14 The Michigan Daily -- Friday, April 3, 1998
' iice fhe October, 1939 release of Frank Capra's
Mr. Smith (Goes to Washington," Hollywood
has tried to examine the intriguing and remote
world of American politics.
From corruption and cover-ups to farce and fear-
lessness, filmmakers have depicted how the political
system can be manipulated by the powerful, domi-
nated by the heroic and idealized by the public. This
lucrative genre has become a staple in cineplexes
across the country; and with the popularity of
"Primary Colors," it looks as though it will never
leave the office - the box office, that is.
The book by former Newsweek reporter Joe Klein,
on ws hich the film "Primary Colors" is based, swept
Washington, D.C. and the rest of the nation into a
furry three years ago. The novel detailed the cam-
paign run of a southern governor, including his ide-
alistic speeches and sexual conquests.
Bearing a striking resemblance to President Bill
Clinton, the novel's protagonist, Jack Stanton,
caused many Americans to question the character of
the country's current chief executive.
I SA senior Linda Mokdad said the similarities
between Clinton and Stanton are too striking to be
"1 couldn't help but see Clinton as the main char-
acter," Mokdad said. After watching "Primary
Colors," "I started seeing how real events played out
in the story."
[he book, which was originally published as being
authored by Anonymous, does not mention Clinton,
but many people say it is based Clinton's 1992 pri-
mary campaign, which Klein covered. Political sci-
ence Prof. Vincent lutchings said "Primary Colors"
is an accurate representation of the Clinton adminis-
tration, even though the book and the film are billed
"everyone knows it's Clinton (in the movie). This
is a camouflaged version of our current president,"
Ilutchings said. The movie "plays off the imagery of
the Clinton Administration."
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry
addressed the issue of "Primary Colors" in a press
conference soon after the book's release. He said
some members of the Clinton administration may
have read the book, but it is not a major concern in
"At the White House we have not spent a lot of
time worrying about fiction because we have to deal
in the real world," McCurry said.
Many people said the film supported their views
of politics. Rackham student Ed Davis said the film
only substantiates his thoughts about Clinton and the
American political system.
Primary Colors "re-affirms my theories about pol-
itics in general. I wasn't shocked," Davis said. "It
makes me think about how when voting, you have to
pick the lesser of two evils."
Hutchings said the media's portrayal of presidents
is a reflection of current public sentiment. In
"Primary Colors," the Clinton character is "morally
suspect, (but) ends up redeemed," Hutchings said.
This parallels the current view of Clinton.
' But Hutchings said the media hasn't directly
influenced public opinion of Clinton or other presi-
"I don't have a concern that these media portray-
als are contaminating the public view of the presi-
dency," Hutchings said. "But the media can affect
the way the people see the man."
Film and video studies Prof. Frank Beaver said
filmmakers have had their own motivations behind
their films. Usually that means money is the driving
"Hollywood has never worried about dealing with
widespread public sentiment," Beaver said.
The Vietnam War, the 1972 presidential campaign
and the resulting Watergate scandal damaged the
presidential image, Beaver said. These issues were
originally scrutinized by the media. It was not until
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Aliens strike at the heart of American politics by blowing up the White House in the 1996 summer blockbuster
later that Hollywood picked up on the events.
Films, led by Alan Pakula's "All the President's
Men" -- an Academy Award nominee for best pic-
ture in 1976 - marked the change in viewers' regard
for the presidential post.
Now, the corruption that was once fictitiously
associated with political machines in "Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington" was apparent in the highest of
offices - and this story was non-fiction.
Watergate was a strong changing force in political
movies. Public sentiment regarding the office ofthe presi-
dent has been altered since those events, Beaver said.
"There has been a definite change in the idea of
the president as the national hero," Beaver said.
"Ever since the assassination of John Kennedy and
the Johnson presidency, (the office) has not looked
the same in film."
Hutchings agreed that public opinion has shifted.
"The American public after the Watergate and
Vietnam affairs was far more cynical," Hutchings
said. "The media is reflecting the change in mood."
While before these events, Hollywood was mostly
respectful to politicians, films started to focus on
scandal and muck-raking after the early '70s. This
phenomenon of corruption is apparent in the recent
film "Absolute Power."
Beaver said most recent Hollywood portrayals of
the president are trite and formulaic.
"There is a system of reward and response. A film
that is rewarded with positive public response will
be repeated," Beaver said.
He said the movie "Air Force One" is less of a
movie about a president and more of a big-budget
action movie - with Harrison Ford, rather than
Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the
heroic president fighting the bad guys .
The mixing of two popular genres of film - action
and political dramas - is a financially shrewd cine-
matic move. Regardless of its believability. "Air
Force One" did well at the box office - grossing
more than $100 million.
Engineering senior McAllister Daniel said the film
was hard to swallow, especially due to the dual role
of the president in the film as both a decision maker
and a killer of terrorists.
"It's kind of fake. I can't imagine president
Clinton boxing terrorists," Daniel said. "I would
hope, though, that if put in the same situation,
Clinton would do the same thing."
Fitting with the film remake phenomenon, some
critics view Ivan Reitman's 1993 effort, "Dave," as
a retelling of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
In both stories, a would-be harmless stooge is
placed in the position of a dead - or nearly dead --
politician. Both films demonstrate how controversial
legislation is withheld from the appointed man by a
more powerful entity.
But both men ultimately discover the corrupt plots
and try to pass their own, more righteous legislation.
Take away a few different plot twists, and one film
becomes confused with the other.
Movies like these -.ones that tell an uplifting tale
of a man beating the evil system, have been histori-
cally more popular than degrading films such as the
recent film "Wag the Dog." Beaver said Hollywood
does not produce films that are incisive to the point
of creating public panic, but they choose to make and
remake the heartwarming classics.
"Current Hollywood films are typically watered-
down," Beaver said. "It is rare that (Hollywood)
seizes on a concept and deals with it in a deep man-
Reitman's "Dave" shows how Hollywood can glaze
over scandalous events to create a shallow but enjoyable
comedy. The elected president in the film suffers a stroke
while in bed with a mistress, and it is later revealed that he
broke the law and attempted to hide the offenses during
his presidential campaign.
On top of this, Dave himself is placed in the White
House illegally - impersonating the president to
appease his advisers.
But these facts are overshadowed by the make-
shift president overcoming the odds - and the advis-
ers -- in creating a jobs initiative and falling in love
with the first lady. In effect, all culpability and blame
is removed from the screen.
Movies such as "Dave" and "Absolute Power" fail
to address these issues, choosing ulterior themes
Film and video studies Prof. Hubert Cohen said
these movies "blur the difference between good and
He said "Primary Colors," "could have made a real
statement" if Stanton's advisers had taken a stronger
stance against his moral shortcomings, but the fact
they accept these actions greatly weakens the film
and its message.
Daniel said such films do show that the public may
not be as informed as they should be.
These films "point out to-Amerians that we might
not know much of what goes on," Daniel said.
While many films today portray a troubled or
humorous side of politics, there are some that revert
to the Capra era, focusing not on the problems but
on the possibility of a great president.
"Air Force One" and "Independence Day" depict
the president as young, handsome and heroic. These
movies help the public maintain faith in the office
and have hope for the future of American politics.
"There are many sides to people. I can see-how the
heroes are also human beings - you have to do
things to survive," Davis said.
Moving, motivational or malice, films have been
made to tell a wide assortment of tales and encour-
age varied interpretations of the people who serve in
But in the end, it does not matter what the motiva-
tion behind the movie is. Beaver said that whether a
presenting a personal attack on the president or an
idealistic view of American politics, all Hollywood
films can be traced back to one thing - a storyline
that will fill the seats and generate profits.
"The bottom line of everything out there is
money," he said.
T Courtesy of Universal Studios
Emma Thompson and John Travolta play the Stantons in "Primary Colors. Their characters are charming, politically
ambitious people with many skeletons in their closets.
The ways and means of Hollywood
By Aaron Rich
I1nily Arts Writer
It may be a cliche, but there is merit to the state-
ment that Ilollywood loves scandals. This is appar-
ent ic die recent Mike Nichols film, "Primary
Colors.' Not only does this presidential portrayal
kick up old dust from under the White House rugs,
but it is dust that many viewers cannot wait to see.
This effort hails from a rich tradition of politics
in film - beginning with Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith
The same argument can be made for the appeal
of "Primary Colors." John Travolta has many of the
same qualities associated with Stewart, and by cast-
ing him, the image of the president is colored,
"By putting Travolta on the screen, you've
already made a great statement," Cohen said.
Travolta brings boyish good looks and an attitude
of certainty to the film, making his character, presi-
dential candidate Jack Stanton, a reliable friend -
slimy opponent. This film is essentially a return to
the ideal and romantic Capra world and therein
may lie its Achilles' heel. Films of recent years
have primarily focused on scandal (take "Absolute
Power," "Dave," "Murder at 1600" or "Nixon"). An
altruistic executive stands out as the misfit in the
sea of such films.
Cohen said a moral president is essentially a "slap
in the face to Clinton" - a greatly loved and possi-
bly flawed president.