Roger L. Simon looks at two very different, but sadly both fairly mediocre political movies: Oliver Stone’s W and David Zucker’s An American Carol and describes want sunk both movies: “It’s the Quality, Stupid”–or the lack thereof:
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.
What really sinks both movies is the desire to produce agitprop, to tell an overtly political story. I hope that there are many more conservative movies–both to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and to reduce the near-monopoly that the left currently has on moviemaking. But I’d like to see them evolve to the point where their politics are subordinate to a good story, instead of vice-versa, as An American Carol seemed to me when I watched it in rough cut form at the Republican National Convention in late August. I had hoped that some of the flaws that were evident in this pre-release version would have been reduced in the final tweaking before the film hit the theaters, but it appears that that didn’t occur. (You can hear the segment featuring Roger, Glenn Reynolds and myself interviewing those associated with the movie from an early September edition of PJM Political.)
Budding filmmakers on the right could learn much from the lefties of the 1950s, who were forced, because of the Hays office, to bury the more subversive elements of their films. Which worked in their favor–it produced infinitely more enjoyable movies than say, the World War II-era Mission To Moscow, arguably the most extreme example of leftwing agitprop to emerge from the Golden Era of Hollywood. As I wrote last year:
In the 1950s and up until the mid-1960s, it was possible to sneak all sorts of leftwing ideas into films by burying them deep into the subtext of the shooting script. Did you think that The Hustler was merely a film about a down-on-his-luck pool bum brilliantly played by Paul Newman? So did I–until I listened to the audio commentary on the DVD, and discovered that it was a film about the Blacklist. (Hey, if you say so, guys.) Similarly, on one level, it’s possible to argue that The Manchurian Candidate is a leftwing fantasy concerning the assassination of Joseph McCarthy, but the film’s incredible pacing, plot twists, and eye-popping cinematography help to soft-sell that it’s yet another anti-McCarthy movie. And from the same era, while Dr. Strangelove is obviously an anti-military/anti-Cold War film, its Swiftian absurdity and brilliant screenwriting, and pox-on-both-sides message makes it all go down remarkably smooth.
There was less need for this once the G/PG/R/X rating system replaced the Hays Office. (Which had a variety of unforeseen consequences.) But the craftsmanship built up over several decades of moviemaking still showed through in numerous films in the post-Hays, post-Bonnie & Clyde , pre-Star Wars late 1960s and 1970s.
And speaking of the latter, it’s a textbook example of a filmmaker employing exactly the methods I describe above to produce what turned out to be a staggeringly commercially successful movie.
As I said, budding conservative filmmakers could learn much from this period.