We might be reaching a saturation point for political entertainment, and I’m pretty sure it’s all Obama’s fault. There has always been a market for movies and television shows with political themes, but when Obama came around and engaged an entire generation of young people in the political process in 2008, network and movie studio executives took notice. On television alone in the last few years, we’ve had Veep, 1600 Penn, Political Animals, The Newsroom, Scandal, Homeland, The Good Wife, House of Cards, and Parks and Recreation.
The movie studios have been a little more timid. It’s understandable; they need to appeal to wider audiences – and more international ones – than TV, and American politics just doesn’t translate as well. Even so, last year alone, political movies like Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were each nominated for multiple Oscars. But overtly political movies are still the exception. Instead, Hollywood’s modus operandi has been to offer more subtle political commentary in mainstream popcorn movies that reflect the politics of the moment, even though they may not be set in the world of politics or have a partisan slant. For example, it is easy to view the financial crisis of 2008 as the background for movies that revolve around themes of class warfare, from The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises to Anna Karenina and Moneyball.
This year is no different. It’s autumn now, time for serious movies about serious subjects. It’s also a season when movie studios trot out their most politically-themed films, which – they hope – will be viewed as a short cut to respectability and, if they are lucky, Oscar gold. Here is a quick glimpse at the politically-themed films of autumn 2013:
Prisoners (September 20)
It sounds like a fairly typical revenge story at first. Hugh Jackman plays a father whose daughter disappears, and when the police release the prime suspect for lack of evidence, he kidnaps him and tortures him for information. But torture is not a simple concept anymore, and early word from critics is that Prisoners understands our complicated national relationship with vengeance extremely well. In other words, this is not 24, with Jack Bauer saving the day by going rogue and torturing suspects to stop a ticking clock. Through its twists and turns, Prisoners promises to leave us with more questions than answers.
Parkland (October 4, 2013 – limited)
Released a little over a month before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination (Nov. 22, 1963), Parkland tells the story of that day through several ancillary characters whose stories have never before been told. Chief among them are Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who accidentally took the only filmed footage of the assassination with his home camera; Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), the young, inexperienced doctor who tried in vain to save JFK’s life at Parkland Hospital; and Robert Oswald, Jr. (James Badge Dale), brother to the assassin. It’s hard to tease out the film’s politics from the trailer, and it may be the rare film about a U.S. president that manages to be apolitical. Either that, or the film’s distributors have done a great job of making it seem that way.
Captain Phillips (October 11)
I remember hearing the story of the Somali pirates who hijacked a U.S. cargo ship in the Indian Ocean a few years ago and thinking: That would make a great movie. Hollywood had the same thought and hired a terrific team – director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy) and Tom Hanks, who gives what critics are saying is his best performance in years – to bring it to life.
Greengrass usually brings a liberal slant to his films. His two Bourne movies – Supremacy and Ultimatum – cleverly commented on the PATRIOT Act and Bush-era tactics of the War on Terror. Green Zone, also starring Matt Damon, dramatized the failed search for WMDs in Iraq. In the hands of another director, Captain Phillips could have been a jingoistic rallying cry – this type of film would probably have focused more on the Navy snipers who took out the pirates – but I suspect Greengrass will find a way to make us feel sympathy for his ostensible villains.
12 Years a Slave (October 18)
Director Steve McQueen and his lead actor Michael Fassbender have made two terrific, challenging films together – 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame – but 12 Years a Slave may be their most accessible work to date. Early reviews say the story of a black northerner who is sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era is absolutely riveting, with Fassbender stealing the show as a sadistic slaveowner.
For years, race was a subject that many filmmakers shied away from, but since Obama’s election, the studios have been wading out further into these waters. The Help and The Blind Side offered tame white savior stories, but their success may have paved the way for the more progressive films of the last year: Django Unchained, Fruitvale Station, and The Butler. Now, we have Slave, which appears to be the most progressive of all. It also might be the most successful. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival early this month, Slave is seen by many as the front-runner for Best Picture.
The Wolf of Wall Street (November 15)
Few got excited when they heard that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were collaborating on a film about an ‘80s-era stockbroker who makes a bundle and then loses it all. The legendary director and actor have made three movies together already, plus the story seems passé at this point. But then the trailer hit, and everyone got interested in a hurry. It looks to combine the restless energy of Scorsese’s best work (think “Goodfellas”) with the most lively performance DiCaprio has given possibly ever. Commercial Scorsese is, in my opinion, better than Oscar-bait Scorsese, and this one looks like a surefire that capitalizes on our nation’s pervasive anti-Wall Street sentiment.
American Hustle (December 13, 2013 – NY, LA; wide – Dec. 25)
Given how little the public thinks of the federal government these days, I’m surprised it has taken this long for someone to dramatize the ABSCAM scandal, which, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, led to the arrest of 7 members of Congress for bribery and conspiracy.
It’s a rich and dramatic story filled with colorful characters, but something about the film sounds a little rushed and generic. Capitalizing on the public mood, as well as the success of Silver Linings Playbook (the film reunites director David O. Russell with stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro), may be a recipe for box-office success, but it’s not a recipe for a great film.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (November 22)
Last year, The Hunger Games was the third highest-grossing film of the year, clocking in at $408 million in domestic grosses. What amazed me was how comfortably the film wove its theme of income inequality into what is essentially a YA film. According to the trailers, the sequel will contain even more political content, as Katniss is used by President Snow as a symbol of hope to appease the masses. Those who have read the books know that this strategy will only work temporarily and that a political revolution is inevitable.
That a film so popular with the youth could include such political themes speaks to Hollywood’s new attitude and the influence of Obama. There is an entire demographic of politically-engaged young people out there, and Hollywood is not going to sit by idly when there is money to be made.
Also playing: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange in the ripped-from-the-headlines Wikipedia drama The Fifth Estate (October 18)….Naomi Watts, an Australian, was controversially cast as the people’s princess in Diana (November 1)…Is it possible to make an apolitical movie about Hurrican Katrina? Paul Walker tries in Hours (December 18), who plays a young widower trying to keep his sick baby alive during the throes of the Katrina…They say you can learn a lot about your era’s value by its villains, which explains why the reboot of Jack Ryan (December 25) features a Russian terrorist planning a cyberattack on America’s financial system.