Movies with hidden political agendas have been making news lately. Last month, Movieguide, a non-profit website that reviews films from a Christian perspective, released a report demonstrating that movies that promote conservative values perform better at the box office than those that don’t. More recently, Lou Dobbs made headlines by suggesting that both “The Lorax” and “The Secret World of Arriety” promote un-American values and aim to “indoctrinate our children.”
The notion of a liberal Hollywood elite, however, is a myth that stretches back to the McCarthy era. Steven J. Ross recently wrote a terrific book, “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” arguing that Hollywood icons like Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, and studio head Louis B. Mayer have done far more to shape public policy than the so-called Hollywood elite. And while Democrats may be able to raise more money in Hollywood than Republicans, few studio movies espouse progressive principles. For every categorically liberal film like “Good Night, and Good Luck” or “Farenheit 9/11,” there are countless successful movies that promote conservative values, often in ways we don’t catch the first time around.
Over the next three days, I will count down my list of the top five movies you may not have known were conservative. It is no coincidence that all of them were hugely successful.
5. “Bruce Almighty”/”Evan Almighty”
These two films by director Tom Shadyac package strong, pro-religion, anti-government messaging into broad, commercial comedies. “Bruce Almighty” stars Jim Carrey as a newscaster who gets an opportunity to prove he can run the world better than God (Morgan Freeman). Although he is initially successful in using his new power to make the world better for himself, it’s when he starts to consider the needs of others that he runs into problems. Forced to deal with a huge backlog of prayers to be answered, he does what any good-hearted mortal would do: he gives everyone what they want. But as most true conservatives would tell you, giving hand-outs to those in need is a short-sighted solution. Bruce answers every prayer, and mass chaos ensues. Bruce becomes convinced that only God can do the job of overseeing the human race. This kind of logic parallels messaging from certain people on the religious right, who argue against government intrusion in our lives because God can do it better.
The conflict between religion and government is depicted more literally in the sequel. Steve Carell expands on his small role as local news anchor Evan Baxter – now a newly-elected Member of Congress – who is tasked by God with building an ark for a flood that he must take on faith is coming. Baxter’s new carpentry project comes into direct conflict with his duties as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is in fact ridiculed by his peers for his new facial hair and his sudden affinity for animals. But the real dramatic tension in the film is derived from whether his faith will be rewarded or whether he would have been better served focusing on the business of legislating. While the rain never comes, a flood does arrive, caused by a poorly designed dam that was commissioned in a shady, back-room deal by one of his colleagues in Congress. Thousands board his ark for safety, and Baxter steers them down the Potomac, crashing into the nation’s capital. As metaphors go, this one is a little too on-the-nose. But the message is clear: the best way to help people is not through the business of government but through faith and family.
Like many of my generation, I grew up loving this movie and was surprised to discover its political subtext. Released in 1984, smack-dab in the middle of the Reagan years, the script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis depicts its lead characters as the private-sector solution to a serious crime epidemic. Where the city and its incompetent mayor fail to address a growing problem, the Ghostbusters succeed. Not only that, they are canny entrepreneurs when it comes to marketing – their logo and uniforms are snappy and iconic.
It seems to be a swell partnership between the city and industry until a pompous regulator from the federal government – the Environmental Protection Agency, in fact – shows up to sniff around. Played smugly by William Atherton, Walter Peck is concerned about the nuclear power used by the Ghostbusters in their storage facility, but Atherton portrays him as a man who is simply irritated by their success. The Ghostbusters did the city a public service, but it is Peck who ignores the facts, disregards the experts in the private sector, and ends up unleashing a vengeful Sumerian god on America’s unofficial capital city.
The script deftly attributes to Peck two of the qualities vilified most by the 1980s right: he is a hippie (as evidenced by his anti-nuke stance), and he is from the federal government (and, as Reagan would have warned us, “is here to help”). Plus, in an era in which women were gaining ground in the workforce and elsewhere, Peck embodies none of the qualities of the traditional male. As Peter Venkman informs us, “this man has no dick.”
Check back tomorrow for #3 and #2 on our list.