For Hollywood, All Politics Is National

Films Detailing Campaigns for ‘Lower’ Office Tell Truths Not Heard on the Campaign Trail

Jason Dick
Posted October 26, 2011 at 4:59pm

When it comes to the campaign movie, presidents rule. Stories about people running for the House and Senate are rare indeed, forming a rump caucus of feature films in the cinematic canon.

In one of the quieter moments in “The Ides of March,” the recent George Clooney movie about a presidential campaign in the heat of the Ohio primary, the fictional Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris lets out some true feelings to his wife.

“F—ing Congressmen. Can you imagine doing this every two years?”

Morris is complaining about being asked to appear at a ladies’ luncheon for the local Congressman’s wife. He’s in the middle of a dogfight for delegates. But this presidential candidate’s frustration with retail politics is also a mirror for the movie industry’s attitudes about campaigns for “lesser” office.

It’s not that there is a shortage of films about politics. It’s just that most of them are about the exercise of power among those already in office. Less common are movies about people making their way to Congress. 

“True Colors,” a 1991 film by the late Herbert Ross, chronicles the friendship of two men over several years as one of them, John Cusack’s Peter Burton, aspires and ultimately gets elected to a House seat in Connecticut. 

The film vividly illustrates how Burton sacrifices his close relationships and breezes past moral considerations on his way to Congress.

It also shows how much painstaking groundwork goes into running for a House seat, including stump speeches to a somnambulant senior center.

But the plot centers on Burton’s raw ambition. 

He blackmails his mentor and father-in-law, Richard Widmark’s Sen. James Stiles, into supporting his bid.

“You may win an election or two. You may even be able to live with yourself. But God help you when the people find out. They always do,” a livid Stiles says.

Burton also betrays his best friend, an idealistic Justice Department attorney named Tim Gerrity who is played by James Spader.

“I needed more than you were able to give,” Burton tells Gerrity. “They say great men are embraced by thousands of strangers. I wanna be great! So you sacrifice the few to reach the many.”

The films’ location shoots and smart script make it a morality play worth revisiting.

“The Distinguished Gentleman,” the 1992 comedy by Jonathan Lynn, stars Eddie Murphy as a Florida con man who uses the fact that he and a recently deceased Congressman have similar names to win the latter’s seat.

“That’s a name even our Alzheimer’s group will remember,” says Doris Grau’s Hattie Rifkin, the Florida Silver Foxes Party operative who vets Jefferson when he makes the case to run on the Silver Foxes’ nomination line.

But the campaign is a small part of the movie, which is focused on Murphy’s character, Thomas Jefferson Johnson, after he is elected and gets to Congress. As such, it’s hard to characterize this as a campaign movie.

That’s about it for feature films about House campaigns. 

Senate candidates have gotten the Hollywood treatment more often, although it’s hardly a bumper crop. Still, what is out there is mostly characterized by heavy doses of cynicism or satire. And in each case, the principals have gone on to make their mark as active figures on the American political landscape.

“The Candidate,” Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film starring Robert Redford as California Senate candidate Bill McKay, details the daily humiliations of running for statewide office. 

As if speaking to empty gymnasiums and getting accosted in the men’s room isn’t enough, McKay has to endure a delicate cat-and-mouse game over whether his own father, former Gov. John J. McKay, will support him.

“Hey, Mabel, did you know that old Bud here is running for the United States Senate?” the elder McKay, played by Melvyn Douglas, asks his paramour.

“That’s very good, Bud,” Mabel says, completing the tag-team of understated condescension.

Redford’s character does go on to win, ousting the incumbent. The victory leads to the movie’s most indelible moment: McKay’s final words to his campaign manager before the film ends. “What do we do now?”

For Redford, it meant staying away from electoral politics himself but continuing to fight for issues important to him, particularly education and the environment.

Two films about Senate campaigns that followed “The Candidate” came from two of Hollywood’s more politically active liberals: “Bob Roberts,” directed by Tim Robbins, and 1998’s “Bulworth,” by Warren Beatty.

“Bob Roberts,” the 1992 mockumentary that also starred Robbins as a right-wing folk musician running for office, eerily presaged the rightward surge of American politics that culminated in the 1994 Republican revolution. But watching “Bob Roberts” now shows that it is still timely. 

The candidate’s populist appeal — one of his folk albums is titled “Times Are Changin’ Back” and features songs such as “Retake America” — is remarkably similar to the tea party movement’s exhortations to take back America and restore it to previous glories. 

In his “I Want to Live” video, Roberts even wears a tri-cornered hat, and he’s on a battlefield planted with American flags, imagery right out of the tea party playbook. 

The film’s “documentary” narrator also explains that Roberts has been derided in the press as a “crypto-fascist clown,” echoing criticism of the tea party.

For his part, Roberts scores points with his base by arguing that the social upheavals of the 1960s were a time of dark lawlessness and moral decline and that social programs are wasteful and there is  virtue in being rich.

In the video of his “Wall Street Rap,” Roberts flips through handwritten cards. Notably, they read, “By Any Means Necessary Make Millions.” 

The language echoes that of Malcolm X and the imagery is an homage to Bob Dylan’s placard-filled “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that formed the opening sequence of the seminal documentary “Don’t Look Back,” by D.A. Pennebaker.

“The rebel conservative. Ha ha. That is deviant brilliance,” says the frustrated host of “Good Morning Philadelphia” after her interview of Roberts.

“Vote for me, and I will bring the values of the common man to bear in Washington, D.C.,” Roberts, the multimillionaire candidate, says during his debate with the tired establishment incumbent, Sen. Brickley Paiste. 

Paiste, played spot-on by Gore Vidal, rather helplessly protests that politics is about “reality, not image.”

Like any good satire, “Bob Roberts” holds up over the years. 

Before the film, Robbins was active as a political commentator, working frequently with then-partner Susan Sarandon. Sarandon makes an appearance in “Bob Roberts” as a news anchor, as does Spader.

“Bulworth” opens with Beatty’s Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth, a one-time liberal crusader, having a breakdown in the middle of the 1996 California Senate primary. Bulworth, the longtime incumbent, is disgusted with the compromises that make up his career, including his own rightward lurch to try to win renomination.

He cracks up, takes out a hefty life insurance policy and a contract on his own life, then heads out on the campaign trail, liberated from the demands to woo voters and donors.

The best moments in the film are of the Senator, filters off, discarding a saccharine stump speech and taking questions off the cuff.

“Are you sayin’ the Democratic Party don’t care about the African-American community?” a woman asks.

“Isn’t it obvious? … What are you going to do? Vote Republican?” Bulworth gleefully answers, as his nervous chief of staff, played by Oliver Platt, trips the church’s fire alarm.

Beatty has long been associated with liberal causes and even served as an adviser to George McGovern during his 1972 presidential run and to Gary Hart during his 1984 and 1988 presidential runs. In the wake of “Bulworth,” he even flirted with his own presidential run in 2000, ultimately deciding to take a pass.

One thing these films have in common is their focus on the candidates. Worth mentioning is another film, similar to “The Ides of March,” that focuses on campaign professionals rather than candidates.

Sidney Lumet’s “Power” is a hoot of ’80s go-go glitz. The plot focuses on an Ohio Senate campaign that Richard Gere’s Pete St. John is running, along with several other campaigns, notably gubernatorial races in New Mexico and Washington state and a presidential race in an unidentified South American country. 

At one point, St. John explains to a client how goals and positions, while laudable, have nothing to do with getting elected. 

“I’m sure they’re great, but they’re not important. My job is to get you in. Once you’re there, you do whatever your conscience tells you to do,” he says.

His amoral approach is tested in the Ohio Senate race as he takes on a client, Jerome Cade, played by J.T. Walsh, who is seeking to replace one of St. John’s oldest friends, Sen. Sam Hastings.  

St. John tells Hastings, played by E.G. Marshall, about his misgivings when he finds out that Cade is opposed to one of Hastings’ touchstone issues, solar power development.

“I don’t understand, Pete. You were never much interested in how your clients stood on the issues before,” Hastings says.

St. John takes Cade on, but he can’t shake the feelings that something is fishy. And he’s right. The moral test is one that echoes “The Ides of March” as the idealism, and professionalism, of a veteran campaign worker is tested amid the twists and turns of hardball politics.

Another thing “Power” shares with “The Ides of March” is how it illustrates the isolation of the campaign trail and how it can wreak havoc on personal lives. Late one night in Akron, St. John talks to his ex-wife and tries to explain some of his bad behavior that led to their falling out years before.

“You got any idea what it’s like, spending 10 days massaging some pol. And wind up, one in the morning, some bar in Cleveland, notice some lady across the room, doesn’t have a lot of hair on her chin?”

This tale of late-night, long-hour weakness is also a major plot point in “The Ides of March,” where those working on the campaign have no trouble reaching out, and finding, comfort after a stressful day of work.

Movies about House and Senate campaigns don’t make up a huge body of work, but what is there makes for an interesting mix of tragic, satirical and farcical.