Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Political Satires

So this week, after watching the wonderful In the Loop, I decided to make a list about my ten favorite political satires ever made. I love politics, and these are the best films that point out just how absurd the whole process really is.

10. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)
The film that inspired this list, deserves a place on it. Armando Iannucci’s film about an ineffectual politician (Tom Hollander) who is as weak willed and easily intimidated as a child and keeps saying the wrong thing in public is hilarious from start to finish. Peter Capaldi’s profane performance as the British PM’s mad dog communications director is a work of comedic genius, and the rest of the cast equal these two great performances. At the heart of the movie is the message that politicians care more about winning than anything else (just like Bulworth in its way). It does not matter if it is right or wrong to invade the Middle Eastern country they are talking about in the film, decisions have already been made, and to back out now would simply make them look weak. In the Loop is a hilarious, brilliant little poison pill of a movie.

9. Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008)
The Coen brothers misanthropic little black comedy is a movie that states, in no uncertain terms, that we are all idiots. The lone smart person in the Coen’s movie is a CIA agent played by John Malkovich, who is tired of the idiocy he sees all around him, and has become an alcoholic, leading to him being fired from his job (in the film’s hilarious opening scene). He then sets about writing his memoirs, which somehow falls into the hands of two clueless gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), who think they have some top secret shit, and decide to sell it to the Russians, so McDormand can get all the plastic surgeries she wants. Somehow a Treasury agent (George Clooney) becomes involved, and is spooked that people seem to be following him. Everyone in the movie is an idiot – no one more so than Pitt who is hilariously clueless – even the CIA bosses (brilliantly played by David Rasche and JK Simmons) who even at the end of the movie have no clue what happened (“I just wish I knew what the fuck we did?”). It’s not hard to figure out why the government is so clueless, when this is their intelligence community.

8. Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)
Warren Beatty plays the title character in this wickedly funny satire about a Senator who is tired of playing the regular political games. Fed up with his life, he hires a hit man to kill him, and then goes out and starts telling people what is exactly on his mind- which essentially consists of him insulting people. In the film’s best scene, he tells a group of African Americans that no one in Washington is ever going to listen to them, until they put down the chicken wings, and get behind something other than a running back who stabs his wife. But when Bulworth, who had been losing in the polls because his old fashioned liberalism was outdated, starts to speak his mind, he becomes a media sensation, and the public start to love him again. Bulworth is an extremely cynical look at politics, one that says all politicians are liars who do not really care about anything except being elected and will take money and sell themselves to the highest bidder. It is also one of the best performances of Beatty’s career, as well as one of his best films as a director.

7. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubistch, 1939)
Three Russian men come to Paris in order to sell the jewelry confiscated in the Revolution of 1917, in order to fund their Communist Empire. They are met in Paris by Melvyn Douglas, who takes them around town, and shows them the joy of capitalism and freedom. Worried, Russia sends another diplomat, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to complete the sale and bring home the three men. When Ninotchka arrives, she is all business – stern and strict. She steps off the train in Paris and updates her countrymen with the wonderful quote “The last mass trials were a success. There will be fewer, but better, Russians”. But Ninotchka too is slowly won over by Douglas, and seduced in the Western ways. Ninotchka was daring in its time – it was pretty much the first American film to deal with the Soviet Union in any real way, and does so by making fun of them for being bland, generic and dull. Ninotchka is also just about the funniest film ever directed by the master Ernst Lubitsch – and considering his track record, that is saying a lot.

6. Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997)
What do you do if you are the President of the United States running for re-election and suddenly you become embroiled in a sex scandal? You go to your political fixer Conrad Breen (Robert DeNiro) to get a distraction for you. Breen goes to Hollywood producer Stanley Mottss (Dustin Hoffman) and asks him to produce a war for him. All they need is some images that look real to put on the TV and distract the public. The country they are going to attack? Albania. Why? Because no one knows anything about Albania, so it’s easy to make them into bad guys. In Wag the Dog, there is no difference between Hollywood and Washington – both are empty, superficial towns that depend on buzz to survive. The film is hilarious, especially Hoffman’s wonderful performance as the producer who keeps yelling “This is nothing”, every time another catastrophe derails their plans temporarily.

5. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was really the first American film to deal with Hitler and the Nazis in any directly critical way. Chaplin plays two roles in the film – one as a Jewish WWI hero for Tomania (read, Germany), who gets out of the hospital after 20 years, and is horrified by the changes that have happened in his country. The barber looks exactly like Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again), the new anti-Semitic, fascist leader of Tomania. In what is undoubtedly the funniest sequence in all of Chaplin’s sound films, Hynkel makes an speech in gibberish (the words lager beer, cheese n’ crackers, and liverwurst are repeated throughout) then translated by a calm English man – the best moment coming when Hynkel goes on a long, angry tirade, and the narrator simply says “The fuehrer has just referred to the Jewish people”. Hynkel becomes obsessed with world domination, and in the film’s most famous sequence, even dances with a giant inflatable globe. The film ends with the barber, who has been mistaken for Hynkel, making an impassioned speech, reversing all of Hynkel’s terrible policies. While this speech maybe a little too on the nose and cheesy, it was also necessary at the time – when both America and England still had a policy of neutralism regarding the Nazis. In later years, Chaplin said that if he had known about the full extent of the Nazis crimes, he could never have made the film, but I think it was important to do so. Portraying Hitler (not to mention Goebbels, Goring and worst of all Mussolini, played as a giant oaf by Jack Oakie) are petulant children- making them look utterly ridiculous – was a necessary thing to do in 1940. While Chaplin’s best work is inarguably in his silent period. The Great Dictator is still one of his masterpieces.

4. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed the new leader of the small country of Freedonia because Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) insists on it, or else she’ll pull her financial support. This upsets the leader of the neighboring country of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), who sends in two spies (Chico and Harpo Marx) to get information on the new President. Firefly’s assistant (Zeppo Marx) figures out the plan, and convinces Firefly to get rid of them. What ensues is a slapping fight that brings the two nations to the brink of war. The war scenes that end the film (and featuring Grouch in a series of costumes, each stranger than the last) are hilarious, as is the entire movie. The final production number, comparing nationalism to a minstrel show, was daring at the time, and remain so today. The Marx brothers were probably the first movie comedians I ever fell in love with (even poor Zeppo, who let’s face facts, was nowhere near as talented as the rest of them), and Duck Soup is their crowning accomplishment – a brilliant movie that looks at the ridiculousness of politics, war and nationalism, and turns it all into one big joke.

3. Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)
It does not matter that the people running for office in Alexander Payne’s Election are high school kids. In fact, it is oddly appropriate as what is politics other than a popularity contest straight out of the high school halls. The obvious choice for Student Council President in Election in Tracey Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an incredibly smart, incredibly driven young woman who is really the only person who wants the job in the first place. But for Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), the faculty adviser for Student Council, that would be a nightmare. He hates Tracey because she is a know-it-all, brown noser, and because her affair with his best friend on staff, got him fired (McAllister, of course, does not blame the grown man who slept with the 16 year girl, he blames the girl). Also, there is some pent up sexual desire he feels for Tracey himself, signified in the scene where he’s having sex with his wife, and cannot finish, until he imagines Tracey’s head barking orders at him. So McAllister decides to go a little Karl Rove, and handpicks his own candidate – the dim bulb jock (Chris Klein) who cannot play football next year because he broke his leg. Klein is not the smartest guy in the world, but he is genuinely nice and well liked, so McAllister thinks that he can beat Flick, who doesn’t have any real friends. Fed up with all the assemblies and crap that go into student council elections, Klien’s younger sister also decides to run – and becomes an immediate favorite when she announces as her platform shutting down the student council, so they never have to participate again. She is immediately banned from the race. Election is about the superficiality of politics, where the best candidates not only not win, but they are hardly ever even in the running. Flick is annoying as hell (and Witherspoon is terrific in her best role ever), and isn’t in the race for the right reasons – she wants to include it on her college applications. Klien starts to genuinely care about the race, but he has no idea what he’s doing. And what does it say about our political culture that the most popular candidate is the one who wants to abolish the whole damn system? Election is a masterwork – probably the best film Payne has made so far.

2. Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)
Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) has spent his entire life in the townhouse of a wealthy man in Washington, DC, tending to his garden. He is incredibly simple minded, having had no contact with the outside world other than what he sees on TV. When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced to leave the house he has spent his entire life in, and while wondering the streets of Washington, he is struck by a car driven by a wealthy businessman (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife (Shirley Maclaine) who insists that Chance come and stay with them. Because Chance was dressed in the high fashion threads of his former benefactor, everyone mistakes him for a wealthy man (they mistakenly think his name is Chauncey Gardener, not Chance the Gardener), and his simple wisdom about tending to the garden is mistaken for deep insight into the economy and current political affairs. Douglas is friends with the President, and introduces Chance to him, the President is also taken with him. Soon, Chance has become a media darling, and his “simple, homespun wisdom” resonates with the voters. It is eventually agreed upon that Chance will run for President next term. Being There is hilarious (perhaps my favorite scene in when Maclaine tries to seduce Chance while he’s watching TV, and he simply says “I like to watch”, referring to the TV, but Maclaine misinterupts and starts to masturbate in front of him). Like many films on this list, it views the voting public as idiots, willing to accept just about anyone who they perceive is being honest with them. And Chance is that. He has no ability to lie whatsoever – everyone just interprets what he says to mean whatever they want it to mean. Chance has the ability that is needed for ever politician – to talk in vague sound bites, promising nothing, meaning nothing, but sounding good. What does the last image of the film mean – where Chance literally walks on water? I’m not sure – or better yet there are too many implications and interpretations of this image to go into all of them. But it is haunting, much like the film. We are programmed to respond to people based on their appearances, so because Chance looks likes a wealthy gentleman’s, talks with a distinguished accent, and is completely direct (which looks like confidence), everyone just assumes he knows what the hell he is talking about. He doesn’t, but that’s not his fault. After all, the only thing he thinks he’s talking about is his garden.

1. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Dr. Strangelove is without a doubt the only film I ever considered for the top spot on this list. It is the political satire to end all political satires. The film is about a wayward General (Sterling Hayden) who decides, all on his own, to send American bomber planes to nuke Russia, because the communists have a plot to sap him of his “precious bodily fluids”, which he realized when he couldn’t get it up during sex. The President (Peter Sellers) tries to call all the planes back, and succeeds, with the exception of one, which he cannot. He calls the Russian Premier to tell him the bad news (and of course, since the Premier is Russian, he is also completely drunk), who informs him that they have just completed a Doomsday device, that will trigger a full scale nuclear war should the Americans attack first. This is when another General (the great George C. Scott) says that they should just go in full bore and kill the Russians before they have a chance to launch a full scale attack (“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed a bit”). The film is just about the funniest film in American history, full of spot on one liners, delivered by Sellers (who also plays the title character, a Nazi scientist, and a British Officer trying to talk some sense into Hayden), Scott and the rest of the cast. The one sided phone conversation between Sellers and the Russian premier is just about the funniest scene you will ever see in a movie. Kubrick’s movie is one that gleefully embraces the end of the world with all of its absurdities. It is one of the very best films ever made.

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