America needs a new kind of Election Day movie.
There have been some great films over the years about the American political system, of course. Big personalities, big speeches, the fate of the free world tied to the votes of millions of people deciding to put their faith in one inevitably flawed human being, preferably with a few juicy sex scandals thrown in. Guaranteed drama all around.
But with what’s shaped up to be the most important midterm elections in a long time coming up this week (Tuesday, Nov. 6 – check vote.org for assistance and the Press Herald election page for stories on your local races), the need for films that truly capture the complexity of American electoral politics is pressing. Movies – really good movies – engage us on an emotional and intellectual level that no written document, news report or politician’s speech can hope to. They’re tied into our DNA by this point, the persuasive power of movie storytelling informing how we respond to the world outside the theater. We cast ourselves in the movie of our lives, so the momentous act of casting a vote needs to be the center of any good election movie.
The thing is, good drama rarely stems from a properly functioning system. So most of the best election movies are deeply cynical about both the people voting and those seeking votes. Tim Robbins’ never-more-timely 1992 political satire “Bob Roberts” posits that a skillful, amoral conman who adopts a populist, nationalist message while co-opting the role of outsider can manipulate the American electorate to a terrifying degree. (Not to hammer the present-day comparison home, but Robbins’ Roberts even appears on a simulacrum of a certain “hip and edgy” late-night sketch comedy program.) Director Michael Ritchie’s 1972 dark comedy-drama “The Candidate” comes at the voter manipulation game from the other direction, portraying Robert Redford’s long-shot Democrat Bill McKay as a naïve blank slate onto whose good looks and charisma cynical staffer Peter Boyle can project the most palatable and changing message. McKay’s outspoken, left-wing beliefs leave him a guaranteed loser, until he leaves them behind in favor of a mutable, camera-friendly populism beholden only to its projected appeal.
Then there’s Warren Beatty’s bitingly bananas “Bulworth” from 1998, in which writer, director and star Beatty’s Washington lifer senator becomes so disillusioned with his career that he puts out a drunken hit on himself. Only when confronted with despair madness, and the promise of not having to run for office ever again can Beatty’s Bulworth start speaking his mind about systemic issues (poverty, racism, health care), leaving the nothing-to-lose senator facing threats beyond the one he hired himself.
Barry Levinson’s pitch-black 1997 satire “Wag the Dog” spun political gamesmanship into similarly crazy-but-not-too-crazy directions, as political fixer Robert DeNiro enlists Hollywood mogul Dustin Hoffman to whip up an entire fictitious foreign war in order to distract the eminently distractible electorate from his sex criminal president boss’ latest election eve scandal. And then there’s 1998’s “Primary Colors,” the thinly veiled portrait of Bill Clinton’s rise to the presidency that – by some miracle and the sheer amount of talent involved – managed to overcome its tongue-wagging beginnings (as an anonymously published fictionalized tell-all) to create a truly insightful, thoroughly disillusioning portrait of an America where good intentions are inextricably bound to self-defeating human weakness and the whims of a public unable or unwilling to elevate the conversation when it comes to choosing their leaders.
There are more heartfelt voting movies, too, of course. Voting is a lot of things – a right, a privilege – but mostly it’s an expression of our freedom. Which is why – as we’re seeing in partisan voter suppression efforts (by one particular party) in places like Georgia, North Dakota and elsewhere – people are rebelling against those trying to take that freedom away. It’s also why documentaries and features about the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act (like 1994’s “Freedom On My Mind,” 2104’s “Freedom Summer,” and 2000’s “Freedom Song”) all strike a similar chord. The fact that people in power (straight, white, male people, overwhelmingly) have historically fought so viciously to prevent those different from them from exercising that freedom has made for some stirring true-life films over the years, from Daniel Oyelowo’s turn as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 movie “Selma,” about the 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama, to 2015’s “Suffragette,” where British women played by Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep show just how far the oppressed are willing to go once that freedom is denied them.
But this is now. In a country deeply divided, where those in power are using every means – voter suppression, gerrymandering, dark money, maybe even a little treasonous assist from Russia – to cling to power in defiance of everything the American system of democracy is theoretically based upon, it’s hard to find a story to truly capture the immediacy of voting’s importance. If there’s a bright side to this mess, it’s that Americans are awakening again to the real-life heroism involved in fighting for their right to be counted. I’m looking forward to the next wave of movies about that.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Sunday, Nov. 4: “El Mar La Mar.” Screening as part of Space’s ongoing “Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways” series, this documentary heads to the hotly contested U.S.-Mexico border, where an eclectic group of people tells tales of life there, and directors J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta examine the haunting traces of those who’ve moved on.
SUN TIKI STUDIOS
375 Forest Ave., Portland. On Facebook: End of Cult Premier at Sun Tiki
Wednesday, Nov. 7: “End of Cult.” Low-budget local filmmakers unite as director Taylor Hunter presents the premiere of his new film about cult members attempting to escape the clutches of their infamous leader.