Before the Election
Political Films to Watch
from the O'Neill Media Center
By Wes Hazard

Street Fight (Dir. Marshall Curry, 2005, 83 mins)
F144 .N657 S77 2006

Street Fight

If you were channel surfing and happened to catch certain scenes of Street Fight at random you could be forgiven for thinking at first glance that you were watching the 3rd season of The Wire. The production values might be significantly lower and it's set in Newark instead of Baltimore, but just like the HBO drama this documentary chronicles the complex and often bruising old-school electoral process in a working class eastern city. Following up-and-coming city councilor Cory Booker (a Stanford-educated, varsity football playing, Rhodes Scholar with a reform agenda) in his 2002 campaign against incumbent Sharpe James (an extremely popular 4-term mayor with an ability to consistently beat corruption charges) the film gives an unvarnished street-level view of the strategizing, fundraising, people-pleasing, and fortitude necessary to go from a virtual unknown in local politics to a force capable of seriously threatening a man viewed as a city institution. While trying to run an honest campaign Booker and his staff must deal with voter intimidation, an aggressive police force loyal to the mayor, an uphill fundraising battle, and vicious press attacks by James. Things get especially brutal when the campaign between the two African-American men is racialized by James's accusations that the suburban-bred Booker isn't "black enough" to represent the people of Newark. This is an absolutely absorbing film about what happens when entrenched power is seriously tested by the forces of upstart change.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (Dir. Stefan Forbes, 2008, 86 mins)
E840.8 .A89 B66 2008

Boogie Man

If he was in your corner it'd be hard not to be thankful everyday for the cunning, energy, insight, and naked ruthlessness of Lee Atwater. The man won elections. If however your political campaign fell victim to his legendary bare-knuckle (some might say downright evil) tactics you'd probably have moments when you questioned if he was some minor agent of the Prince of Darkness. Is that hyperbole? Yes. But Atwater—political strategist extraordinaire, mentor to Karl Rove, and architect of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential victory—was a man who delighted in hyperbole, theatrics, fact-bending, and downright fabrication so long as they led to victory for whichever Republican candidate he supported at the moment. The man was very good at his job. Rising from the South Carolina student Republican scene, gaining experience under Sen. Strom Thurmond, and maturing in the Reagan White House, Atwater understood very early on that "perception is reality" and that people tend to vote from their fears rather than their hopes…if only someone can show them the way. Few in modern politics have been more effective in this regard than he. This film is very interesting in that, while fully acknowledging the self-evidently underhanded tactics that Atwater so gleefully employed to win elections, it gives significant screen time to friends and colleagues who, on a personal level, remember him as a kind, funny, and vivacious lover (and player) of blues music, an image in stark contrast to the savage political operator that was apparent to his foes. Featuring many of the major players in U.S. national politics over the last 30 years this film repeatedly makes clear an unfortunate truth about the electoral process: it is rarely the "best" or most noble candidate who wins, but rather the one who possesses the will to do that which their opponent won't in order to get votes. A fascinating and sobering watch.

Point Of Order! (Dir. Emile de Antonio, 1964, 97 mins)
E743.5 .P656 2005

Point Of Order!

So much has been written and said about Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his mendacious efforts to root out supposed communist subversion in the U.S. government during the 1950s, and his eventual downfall that it's especially rewarding to watch Point of Order! a film in which no commentary whatsoever is offered at all. It is simply a document (though very selectively edited) of the televised 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings during which the entire nation was finally able to see for themselves the shallow and vicious nature of McCarthy's campaign. We watch what the home viewing audience watched decades ago: altered photographs, forged correspondence, the bullying of witnesses, and McCarthy's total inability to respond in any meaningful way when asked to provide actual proof of his bombastic claims. On paper, 50-year-old footage from a 6-week long Senate hearing doesn't sound quite like captivating programming; but given the historical import, preponderance of colorful characters (both for the prosecution and defense), and the superb editing this film is among the most interesting political documentaries that you're likely to find. Even if you come into it with no awareness of historical context you'll be able to follow along with the hearing's proceedings as the affable but wily Joseph Welch (counsel for the Army) goes toe-to-toe and steadily disarms the McCarthy and his formidable counsel Roy Cohn.

The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings (Dir. Robert Kline, 2008, 128 mins)
E843 .M35 2008

The Kennedys

If the Kennedy's are, as they're often described, "American Royalty" this film serves as a reasonably thorough court register of the clan's origins, rise, struggles, achievements, and modern-day legacy. A reverent but never fawning chronicle that begins with the immigration of Patrick Kennedy (Great-Grandfather to the President) from Ireland to Boston, this film details his and his descendants' triumph of over vicious anti-Irish sentiment in 19th century Massachusetts, the family's steady acquisition of fortune and political clout, the conquest of the presidency and the multiple well-known tragedies that shadowed the dynasty throughout. Giving the lion's share of its running time, unsurprisingly, to JFK and his uphill climb to become the nation's first and only Catholic president, The Kennedys also includes an emotional segment about his sometimes aloof, but also inspiring, brother Robert. Hearing the audio of senate icon Ted Kennedy's eulogy of RFK over a freeze-framed image of him is a moment you are not likely to forget both for its sorrow and hope. The film ends with a worthwhile, if sometimes tedious recap of Ted's legislative legacy and brief looks at the public service achievements of other family members such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. As its title suggests, the thread holding the film together is the family's firm sense of their Irish heritage and what it meant to them through the generations. This is superbly displayed in the footage of JFK and Ted Kennedy's separate state visits to the Emerald Isle decades apart, and the wildly enthusiastic receptions they both received while reminiscing about the homelands importance to the family.

Lake of Fire (Dir. Tony Kaye, 2006, 152 mins)
HQ767 .L354 2007

Lake of Fire

I really can't imagine a film that could be more comprehensive in dealing with the most divisive "wedge" issue in American politics over the last 40 years. It doesn't matter if you consider yourself "pro-life" or "pro-choice" (terms themselves that are charged and rather questionable) Lake of Fire will include views that you both heartily agree with and vehemently oppose. Filmed in a dispassionate matter-of-fact style using high-contrast black & white photography this movie includes interviews with politicians, clergy, abortion doctors, women who've terminated their pregnancies, and committed activists on both sides of the issue (both radical and mainstream). It does not seek to sway in either direction, only to document, and with a length of 2.5 hours you have plenty of time to think over whatever notions you may have about the issue in light of the incredible stories and testimonies you're witnessing. If only ever marquee political issue in the US had such an evenhanded and thorough film to accompany it, voters might come to see that some things are too complex to fall within the scope of media-tethered electoral politics. And yes, this movie is extremely thorough and as such, not for everyone. It contains VERY graphic medical footage dealing with abortion that isn't used bombastically or in the service of an agenda, but is rather necessarily included in order to give the viewer the knowledge necessary to adequately consider the issue being portrayed. If you feel that abortion seriously matters to you, whether on a political, moral or emotional level, this is a film that you cannot afford to miss.

Advise and Consent (Dir. Otto Preminger, 1962, 139 mins)
PS3554 .R8 A3 2005

Advise and Consent

The nomination and Senate confirmation, or rejection, of a Presidential appointee to the cabinet or judiciary is an American political ritual that can either pass utterly unnoticed (Quick! Name the current Secretary of Agriculture…didn't think so…) or be subject to incredible debate and scrutiny. If the President's party happens to control the Senate things generally go smoothly, but even that is no guarantee. Senators, serving for six years and wielding considerable individual power, do not tend to just fall in line and back a White House pick simply because they and the president share the same parenthetical letter after their name in a C-Span chyron. If the upper chamber happens to belong to the opposition party then the President and nominee had better be ready for a thorough and sometimes nasty vetting process. In Advise and Consent (named from the constitutional clause granting the Senate this review process) things get testy very quickly when the second-term President, in a surprise move, nominates Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) for the office of Secretary of State. His party holds the majority but there are many among them who doubt the candidate and soon a witness is brought in alleging his past involvement in a communist cell. He denies the charge, but things are more than they seem and from there we're treated to a superbly written and directed film examining pride, intrigue, loyalty, blackmail and backstabbing in the atmosphere of early 1960s Washington. Lurid for its time, this movie certainly doesn't offer a saintly depiction of Washington politics, but it has heart and shows that some men act nobly out of duty and some act dishonorably for the same reason. One of the many delights of the film are the extended sequences where the Senators debate, criticize, flatter, attack and joke amongst themselves on the Senate floor while using almost poetic language and adhering to Robert's Rule's of Order. Some of the best crowd dialogue I've ever seen in a movie.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. (Dir. Errorl Morris, 2003, 95 mins)
E840.4 .F68 2004

The Fog of War

It's an interesting cinematic experience to have a former Secretary of State, look directly at you and confess that he was wrong for helping to engineer the deaths of 100,000 people in a single night many decades ago. And that's just one moment from The Fog of War, a movie so packed with hard-earned insights, revelations, and unanswerable questions that I doubt anyone would object to multiple viewings - just to soak it all in. The film's subject is Robert S. McNamara, a man who was president of both Ford Motor Co. and the World Bank. Between those two gigs he was the longest serving Secretary of Defense in history, working for both JFK and LBJ between 1961 and 1968. He had a huge hand in shaping the entry of the U.S. into the Vietnam conflict, and then severely escalating its involvement. He remains a divisive figure to say the least. Whatever feelings you may have about him you can't deny the degree to which he holds the viewer's interest as he speaks about his life, the lessons he learned in business, and the hard world-affecting decisions he made while in office. Directed by the legendary documentarian Errol Morris using his "Interrotron" camera rig that allows interviewer & interviewee to look into each other's eyes while simultaneously looking directly into the camera (and thus allows McNamara to seem to stare into our own eyes) this movie is structured as a sort of geo-political primer, offering segments with such titles as: Rationality Will Not Save Us and You Can't Change Human Nature. McNamara (85 when filmed) comes off as a thoughtful and alert man who isn't here to save face or self-aggrandize. He displays a surprising amount of honesty and self-awareness, and while he maintains many of his convictions decades later, he also questions much of his past, such as his role in planning the Tokyo firebombing of March 1945 that killed one hundred thousand. This is a riveting display of how one man, never elected to public office, can shape so much of the political destiny of a democracy such as the United States.

Wes Hazard, Media Services Assistant, O'Neill Library