- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

Hollywood has long been fascinated by the power of politics. It’s hardly surprising: Politics, like the movies, works to ensnare and inspire the masses with larger-than-life personalities, epic narratives, and society-defining struggles. But often enough, supposedly “political” movies seem content to focus on the superficial, showy aspects of politics rather than the day-to-day grind of campaigning and governing.

Watching many films, you’d think elections and legislative battles were won entirely through speeches, debates, and television appearances rather than by the deal making, fundraising and complex policy decisions that drive politics in reality. It’s probably only fitting, though, for an industry as narcissistic as the movies. By substituting self-righteous speechifying for action, Hollywood turns Washington into a version of itself, plying politics as show business.

Few movies make this as explicit as “Man of the Year,” an awkward mix of satire and suspense that stars Robin Williams as a Jon Stewart-like talk show comedian who gets elected president of the United States. Running on a tide of support from the Internet (as if somehow enough activist e-mails can put someone into the White House), he espouses an anti-political party, anti-special interest group platform of broad, for-the-people populism, and, after a little prodding from his staff, delivers this message with a hefty dose of intentionally comedic snark.

Predictably, the movie passes this off as refreshing honesty — a willingness to depart from the solemn, partisan traditions of conventional politicking. But the logical inference to be drawn is that Washington’s most dire need is an injection of crass Hollywood theatricality. The climactic final speech even occurs on a broadcast of “Saturday Night Live.” What we really need to do to fix our political system, the film would have us believe, is cut out all the boring stuff — you know, like substance and ideas — and turn government into a laugh parade.

“Man of the Year,” of course, is hardly the first movie to wish away the substance of politics in favor of impassioned rhetoric. The recent remake of “All the King’s Men” showed fictional Louisiana governor Willie Stark rousing public support through a series of fiery speeches and little else — not even the pork barrel and patronage politics that often go hand in hand with populist demagoguery. The finale to “The American President” occurred when its fictional title character delivered an off-the-cuff speech lambasting anyone who didn’t support gun control, strict environmental regulations or the American Civil Liberties Union. Like so many movies, these films prize showstopping speeches above all else, tending to ignore most of the unglamorous, daily grunt work of political life.

There are signs, however, that Hollywood may be getting smarter about the political process, if not necessarily on the big screen. Gritty and sophisticated new cable television shows like HBO’s “The Wire” and Showtime’s “Brotherhood” have brought some much needed complexity to their portrayals of politics, albeit confined to the local level. Recent seasons of both shows have depicted the lives of local elected officials as fraught and arduous. Both shows make clear how draining public life can be on both the legislators and their families, and both recognize that while speeches have their place, careful deal making and favor trading are what truly propel the machinery of government.

It may simply be that long-form TV is the ideal medium for the convulsions and complexities of astute political drama. The compression required in a two hour film makes accurate depictions of politics a challenge — one that “Man of the Year,” certainly, fails to meet.

For the most part, America’s endlessly self-congratulatory movie industry shows little real interest in the workings of the nation’s politics except insofar as they resemble Hollywood’s favorite subject: itself.

*1/2

TITLE: “Man of the Year”

RATING: PG-13 for crude language and sexual humor, mild drug use, implied violence

CREDITS: Written and directed by Barry Levinson

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEB SITE: www.manoftheyearmovie.net/main.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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