Political Culture on the Big Screen

William Greider's earnest book about the ominous deterioration of U.S. democracy is titled Who Will Tell the People? Recent movies about Washington politics suggest an answer: Hollywood film producers.

Primary Colors brings the thinly disguised novelization of the Clinton presidential campaign to the screen, with John Travolta giving us the womanizing and poll-slavering for which Clinton has been criticized. Banal as they are, the novel and the movie reflect the state of the U.S. presidency at the end of the 20th century.

Wag the Dog offers a darker satire on the presidency. Although Clinton isn't the apparent target, his cause wasn't helped when the movie, portraying a president's efforts to distract the American people from his sexual misconduct by orchestrating a phony war in Albania, opened the same week that Monica Lewinsky's name hit the front page.

Wag has clever moments. Dustin Hoffman offers a fine balance of sincere, shallow patriotism and artistic narcissism as the Hollywood mogul secretly approached to "produce" the phony war. Willie Nelson deftly portrays a songwriter hired to score the war's theme song. But satire requires more bite than this story can deliver.

MUCH MORE SATISFYING is Warren Beatty's portrayal of a jaded senator's Dantean journey to social hell in Bulworth. Sure, the story stretches credulity in places. Bulworth's dramatic conversion to progressive politics after a few days and nights in the company of a crack lord and a smart-mouthed radical (Halle Berry) smacks more of Dickens than of the District of Columbia.

But Beatty conveys the senator's intelligence and fundamental decency. Down deep—even as the senator makes a ludicrous appearance on network television, laying out his new politics while proving that "white men can't rap"—we know he's telling profound truths about what we've let happen to our society.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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