Monsters and Morons: Politicians in Film


Politics has always occupied a world of its own, a world so unreal that it hardly seems to need further fictionalization. The daily drama of the US Presidential race and rivalries between British parties unfolds at the relentless pace of a low caliber soap opera. The events are repetitive and predictable, the dialogue clunky and unnatural, and the underlying sentiments ham-fisted and hollow. But worst of all is the acting; personalities are blown up to grotesque extremes and characters reduced to overdone stereotypes. By taking this exaggeration just a little bit further, ‘The Campaign’ makes a farce out of the stuff of horror movies. But behind the laughter, the fear remains; infinitely more terrifying than any monster or murderer is the realization that we do not know the people who rule our country.

This fear comes to the forefront in very different genre of political movie, the serious, historical drama. Not only do these films vividly recreate the larger than life personalities of leaders, but they attempt to reveal the private face behind the public mask. In ‘Frost/Nixon’, Michael Sheen plays David Frost, the interviewer credited with exposing the true self of Richard Nixon. When the Watergate scandal robbed the American people of trust in their government, David Frost, according to this movie, was just the man to give them the answers they needed. The movie depicts his interviews with Richard Nixon as a kind of modern day David and Goliath story, an epic battle of wits in which a lowly interviewer manages to overpower one of the most well protected and powerful men of all time. The turning point in the struggle is the moment audiences most remember, the moment when Nixon’s carefully engineered political persona finally cracks under the pressure. He utters the immortal line “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal!” and the battle is won.

‘The Special Relationship’, released two years later, also sets out to uncover the truth about politicians, only this time from the inside out.  Michael Sheen reappears as the newly elected Tony Blair, full of hope and idealism at a time when the liberal, democratic New Left seemed set to take over the world. The camera follows him and Bill Clinton, played to the hilt by Demetri Goritsas, into the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, and reimagines all of their most private and personal conversations. Despite the ease with which it penetrates every aspect of these politicians’ lives, the film ends on a far darker note than ‘Frost/Nixon’. It shows politicians alternately using and being used by the media, resulting in a public image at odds with the power struggles that go on behind the scenes. The final shot is of the handshake between Blair and Bush, an image with implications that the general public could never have known at the time.

These political movies follow in the footsteps of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, the 1962 Cold War thriller that takes the fear of politicians to its most paranoid extreme. Unlike ‘Frost/Nixon’ or ‘The Special Relationship’, it has no time for moral shades of grey; malevolent politicians are stripped of their disguises and rooted out with all the vehemence of a McCarthy-era witch-hunt.  At the outset, Senator John Yerkes Iselin seems like just another Marty Huggins; good natured, well meaning, but profoundly unintelligent. He is ruled by his wife, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin, who snaps at him “I keep telling you not to think!” But what starts out as a satire of the American political scene quickly devolves into Cold War propaganda, when Mrs. Iselin turns out to be a communist agent with her eye on the White House.

But both ‘Frost/Nixon’ and ‘The Special Relationship’ recognize that dividing line between what politicians believe and what they say is rarely so clear cut. When leaders modify and control the image that they present to the public, they are often driven as much by idealism as by egoism. Self-promotion and self-creation, even when it is carried out at the expense of truth, is necessary to put their principles into action. For Cam Brady and Marty Huggins in ‘The Campaign’, the equation is even simpler; the truth, their ideals and their egos are all one. They play their parts in the national soap opera with the sincerity and determination of true comedy heroes, and the terrifying figure of the political monster is not allowed to intrude upon the scene. The audience is spared the fear of what goes on in politicians’ heads by the certainty that they would not have the intelligence conceal it.

PHOTO/Scott Wampler, SFG¿mystic ,K嘛, Rick Bowmer, Montag


Liked reading this article? Sign up to our weekly mailing list to receive a summary of our best articles each week – click here to register

Want to contribute? Join our contributors group here or email us – click here for contact details