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September 08, 1998 - Image 57

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The Michigan Daily, 1998-09-08

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The Michigan Daily - New Student Edition - September 8. 1998 - 11D

Since the 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, dominat-
ed by the heroic and idealized by the public. This
lucrative genre has become a staple in cineplexes
across the country; and with last spring's 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 which the film "Primary Colors" is based, swept
Washington, D.C. and the rest of the nation into a
fury three years ago. The novel detailed the campaign
run of a southern governor, including his idealistic
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.
LSA senior Linda Mokdad said the similarities
between Clinton and Stanton are too striking to be
"I 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."
The 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 Hutchings said "Primary Colors"
is an accurate representation of the Clinton adminis-
tration, even though the book and the film are billed
as fiction.
"Everyone knows it's Clinton (in the movie). This
is a camouflaged version of our current president,"
Hutchings 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 was 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 recent views 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 portrayals
are contaminating the public view of the presidency,"
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

r, a

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Aliens strike at the heart of American politics by blowing up the White House In the 1996 summer blockbuster
"Independence Day."

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 picture
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 of the 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 last year's
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 come-
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 presiden-
tial 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 advisers -
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 Americans 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 encourage
varied interpretations of the people who serve in
Washington, D.C.
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.

Courtesyor Coumoia Pictures
After years of playing roles surrounding the government - he starred in Clear and Present Danger as a CIA agent -
Harrison Ford finally got his chance to play the president In 'Air Force One."

The ways and means of Hollywood

By Aaron Rich
Daily Arts Writer
It may be a cliche, but there is merit to the state-
ment that Hollywood loves scandals. This is apparent
in the 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 Goes to
Washington," which was released 59

"down-home" reality, makes his character, Jefferson
Smith, lovable and trustworthy.
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, Cohen
"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 -

The president refuses to stoop to the level of his
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.
So what keeps viewers continually in the theaters,


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