Riding the campaign reel: politics in film

With the controversial Zero Dark Thirty hitting our cinemas against the backdrop of an incoming election campaign we consider the impact of recent ‘political’ films emerging from Hollywood and its environs.

Jessica Chastain as CIA operative Maya in Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow’s ultimately hollow depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Jessica Chastain as CIA operative Maya in Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow’s ultimately hollow depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Perhaps there is something to be said about the fact that last year's Dear Dom was - by a rough measure - Malta's very first cinematic 'blockbuster'. It could of course be argued that any film that features the ever-contentious figure of former prime minister Dom Mintoff would draw in the crowds, and that the success of Pierre Ellul's documentary could have been easily matched by another, even perhaps less worthy, attempt.

But this only brings into focus what an instant audience-grabber political films may be. Even taken broadly - encompassing features that don't necessarily focus on individual political figures, but a 'politicised' slice of history - they are bound to have a magnetic pull on anyone who'd been affected by the era under review, or - if we're talking period pieces - any parallels that can be made to the contemporary scenario.

In my humble estimation, 'political' films work best when they transcend the particularities of their subject and open themselves up to more universal explorations of the way power works.

This is, after all, the reason why William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar continues to be staged and adapted to the screen: aside from our general familiarity with the historical context and the defining betrayal at the plot's centre - 'Et tu, Brute?!' - Shakespeare  succeeded in presenting a compelling portrait - both intimate and sweeping - of how the dynamics of governance work their way on individuals.

But despite Shakespeare's rarely-contested standing as the greatest writer of the post-Renaissance world, not all of his plays enjoy the same historical traction as his undisputed classics. So it was something of a daring move for actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes to pluck out one of the Bard's least popular works, the early - and stark - Coriolanus (2011), also set in Ancient Rome but transposed by Fiennes into modern-day Belgrade, costumed and photographed to match the civil conflict that tore the Balkans apart during the '90s. Fiennes also takes on the titular role, and it's something of a tough sell. A general-turned-reluctant leader, Coriolanus is like Macbeth stripped of all indecision: indeed, stripped of any trace of psychological nuance so prevalent in Shakespeare's subsequent work. Essentially a martial dictator, Coriolanus is never comfortable with the loose democratic system he's made to work under, assuming that his military heroism should be enough of a debt to the people he governs over. His inability to play the political game - he's arrogant but honest, and anything but silver-tongued - turns out to be his undoing.

Fiennes's flinty portrayal of Shakespeare's unlikeable and doomed anti-hero certainly has something of the uncompromising grit of a character from the Clint Eastwood canon. But Eastwood's own recent attempt to expose one of the most fascinating political figures in modern American history - in the Leonardo di Caprio-starring J. Edgar (2011) - is actually far more subtle... if slightly bloated and messy.

Sweeping over a career that can match Dom Mintoff's own in terms of length, the story of J. Edgar Hoover, who throughout his long career created the FBI as we know it, is about the men who wield the real 'power behind the throne' - an ominous appellation even in the local scenario - and former heart-throb Di Caprio bravely dons a heavy layer of prosthetics to help depict the uncompromising lawman whose paranoid obsessions - despite being depicted by Eastwood to have emerged from 'good intentions' - may have, it is suggested, an adverse effect on future generations: cloying surveillance, blinked 'profiling', could all be attributed to the enigmatic Hoover's legacy.

The sub-plot-level focus on Hoover's alleged - closeted - homosexuality is clumsily handled, but Eastwood needed something to break through the office-bound monotony that pervades most of the film.

No such concessions were made by Steven Spielberg, who in the heavily Oscar-nominated Lincoln (2012), depicts the beloved American president's drive to abolish slavery in all its backroom detail, with lively Congress debates and sequences in which morally questionable canvassers set about 'converting' political players to Lincoln's cause, appearing as the only respite from grandstanding speeches and a seemingly endless stream of bureaucratic legalese. It's hard to imagine a less seasoned filmmaker scoring the financial backing to make such a wordy, dense film, and the fact that it had a healthy box office run as well as industry-award accolades is a testament to Lincoln's legacy as it is to Spielberg's crowd-pleasing prowess.

It's an amusing quirk of fate that Lincoln hit the big screen side-by-side with Quentin Tarantino's devil-may-care piece of historical revisionism that also focused on slavery: Django Unchained (2012). But despite their differences, the backdrop of both Lincoln and 'Django' is comfortably distant from the present.

This is a luxury that Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (a poignantly less successful Oscar nominee) cannot enjoy - focusing as it does on the hunt and eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden.

Without the benefit of hindsight, Bigelow's is a story squeezed dry of the substance. It's a story that can't allow for any universal truths to seep through - it's a story whose politics reveal nothing.

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