Saturday, 9 April 2011

Political films

I sometimes do things other than read about politics and write about it. Though it may be a surprise that my narrow mind might have other interests, I actually rather like films. So here's a short list of films related to politics, and my pretentious analysis and rambling about them.
(I would like to apologise for the likely increase in typos and bad phrasing in this post. In The Loop and onwards was written today, and since last night was one of those rare events when I leave the house and consume ethanol-based beverages, I'm struggling a little bit and want to go to bed.)


The Great Gatsby, 1974
"They got into automobiles that bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby's door. Come for the party with a simplicity of heart that was it's own ticket of admission."
The film could never capture the majesty and mystery of the book, but it's still a very good watch. It does disappoint in that so much of the detail in the masterpiece of the book is lost in the translation from book to film. I, like other A Level English Literature students, spent my time pretentiously analysing the book last year. The key thing it revolves around is a very negative portrayal of the Roaring Twenties in the USA. America was booming in the post-war years, the stock market was up, and even average people were becoming more well-off. Scott F. Fitzgerald's cynical criticism of what he saw as a pretentious, selfish, and image-obsessed era. Throughout the film we are treated to viewing parties at Gatsby's mansion, but it soon become clear that there is more to the mysterious host than meets the eye. Beneath the surface lies a different character, and as Gatsby's true nature appears, so do the personalities of his guests and the other key characters. The film is set during the era of prohibition, though it's obvious that the tactic of outlawing alcohol has been completely ineffectual, likely Fitzgerald's criticism of the prohibitionist movement as well as the nature of the partygoers. Sadly, a lot of the subtle nuances of the book are lost, so as is common, the film is one which can never match its text. It is, however, an enjoyable film so long as you're not expecting fast-paced action.

Wall Street, 1987
"You're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy are you, Buddy? It's the free market, and you're part of it."
I would like to formally declare my love for Film4. On those common Saturday evenings when I have nothing to do, there is little I love more than setting down with Film4. I watched this last week, and just started watching it again because it's such a great film. If Great Gatsby is a thought-provoking critique of the raucous 1920s USA, then Wall Street is a criticism of a greedy, money-fuelled 1980s Wall Street. In an era dominated by Reaganomics and the boom of the financial industry, Oliver Stone presents an intriguing and thought provoking, if polemical, tale of the evils of greed and its conflict with morality. Charlie Sheen is not outstanding as Bud Fox, but he's reasonable - at least he wasn't drugged up to his eyeballs and rambling about bi-winning whilst drinking tiger blood. There is good on-screen chemistry with his father, though, mainly because the character's dad is played by Charlie's real dad, the legendary Martin Sheen - the wise but simple man who expects his son's eventual fall from grace long before the audience sees it. Michael Douglas is the standout in this film, though; he does a superb job as the gruff, rough, touch Gordon Gekko, the ruthless multi-millionaire who Bud aspires to be.

It's hard to not see the links with Gatsby if you've read the book or seen the film; everything is there - the pursuit of money, the rampant self-indulgence, the illegality, family being sidelined for money, the foppish women, and the intriguing characters. Bud Fox beings to climb the greasy pole of Wall Street, grabbing his chance at success by sucking up to the intriguing yet almost evil multi-millionaire Gordon Gekko. In the pursuit of success, he diverges from his working class roots and union father, being drawn ever-deeper into risky financial dealings which become increasingly difficult to get out of. This film is an interesting exploration not only of the pursuit of getting filthy rich, but a political critique of the power and influence of Wall Street, the concept of getting filthy rich through speculation, and the extent people are willing to betray themselves for success.

Do not, under any circumstances, watch the probably-shitty sequel starring that irritating Shia LaBeouf who should have stopped acting after Holes.

In the Loop, 2009
"Oh, great. Meeting my constituents. It's like being Simon Cowell, only without the ability to say, "Fuck off, you're mental."
This is from the creators of The Thick of It. Whilst good, I didn't think it quite matched the smashingness of the TV series. Unlike Thick of It, which usually focuses on behind-the-scenes political events, The Loop seems to be even more politically cynical and presents the story British-American negotiations over a looming war in the Middle East. As I watched it I remember my overwhelming reaction being that it's probably a very accurate portrayal of the sort of thing which went on in the lead-up to the Iraq war, which is rather sad and worrying if true. Between different motivations, lies, and crossed wires, the whole thing is a monumental mix up. Alongside this is the juxtaposed life of a constituency MP who must deal with a collapsing wall in his little corner of England whilst trying to prevent the inevitable war which the UK and the USA are ambling towards. As you'd expect, it's a cynical tale of morality being shoved aside for political spin and to save face. I wasn't too keen on seeing some of the actors playing different characters or characters out of their usual situations, though.

Requiem for a Dream, 2004
"I love you, Harry."
It's been too long since I watched this, but I'm remember it being a good and moving film. It tells the story of three people's struggle with drugs, three of them addicted to illegal drugs, the fourth becomes hooked on weight loss pills. It is sometimes irritating in that it's a wholly negative and simplistic 'don't do drugs, kids' message, which can become irritating if, like me, you favour liberalisation of drugs laws and point out the downsides of driving them underground. Certainly it seems to be an accurate portrayal of the potential impact of addiction, and it was nice to see that it didn't only focus on illegal substances, but also the depressed mother sucked into an endless cycle of seeking to lose weight. Despite its one-sided portrayal of drugs, I'd argue that the film can actually be used in the pro-liberalisation argument, in that some of the problems which arise stem from the current policy towards drugs, resulting in their stigmatisation, underground drugs gangs, and so on. Certainly, though, it's a moving and engaging picture, if not one of the best known.

The moral of the story is: don't do drugs, kids.

The Killing Fields, 1984
"They tell us that God is dead."
Another film that I need to re-watch, since I haven't seen it in years. The film is set during Pol Pot's (not to be confused with opera singer) Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, using the microcosm of two separated friends against the backdrop of mass-murder by the Communist government. Probably like many from my generation, I knew little about the regime which existed in Cambodia from 1975-9, so the film served as an excellent and engaging introduction to a very interesting and tragic topic. The regime committed genocide by targetting minority groups and placing them in forced labour camps or outright killing them, Pot's regime was responsible for the deaths of about 1.5 million people, resulting in a rare example of population decline. Watch out for the most shocking scene and sad scene of the film - you'll probably know it when you get to it.

One of the main things this film does is make us consider the dangers of political extremism, and the type of insane mentality which allows leaders to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens to pursue an ideology and to secure their own power base.

Downfall, 2004
"But that's what young men are for."
It is the final weeks of Hitler's faltering Third Reich, the country is crumbling around him, but Hitler remains holed up in a bunker as Allied troops draw ever-closer. Even as the situation becomes ever more dire, the Fuehrer remains detached from reality, drawing up military plans with regiments which no longer exist and blaming soldiers and civilians alike for their weakness and failure to defend his dream. Though the factual events are correct, how much artistic license was used is more difficult to judge, but given what we do know about Hitler's personality and lack of connection with reality, it's likely to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of the final stage of the dictator's life. History buffs state that it's accurate, and who am I to disagree?

The Lives of Others, 2006
"No. It's for me."
From one oppressive dictatorship to another, this film is set whilst Germany was still carved into two, telling the tale of a Stasi agent who slowly begins to relate to person he is tasked with observing. We see him slowing shifting from being committed to the regime and his job to putting his morality and human emotion above robotic subservience. It's been a while since I watched it, but I think it was pretty tough-going and heavy at times, especially as you have to read German subtitles for the full. It's certainly not light evening entertainment.

Goodbye Lenin!, 2003
"On the evening of October 7, 1989 several hundred people got together for some evening exercise..."
Again we're back in East Germany, this time with a less demanding film. I wouldn't classify it as a comedy, but it's certainly got many elements of humour, which helps to make lighter what could have been quite heavy material if used in a different way. Again commitment to the regime is a theme, this time with a fourtysomething mother becoming ill. Whilst in hospital, the GDR collapses and the Berlin Wall comes down, unifying Germany once again. To preserve his mother's health, Alex must hide this fact from his mum,

The Cider House Rules, 1999
I'm trying to think of why I added this one to a list of films related to politics. My notes say 'abortion, racism, rape'. Will that do?

All the President's Men, 1976
This tells the story of Watergate from the perspective of the journalists who picked up the scent and pursued it to its bitter end. It's based on the book by the two journalists, and so tells the factual story of what they did and the dangers they faced. Using their investigative skills and their inside source, Bernstein and Woodward are able to unravel the involvement of increasingly high-ranking Republicans, eventually leading them towards the President. I was quite disappointed to see that the film did not quite tell the whole story, but I suppose the rest is history. Unless yo're a 1970s US political history buff, I'd strongly suggest having a smartphone or PC nearby to google the various names which are mentioned, as it's easy to get lost and bogged down in the various different people.

Minority Report, 2002
"There hasn't been a murder in six years. The system, it is perfect."
The staple film of RE classes.
This mostly relates to politics in terms of a discussion of the extent to what limitations there should be on crime control. Are we willing to give up liberties and freedom and see absurd systems implemented in order to be safe? This film sees crime prevention taken to the extreme, with a jazzy sci-fi feel since it's set a few hundred years in the future. In this world, there are some weird ugly strange people-things who lay in water all day predicting crimes before they actually happen, meaning that people are arrested and imprisoned before they've actually committed the misdemeanour's. In typical Hollywood style, one of the people deeply involved in the Pre-Crime initiative becomes entangled and becomes a sceptic of it. There are plenty of 'Tom Cruise runs away from things' scenes in this to keep you amused.

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