People are naturally more interested in politics during a presidential election year. Frankly, the subject is hard to avoid. Come fall, the evening news will lead with the campaign every night. “Saturday Night Live” will all of a sudden be considered relevant again. Lastly, movie studios will take advantage by releasing movies with political themes or subtexts. This August, for example, we’ll all go see “The Campaign,” with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Would we have gone to see it had it been released in another year? Probably. Because them guys are funny. But given how much money goes into producing and marketing studio movies, you can’t blame them for trying to capitalize on built-in interest.
But there’s more to the story than that. In addition to movies whose plots hinge on politics, we must look at the subtext of this year’s films; sometimes the ostensibly non-political movies end up having the biggest impact on our national consciousness. Every movie is political in its own way because every story promotes the values of its creator. And those inherent values can play a big role come November. For an example, look no further than the 2004 presidential election, which some analysts believe turned on the release of “The Passion of the Christ” six months before the election. In a narrow election, every demographic is a difference-maker, and “Christ” energized one of them, the Christian Right, at just the right time. Even though a link between the film’s success and Bush’s victory has not exactly been proven, there is no doubt that both were fueled by the enthusiasm of evangelicals.
This election is also shaping up to be a squeaker. So what upcoming movie will be the difference-maker this time around? Here are a few possibilities.
“Snow White and the Huntsman” (June 1)
The second Snow White film to hit theaters this year, after the dreadful “Mirror, Mirror,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” continues this year’s most recurrent theme, seen in films like “The Hunger Games” and “Cabin in the Woods”: an inter-generational battle for power set in a dangerous natural environment. These movies express a sentiment that Obama has repeated countless times on the campaign trail – that this generation of young people will be the first that is worse off than their parents. But let me be clear: these films are targeted to the youth. Obama will need young people to turn out for him the way that they did in 2008, and movies like “Snow White and the Huntsman” might just help rally his base.
Who it Helps: Obama
“Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” (June 22)
At first glance, this looks like a pro-Obama flick. A transformational leader from Illinois, Obama has often been compared to Lincoln. But a closer look reveals that this fits right into the Republican narrative. First of all, our sixteenth president was a Republican. Further, the film’s Lincoln appears to be a throw-back to the 1980s style action hero, a civil servant who goes rogue, taking the law into his own hands to rid the streets of a blood-sucking underclass feeding off of good Americans. With Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamps, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act, this flick will paint them as the good guys and fit their election-year narrative to a tee.
Who it Helps: Romney
“Dredd” (September 21)
A remake of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone flop, the title character is the cop of the future, an ultimate authority in crime-fighting. In a dystopian, crime-ridden city, Judge Dredd roams the streets as judge, jury, and executioner. Had this film been released in the 1980s, when crime was a hotly debated political issue, “Dredd” would have fit right along side “Lethal Weapon,” “Action Jackson,” and other cop-goes-rogue movies as a paean to conservative values. In today’s political climate, in which Obama gets credit for authorizing the mission that killed Bin Laden against the advice of his inner circle, it’s a bit harder to classify that kind of narrative in partisan terms.
The comics that the film is based on were equally ambiguous in their its politics. Dredd was generally depicted as the arm of a fascist state, but his role was always nuanced. Sometimes he was the good guy, bringing law and order and protecting innocent citizens, but some storylines portrayed the loss of democracy as the cost of that order. It is doubtful that the film will contain such nuance, so I’ll chalk this one up for Romney.
Who it Helps: Romney
“Killing Them Softly” (September 21)
The Brad Pitt gangster movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this week and surprised critics and audiences with its overtly political themes. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Pitt plays a hit man hired to find and kill two low-level thugs who robbed a mobster. But the failure of the government to rebuild New Orleans and the economic collapse in general play a central role in the film. Pitt and the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, deny that the movie is anti-Obama, but it is unlikely audiences will be able to view it as politically neutral. Romney will use every opportunity to tie the economy to Obama, and unlike in 2008, voters will be less willing to buy Obama’s argument that Bush is to blame for it.
Who it Helps: Romney
“Butter” (October 5)
Tell me if this sounds familiar. In Iowa, a woman is ready to step out from the shadow of her famous husband and win her first big contest, until a young, black newcomer arrives and threatens her ascendance to the winner’s circle. No, it’s not the 2008 Iowa Democratic Caucus; it’s a butter-carving competition. Having worked on a presidential campaign in Iowa, I can tell you that Iowans take their butter-carving seriously. At the Iowa State Fair every four years, the presidential candidates must make a visit and pay homage to the Butter Cow (that’s right, a life size butter sculpture of a cow).
In “Butter,” which had been shelved for two years and is strategically being released a month before the election, Jennifer Garner plays Laura Pickler, wife of the long-time state-champion butter carver. After her husband shockingly announces his retirement from the field, Laura believes the throne to be rightly hers. Her plans are threatened, however, by emergence of a challenger, a 10-year-old black foster child named Destiny. The analogy is unmistakable, but what is not yet clear is the perspective of the film. Who is the hero – Laura or Destiny? The film seems to be a satire in the mold of Alexander Payne’s brilliant “Election.” If that’s the case, it’s likely that nobody associated with the film’s politics will come out on top. But at this point, it’s too early to tell.
Who it helps: TBD
Lastly, there is the case of “The Dark Knight Rises.” As the last film in the most critically and commercially successful trilogy of all-time, “Rises” certainly has the potential to influence voters. 2008’s “The Dark Knight” has been explained as an allegory of the Bush years and the War on Terror, with Heath Ledger’s Joker as a stand-in for Bin Laden, so it will be interesting to see what “Rises” has to say about the Obama presidency. Initial impressions are murky, but I was piqued by what Tom Hardy had to say about his character, Bane, the film’s villain:
“The Joker didn’t care. He just wanted to see the world burn, and he was a master of chaos and destruction, unscrupulous and crazy. Bane is not that guy. There is a very meticulous and calculated way about Bane. There is a huge orchestration of organization to his ambition. He is also a physical threat to Batman. There is nothing vague about Bane. No jokes. He’s a very clean, clear villain.”
If the Joker represented chaos and terror, Bane will seemingly represent a systemic threat. Since 2008, when “The Dark Knight” was released, we have seen the rise of the Tea Party and confidence in government fall to an all-time low. I’m wondering if Bane will tap into the perspective among many Americans that government is a rigged system, a bloated and overwhelming entity of oppression. Just a thought.
So if we add up the score, there are three movies positioned to help Romney, one that will help Obama, and a couple yet to be determined. If the election is a close one and one of these films ends up being a massive hit, we may be able to look back and thank/blame a studio chief for electing a president and changing the path of America.