office hit and is often spoken of fondly by fans of romantic comedies.
But two consultants, from opposite political sides, put it on their lists of the worst political movies.
Beacon Journal reporters Rich Heldenfels, who covers popular culture, and Stephanie Warsmith, who writes about politics, recently asked Mark Weaver and Jerry Austin to talk about political movies to get an idea of how well the big-screen portrayals play for people who have seen politics up close. Both the consultants and the reporters chose their favorite and least favorite political films, with the only parameters being that the movies had to be talkies and American, in keeping with the current political season, which has both a campaign and a lot of talking.
The duo, who together have nearly 75 years in Ohio politics, made for a tough crowd. Austin complained about the outrageous premise in The American President, which had an unmarried president in a public romance with a lobbyist. Weaver said anything by President screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is “delusional.”
“Nothing that Aaron Sorkin writes bears any resemblance to political reality,” Weaver, a Republican, added of the popular screenwriter, who also penned the TV series The West Wing and The Newsroom. (Austin likes Sorkin’s other work, but maintained The American President was “just crap.”)
The co-instructors of the University of Akron’s political battleground class this semester agreed on some basic points besides The American President. They also disagree about such movies as Richard Gere’s 1986 picture Power (which focused on consultants) and the James Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Austin put both Power and Mr. Smith on his worst list, while Weaver ranked them among the best political films.
Neither is a big fan of political movies overall — which may also put them in accord with the moviegoing audience.
Austin noted that relatively few political movies are made because they tend not to do well at the box office. According to the Box Office Mojo website, the most lucrative movies featuring American presidents in the last 30 years are a pair of action films: Independence Day and Air Force One. And the most successful film about an election is the recent farce The Campaign (which made Austin’s worst list).
“It’s very difficult to truly capture what happens in real life, and I get frustrated by that, easily,” said Weaver, who is a lawyer and dislikes legal-themed movies even more than political ones.
But even if they dislike the genre, both Weaver and Austin gave high marks to one film: The Candidate, a 1972 film starring Robert Redford.
The Candidate has Redford playing Bill McKay, an idealistic activist persuaded to run for a California seat in the U.S. Senate held by an entrenched conservative (Don Porter). McKay thinks he can hold onto his principles but, in the race to win, he cleans up his looks, makes questionable deals and so abandons his beliefs that, after winning, he can only ask, “What do we do now?” Jeremy Larner’s script won an Oscar for best original screenplay.
“I’ve always measured political movies by The Candidate,” said Austin. And when he looks at the movies made since then, “they just don’t measure up ... [The Candidate] had political consultants and media consultants and pollsters and campaign managers, and really was the best movie about running a campaign,” Austin said.
Indeed, the movie echoed real life — recalling the 1970 election to the Senate of California’s John Tunney — and Austin thought Paul Wellstone’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1990 had some of the same come-from-nowhere qualities of the fictional McKay campaign.
Added Weaver: “The sense of confusion amongst the campaign, combined with the fact that at one point they lost control of the movement ... struck me as realistic, I’ve seen that happen.”
And what would McKay be doing today? When Austin brought Redford to Ohio in 2004 to help raise money for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, the actor-director told Austin he was looking at a script for a Candidate sequel. In it, McKay is vice president; the president dies, Redford asked Austin if McKay could finally “be able to be who he wanted to be or sell out?”
“Is this fact or fiction?” Austin asked.
“That question was answered in 1972,” Heldenfels piped in, responding to Austin’s reverie.
The sequel never got made — although Austin would have liked, at least, a movie about McKay going to the Senate.
As rare as movies about politicians are, ones focusing on consultants are even harder to find, especially if you throw out documentaries. But there was one star-laden effort, 1986’s Power, with Richard Gere and Gene Hackman.
In it, Gere plays a cynical gun for hire of an adviser juggling clients around the country until he has to face up to his lack of morality; Hackman is a competitor and former mentor. Weaver liked it; Austin didn’t.
“It had one major flaw in it,” Weaver said. “Very few consultants run around in a private jet with a beautiful secretary who they romance between commercials. That part was extremely unrealistic. But the role of the old, grizzled consultant played by Gene Hackman, and the loyalty he expected from the younger consultant — I’ve seen that a lot. And the relationship that Richard Gere had with his longtime clients rung true.”
“There’s only one thing in this movie that’s true. The rest is B.S.,” Austin interrupted. “There’s a scene where he comes back from a trip in his private jet, and he walks through his office, and his secretary is behind him. ... He jumps in a shower, naked, and she jumps in naked with him.
“That’s the only part that’s true,” Austin grumbled dryly.
Austin did concede there were some good scenes in the film. But he mocked the shower scene and the jet — although life appears to have caught up with art again. Rex Elsass, an Ohio consultant, has a company jet and, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “owns a Bentley and gets around town in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac Escalade.”
Weaver agreed with Austin about the jet and the shower scene. “But there were other parts, particularly the relationship of consultants, the ascendancy of media consultancy and television ads, and the bond between the consultant and the candidate ... I found very realistic,” he said.
‘Mr. Smith’ also divides
Weaver and Austin also disagree on Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the 1939 movie that often tops favorite-political-movies lists.
Weaver is a fan of the movie, and of director Frank Capra generally, Austin isn’t.
“The notion of someone coming from nowhere and finding themselves in Congress — that happens,” Weaver said.
Weaver said the attitude of members of Congress to a newcomer showing up on their turf also rings true and runs contrary to the reason the young newcomer ran for office.
Warsmith also included this on her favorites list.
“I jumped off the couch and cheered for Jimmy Stewart,” she said.
Austin thinks Weaver has a good point about the culture, but doesn’t buy the movie’s premise or Hollywood ending.
“It’s uplifting to think someone could do that,” he said. “It’s not realistic.”
He has another reason to not champion the beloved Mr. Smith. He grew up in New York, where he says they’d run the flick three times a night.
“I’ve seen it 30 or 40 times. I’m sick of it!” he declared.
Liberal vs. conservative
Weaver hates when political movies are too political — especially when he disagrees with the politics.
He gets irked when he’s watching a political movie that he thinks has an agenda.
“I think political viewpoint does hinder the movie,” he said.
Weaver thinks director Oliver Stone is as guilty of this as Sorkin. He says Stone and Sorkin like to portray Republicans as “straw men” and Democrats as “noble heroes.” He couldn’t even make it through two of Stone’s movies — JFK and Nixon.
Austin, who also thought Nixon was bad, says he’s never walked out of a movie, always finding something that makes it worth watching. He thinks some filmmakers put a political perspective into a movie, while others leave it out. And, any expression of opinion risks bumping into political realities.
“This is a divided country,” Austin said.
The two of them also disagreed on the bias and merits of the HBO movie Game Change, taken from a book about GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Austin said the book was written by two journalists and it didn’t have a “political point of view.”
Weaver, though, thinks the movie was “written by and for Democrats.”
“That’s the problem with Hollywood,” he said. “It’s difficult to step outside. This speaks to the ideological divide in the country.”
Can there be a political movie that looks realistic and entertains well?
“If Mark and I and a couple of other [consultants] ... sat down and we would write a movie script based on the things we’ve heard and seen, I don’t know if anybody would ever make that movie,” Austin said.
“That’s true,” Weaver agreed.
“Any profession that anybody’s in has got its warts and you usually don’t do movies about that unless you do a documentary,” Austin said, noting that Weaver’s best list actually included a documentary, The War Room, that gave an inside look at Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992.
“Although The War Room focuses on a Democratic campaign ... I found it realistic,” Weaver said. “I got a sense of that campaign from watching the movie, and I don’t think there’s a better political documentary of this era.”
The movie is “very, very well done,” Austin said, but “it’s not on my list because I can’t stand James Carville. Having to watch James Carville tell me how great he is — if I could understand what he’s talking about — just doesn’t work for me.”
Entertainment movies, though, have to include salable elements like that shower scene in Power which make them seem less real.
“That doesn’t suggest there’s no sex in politics,” Austin added.
And sometimes it works in political movies. Weaver’s list includes No Way Out, a 1987 thriller starring Kevin Costner as a Navy man having an affair with a cabinet member’s mistress who gets entangled in both a murder investigation and the search for a Russian spy. The movie’s memorable moments include not only a twist at the end but a couple of sexy scenes with Costner and Sean Young.
Weaver said he was willing to take the movie off his list because “it’s not really about campaigns.” But he did like its look at the Soviet “infiltration of government” which “really did happen.”
“The murder mystery part, you know, that’s a little Hollywood — and obviously the love scene in the limousine. Everybody talks about that,” Weaver said. But for him, the best scene in the movie is the ending twist (which we will try to avoid spoiling). “More so than almost any movie I’ve seen, it blew me away.”
Bulworth (1998) — with Warren Beatty playing an increasingly unstable politician who, among other things, begins rapping — made Weaver’s and Heldenfels’ worst list.
“As a comic-book commentary on politics, I suppose it’s passable,” said Weaver, but he said that overall it’s comparable to a Cheech & Chong movie in its depth and insight.
Asked if he had ever urged a candidate to rap, Weaver joked, “Yes. Governor Bob Taft was a great rapper ... They used to call him Jam Master T.”
Austin did not put the movie on his worst list, and thought it was entertaining. Still, he conceded, “It was ridiculous ... as a political movie.” He said it missed his worst list because he thinks there are more inferior flicks.
The wide-ranging discussion touched on other films as well, but as the criticism of political movies mounted, one question lingered:
Can there be a plausible, feel-good political movie?
Austin’s best list includes three movies that could be considered uplifting and positive about politics: The Best Man, a 1964 film with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as candidates vying for the presidential nomination at their convention; Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), with Raymond Massey as Lincoln in the decades leading up to his election as president, and 1776, the 1972 screen version of the musical about the making of the Declaration of Independence. The other two are The Last Hurrah, from 1958, with Spencer Tracy as a big-city mayor at the end of his career, and The Candidate. (Austin also noted that three of his best films are in black and white, which may be a sign of his age, and both The Best Man and 1776 were based on stage productions.)
“I’m probably more of a pessimist about politics,” Austin said. “But when I talk about movies, I talk about whether they educate or entertain, and when they do both, that’s two pluses. A lot of movies these days are made for an audience that are not our age. They’re all sci-fi and 3-D. ... These movies, to me, were all entertaining and educational.”
Weaver’s list is a little grimmer, with Mr. Smith counterbalanced by The Candidate, Power and No Way Out — and The War Room completing the list. He said 1776 is also one of his favorite movies, although “I wouldn’t put it in the political category.”
“I’m optimistic about America,” he said. “But I’m pessimistic about politics. ... I truly believe this is a great country where people can rise from poverty and obscurity to become leaders of our nation. But politics sometimes is an obstacle to that. ... I think our country is better than our politics, right now.”
And only occasionally, it appears, are the movies as good as the politics.