As Canadians, we can’t help but be caught up with the culture of American politics. It’s not just a pastime — what happens south of the border has implications on our lives. Our fates, as they say are intertwined.
So how to understand America. For many of us, it’s through their greatest cultural export: the Hollywood industrial complex. And, Hollywood has a rich tradition of depicting D.C. and exploring the social and civil issues that make America, America.
The latest addition to that library is “The Mank,” premiering Dec. 4 on Netflix. Helmed by David Fincher, it is a cerebral period piece that takes a critical look at the making of “Citizen Kane,” while portraying a “complex and insightful view of American power structures,” as Eric Kohn of IndieWire puts it. Early reviews are resounding with praise for the film. You will certainly hear about this movie again.
Understanding life through art is an ancient tradition. Through award-winning documentaries, star-studded blockbuster satires and indie projects we can start to make sense of this year in U.S. politics. 2020 seems destined to go down as one of the most divisive years since the American Civil War. Fuelled in part, perhaps, by the increasing inequality and mistrust infecting the air.
Here are five titles that provide analysis and historical perspectives; recreate pivotal events; and even poke fun at the system that has become America 2020.
“Recount” (2007) Crave
Sometimes the real drama in an election campaign is going on behind the scenes. What we see in the news is only one side of the story.
Seven years after the nail-biting George W. Bush-Al Gore standoff in Florida that ended in a Supreme Court battle, Hollywood came to the rescue with a film that reveals the high-stakes games at play away from the public eye and by people whose names we generally did not know (then).
Directed by Jay Roach (“Bombshell,” “Trumbo,” “Game Change,”), “Recount” reveals the story of the Gore aides pushing for a hand recount and the Bush aides trying to stop them. And, even though we all know the outcome, it still plays like an edge-of-your-seat political-legal thriller. That could be because we are living through another American election challenge. So watch this one sooner rather than later.
The film does a good job of explaining the hanging chad and butterfly ballot business, which is what motivates the Gore camp to push to count the ballots by hand. Pay close attention to Gore’s chief of staff, Ron Klain (played by Kevin can’t-be-recast-now Spacey) who has just been named the incoming White House chief of staff by U.S. president-elect Joe Biden. And watch for former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) to call for Roger Stone to organize protestors.
“Requiem for the American Dream” (2015) Amazon Prime Video
This documentary, released one year before U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, was filmed over four years with three directors, Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott, in the aftermath of the Occupy movement. It looks squarely at the policies and legislation that produced gaping income inequality in America.
Structured around 10 principles and delivered by famed American linguist and MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky, this is one class you cannot miss. But it’s more than a lecture, it’s a mayday call. It warns that the concentration of wealth is the concentration of power. This is highly negative for society and corrosive to democracy.
Are you thinking that this is an alarmingly leftist message? Watch and take notes; if nothing else, we can likely agree that Chomsky is thorough. Media and communications students surely remember the 1992 epic two-part NFB doc “Manufacturing Consent” spanning nearly three hours. This doc tips just over one hour but does pack a punch. Brace yourself.
“13th” (2016) Netflix
As one Harvard University professor puts it in Ava DuVernay’s definitive documentary, there is really no understanding of American political culture “without race at the centre of it.”
The title is a reference to the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery yet contains the loophole: except as a punishment for crime. Not only does DuVernay make the connection to how corporations have profiteered from punishment in America through the use of prison labourers, but she tells the history of what led to the prison industrial complex — including how the rise of prison populations coincides with American election campaigns with coded and sometimes blatant messaging that targets Black Americans. Using archival and news footage, alongside interviews with academics, activists and lawmakers, she demonstrates how election campaigns were devised to win over Southern voters.
Former U.S. president Richard Nixon was the first to code his messages by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and Black people with heroin, and then criminalizing both to “disrupt and vilify” those communities. In the words of one Nixon adviser: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
DuVernay doesn’t stop there: former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were more diabolical in terms of their contributions to the rising prison populations. Aside from the numerous awards that this film won, including a BAFTA for Best Documentary, another coup is its interview with the 50th speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who admits that the “War on Drugs” campaign should have treated crack and cocaine as exactly the same thing, admitting that not only were the harsher penalties for the former “an enormous burden on the Black community, but it also violated a sense of core fairness.”
(The doc is available free on the YouTube Netflix channel.)
“Wag the Dog” (1997) Starz/Crave
“Change the story. Change the lead.” Though it’s decades old, Barry Levinson’s satire is arguably more truth than fiction. When a sitting president in the midst of an election gets caught up in a #MeToo scandal (though they weren’t calling it that yet), the presidential adviser (Anne Heche) calls upon the top spin doctor in the country (Robert De Niro) to get the team through to election day.
Their next step is to go to war, or more accurately, give the appearance of going to war. They enlist the help of a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to launch a (fake) war with Albania.
Months after the film’s release, Clinton was accused of wagging the dog when he ordered cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan on Aug. 20, 1998, amidst the saga surrounding his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In January, two former National Security Council staffers said that Clinton was wrongly accused, but that Trump, in fact, was having his own “wag the dog” moment when he struck down Iranian general Qassem Soleimani with a drone amidst his own impeachment. Does it make a difference if you are watching it all happen on TV? “Wag the Dog” still resonates, no matter how hyperbolic, for depicting how political campaigns get produced and the kind of fodder that makes for good conspiracy theories.
“Veep” (2012) HBO
In one of the greatest examples of life imitating art on this list, this much-lauded, seven-season comedy about a former senator who becomes the U.S. vice-president after unsuccessfully running for president is worth a revisit now with a new presidential-elect duo in place.
Created by Armando Iannucci (“Death of Stalin,” “In the Loop,” “The Thick of It”) “Veep” imagines the day-to-day lives of the VP and her staff, from the mundane grind to the monumental backroom deals and gaffes. Watching Julia-Louis Dreyfus in the role of Selina Meyer is a joy and her performance takes on new meaning with a new administration.
Episode 2 of the first season stands out for providing some physical comedy along with the brutal wit: the memorable scene of the secret service hustling her to the situation room after she is told that POTUS is experiencing heart pains. After learning it’s a false alarm — it was only heartburn — she is able to return to her regularly scheduled day organized around a tasting at a frozen yogurt shop.
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