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.

When Bulworth emerges from his sojourn among the socially dead, wearing a reassuring tailored suit, we can't help wondering what will happen next. He listened; he learned; he cared. But will he remember? How will his conversion play out as he returns to the corridors of power?

An assassin's bullet cuts off those questions. In an exquisite cinematic moment, we see the senator's body lying in a pool of light, and realize we've seen this picture before—in Memphis, in Los Angeles, in Harlem. The movie is suddenly transfigured from a tale about a fictional senator to a traumatic reminder of our own history, and what it has cost us to have the dreams and ideals of other speakers of the truth violently silenced.

Perhaps the most powerful current movie about our political culture isn't ostensibly about politics at all. The Truman Show features Jim Carrey as the unwitting star of the longest-running series in TV history. While the story follows Truman's traumatic realization that his idyllic neighborhood is only the world's largest soundset, The Truman Show is a rich allegory of North American culture.

We sympathize readily with Truman's efforts to escape his mockup world. But the movie never lets us write off as villains the supporting actors who have perpetrated the massive hoax that is Truman's life. It's easier to despise the megalomaniacal producer Christof (played with charming hubris by Ed Harris), but we get to see the little surrenders of conscience the technical crew must make as they interweave life-threatening special effects and theme music to keep Truman's ratings afloat.

In the end, we realize the movie is about the ways we hide from ourselves the truth that much of our life is an electronically mediated illusion. The Truman Show takes us into a world where Juan Valdez and his donkey really board East Coast commuter trains to hawk hot coffee to Wall Street suits. Amazingly, it also moves us to want out of such a world.

Life imitates art. When the movie ended, one of the young men seated behind me remarked to his friends, "There were some moments that made me think, whoa!" He then added, "Let's go get some pizza."

Once we've seen glimpses of our political truth in this summer's movies, the challenge is not to leave that insight in the theater when the house lights go up.

—Neil Elliott

NEIL ELLIOTT is a New Testament professor at the College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Liberating Paul (Orbis Books, 1994).

Wag the Dog. Barry Levinson. New Line, 1997.

Bulworth. Warren Beatty. 20th Century Fox, 1998.

Primary Colors. Mike Nichols. Universal Pictures, 1998.

The Truman Show. Peter Weir. Paramount, 1998.

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