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For Hollywood, All Politics Is National

Courtesy Sony Pictures
"Ides of March," starring Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, focuses on a presidential campaign.

But the campaign is a small part of the movie, which is focused on Murphy’s character, Thomas Jefferson Johnson, after he is elected and gets to Congress. As such, it’s hard to characterize this as a campaign movie.

That’s about it for feature films about House campaigns. 

Senate candidates have gotten the Hollywood treatment more often, although it’s hardly a bumper crop. Still, what is out there is mostly characterized by heavy doses of cynicism or satire. And in each case, the principals have gone on to make their mark as active figures on the American political landscape.

“The Candidate,” Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film starring Robert Redford as California Senate candidate Bill McKay, details the daily humiliations of running for statewide office. 

As if speaking to empty gymnasiums and getting accosted in the men’s room isn’t enough, McKay has to endure a delicate cat-and-mouse game over whether his own father, former Gov. John J. McKay, will support him.

“Hey, Mabel, did you know that old Bud here is running for the United States Senate?” the elder McKay, played by Melvyn Douglas, asks his paramour.

“That’s very good, Bud,” Mabel says, completing the tag-team of understated condescension.

Redford’s character does go on to win, ousting the incumbent. The victory leads to the movie’s most indelible moment: McKay’s final words to his campaign manager before the film ends. “What do we do now?”

For Redford, it meant staying away from electoral politics himself but continuing to fight for issues important to him, particularly education and the environment.

Two films about Senate campaigns that followed “The Candidate” came from two of Hollywood’s more politically active liberals: “Bob Roberts,” directed by Tim Robbins, and 1998’s “Bulworth,” by Warren Beatty.

“Bob Roberts,” the 1992 mockumentary that also starred Robbins as a right-wing folk musician running for office, eerily presaged the rightward surge of American politics that culminated in the 1994 Republican revolution. But watching “Bob Roberts” now shows that it is still timely. 

The candidate’s populist appeal — one of his folk albums is titled “Times Are Changin’ Back” and features songs such as “Retake America” — is remarkably similar to the tea party movement’s exhortations to take back America and restore it to previous glories. 

In his “I Want to Live” video, Roberts even wears a tri-cornered hat, and he’s on a battlefield planted with American flags, imagery right out of the tea party playbook. 

The film’s “documentary” narrator also explains that Roberts has been derided in the press as a “crypto-fascist clown,” echoing criticism of the tea party.

For his part, Roberts scores points with his base by arguing that the social upheavals of the 1960s were a time of dark lawlessness and moral decline and that social programs are wasteful and there is  virtue in being rich.

In the video of his “Wall Street Rap,” Roberts flips through handwritten cards. Notably, they read, “By Any Means Necessary Make Millions.” 

The language echoes that of Malcolm X and the imagery is an homage to Bob Dylan’s placard-filled “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that formed the opening sequence of the seminal documentary “Don’t Look Back,” by D.A. Pennebaker.

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