Political Movies: It's the Quality, Stupid

When I was a young screenwriter in Hollywood, I remember producers telling me you couldn’t make a baseball movie. They didn’t sell. Then along came Bull Durham and all anybody wanted for a while were baseball flicks.

Political movies have been similarly reviled. Not commercial. Samuel Goldwyn famously said: "Pictures are for entertainment. Messages should be sent by Western Union." Really? Hollywood and others have made numerous political films that were critical and commercial successes from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Judgment at Nuremberg to Battle of Algiers and Z. The Lives of Others -- the 2007 Oscar winner for best foreign language film about life in East Germany under the Stasi -- is to my mind the finest filmmaking of any kind in this century so far.

Now we come to W. and An American Carol -- the political movies of the hour. (I am not writing here of documentaries, but feature fiction films.) Both were made quickly in an attempt to influence the election and have a rushed, slapdash quality about them, so they have about as much of a chance of influencing that election as a bad episode of Geraldo. But that is the least of their problems. They are both abysmal movies in almost every way.

I feel badly writing that about An American Carol because its director David Zucker and co-screenwriter Myrna Sokoloff are terrific people and I very much wanted for their movie to work for admittedly political reasons. Almost no “conservative” films are made by the movie industry and when one slips through you root for it fiercely, so I waited until the film mercifully disappeared from the marketplace before making this opinion known. But I think it is important that negative “inside” opinions be known; because if there is one thing that is bad for conservative filmmaking in general, it is to make bad films. Because of the bias, they have to be better than the liberal ones. Furthermore, dwelling on being “victims” of Hollywood by conservative filmmakers is a surefire prescription for continued failure, just as it is for other minority groups. To applaud this kind of filmmaking is to applaud affirmative action for conservatives. Not good.

What’s fascinating about W. and An American Carol is they both suffer from the same basic failure -- the underestimation or “misunderestimation,” in the parlance, of their protagonists. In their film parody of Michael Moore, Zucker and Sokoloff give us a Moore (the movie’s Michael Malone) who is a self-centered dolt who overeats. Self-centered? Of course. Overeater? Obviously. But dolt? I am not so sure -- at least not to the degree the filmmakers want us to believe. I am no fan of Moore’s by a long shot, but nowhere in evidence in this movie is the crafty, ambitious weasel who was able to turn his own mediocre film talent into box office magic and, for a while at least, massive political influence.