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.

While it might work in a sketch, this dumbing down of Moore has negative comedic implications for a feature film. After the first few fat jokes, the movie goes flat. Structurally, since there is no serious adversary, there is no real plot tension. The audience is just left waiting for the obviously imbecilic Moore finally to see the light, making for a totally predictable experience. (Compare this, for example, to Dr. Strangelove, in which the doctor is an evil genius. We have no idea where it will all go.) This forces the filmmakers to rely on jokes and gags and, unlike in the director’s original Airplane, there are nowhere near enough good ones in An American Carol.


One reason for this is that the themes of Carol are far more complex and serious than those of Airplane. The intellectual demands of political satire are much more stringent. Preaching to the choir and taking pot shots at liberal shibboleths are not enough. That may have worked for the audience I saw the film with at the Republican National Convention (they laughed intermittently) but obviously not with the public. The movie predictably got atrocious reviews, but its box office returns were almost as bad.

If anything, W. is worse. At least Zucker knows his movie is supposed to be funny. Oliver Stone seems to be confused even about that.

So it seemed Monday night when I watched the film with a small audience at the West Hollywood Grove. From the demographics of the area, the crowd would have had to be liberal to ultra-liberal, but they didn’t seem to know when or if they were meant to laugh. Mostly they shuffled their feet uncomfortably, a few titters breaking out only when Bush made the obligatory grammar mistakes.

The problem is that W. is a strange and extremely boring movie. There is some red meat for the left — particularly in a Richard Dreyfuss caricature of Dick Cheney — but mostly the movie is a neo-Freudian reverie explaining all of George W. Bush’s life as a duel with his seemingly more powerful father George H. W. Bush. Cliché-ridden as that reduction is, it’s not necessarily bad dramatically — it worked well for Olivier in his Hamlet — but here it is peculiarly arid. I haven’t bothered to count, but what feels like half the movie consists of the father-son scenes between Bush 41 and Bush 43 at various ages. They are numbingly repetitive and almost always consist of the father flatly stating his disapproval of his son (or his approval of brother Jeb).


None of it rings true. This plays like a film made by a director who has never experienced real family life over time. He doesn’t seem to realize how family members interact with each other. He has them all making speeches to each other instead of behaving, well, like people who have lived together for decades. Even George’s long marriage to the estimable Laura Bush is barely dramatized, just presented. (From his biography, Stone would appear to have little personal knowledge of such a relationship. I don’t know about his screenwriter Stanley Weiser.)

So it’s not the politics, liberal or otherwise. It’s the bad dramaturgy that dooms this movie in which nothing is subtext and everything is text. The audience is treated like idiots, never allowed to figure out anything for themselves. Everything is told them again and again… and again. And then it’s repeated. The emotional climax of the movie is, guess what, another dream by George W. Bush with his father telling a desperate W. that he is once again… a failure.


By that point I felt trapped in an asylum. I wanted to run screaming for the theater. Yes, there is one over-weaning reason that W. is inferior to An American Carol — it’s length. Carol clocks in at a relatively lean 83 minutes. W. is an interminable 129.


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