Parsing out the politics of a Hollywood film can be tricky. What makes for a conservative film? Or a progressive one? Unless the film is about a politician or political issue, you have to analyze the values embedded in its themes, plot, and characters, and the conclusions are always debatable.
It has gotten easier, however, in these last few years, when films have tried harder to tap into the politics of the moment. Why has this occurred? My best guess is that the 2008 campaign re-invigorated our collective interest in politics, and Hollywood responded. On television, we have seen a litany of successful, politically-themed shows like House of Cards, Veep, and Scandal. The movies have taken a different tack, creating films that reflect our political debates of the moment without resorting to overt political content that could turn off partisan viewers.
But even without obvious partisanship, the films listed below clearly lean to the left. Whether objecting to the vertical integration of our food supply, preemptive military strikes, or gender inequality, these films dovetail with specific changes in our political culture to point the way towards a more progressive future.
5. At Any Price
This story of toil and tragedy in America’s heartland shows how agribusiness giants like Monsanto are squeezing family farmers out of the picture. Dennis Quaid gives a terrific, layered performance as Henry Whipple, an Iowa corn farmer under investigation for illegally selling seeds that his crops – planted with an Ag corporation’s genetically modified seeds – produced. The film mirrored the real-life Supreme Court case decided this year against Hugh Bowman, a farmer who sold Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds he bought from the local grain elevator. Justice Clarence Thomas, a former employee of Monsanto, did not recuse himself from the case. In life, there was no one to stand up for the small farmer, but At Any Price tried its best to push the conversation in the right (that is, left) direction. With Congress trying and failing once again to pass a Farm Bill before the end of the year, perhaps a Capitol Hill screening is in order.
4. Captain Phillips
The docudrama based on the hijacking of a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean could easily have been awash in jingoism – the story of of how an American sea captain and the U.S. Navy killed a crew of evil Somalian pirates – but director Paul Greengrass has crafted something more nuanced. He has a long history of siding with the oppressed (Bloody Sunday, United 93), and here he depicts both Phillips and his captors as victims of a global economic system that cares little for the working man. Hanks’s brilliant performance goes a long way towards selling us on having empathy for the pirates. There is a bit of military fetishization when the Navy shows up to save the day, but the unforgettable aftermath – perhaps the best acting of Hanks’ career – reminds us how there are no villains in this trauma, only victims.
3. Ender’s Game
In a year that found Congress and the American public roundly rejecting a proposed military strike on Syria, Ender’s Game reflected our collective turn away from the Bush doctrine. The sci-fi film’s eponymous hero is a boy recruited by the military for some sort of pubescent officer training program, where he is put through a series of war simulations that – SPOILER ALERT – turn out to be real. When Ender learns he has unknowingly launched a preemptive war, he rejects the military completely and sets out to make things right. Some have read the film as a criticism of drone warfare or even violence in entertainment marketed to youth, both of which are valid interpretations. But what’s most interesting is that it places its rejection of preemptive war in the context of our contemporary political climate – the photos of grieving Americans on the walls at Ender’s academy read “Never Forget” and “We Remember,” clearly an allusion to 9/11. People wondered why it took nearly 30 years to bring Orson Scott Card’s young adult novel to the screen, but maybe we just weren’t ready for it until now.
2. White House Down/The Lone Ranger/Iron Man 3
As I wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, “Iron Man 3, White House Down, and The Lone Ranger span cinematic categories–respectively, we have a comic-book film, a political action thriller, and a Western–but each of their stories portrays war, and implicitly the War on Terror, as caused by corporations and greed.” In Iron Man, it’s a scientist and weapons manufacturer who creates a false terror threat to sell his product; Ranger sports a railroad magnate who starts the American-Indian wars so that he can lay track across protected land; finally, White House Down even calls its villain by the name we use today: the military-industrial complex. Similar to Ender’s Game, these films reflect a far more nuanced perspective on American power that we are accustomed to seeing in action films. They suggest that even an attack on American soil is not a reason to march blindly into war. Although it is notable that two of these films were unqualified flops, the fact that they were made at all shows how far the anti-war movement has come since 9/11.
And the #1 most progressive movie of the year is…
The To-Do List
There was a lot of debate in 2013 about whether things are getting better for women in film. Much of this talk has centered around the Bechdel test, which, while valuable as a conversation starter, is far too simplistic to be a useful barometer for a film’s sexual politics. I’m more interested on movies that subvert male-dominated genres, like those that have women playing action heroes (The Hunger Games, Brave, Snow White and the Huntsman) or starring in gross-out comedies (Bridesmaids).
The To-Do List deserves special recognition for its progressive gender politics because it take aim at the hypocrisy of the governing body that has been holding women in film back for years: the MPAA Ratings Board. The regressive sexual politics of the MPAA has been well-documented. They are awash in double-standards; they think gun violence is fine for children to view, but seeing healthy sexual activity will corrupt our nation’s youth. Depictions of homosexuality are practically verboten, as are depictions of women receiving sexual pleasure. For example, Evan Rachel Wood recently criticized the MPAA for its censorship of her film, Charlie Countryman, referring to the ratings board as a “symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex.” Wood’s perspective on the MPAA is supported by the facts (see the terrific documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated for evidence). It is a miracle that The To-Do List got made with an R rating, and the film itself is a major step forward in the struggle for gender equality.
Aubrey Plaza plays a high school virgin who, alarmed at how little she knows about sex, is trying to learn everything she can before she gets to college. Hence, the eponymous list. Over the course of one summer, she does it all from oral sex to dry humping to, eventually, full-fledged intercourse. She achieves the last item on her list – orgasm – in the film’s final scene.
Placing a female character at the center of a juvenile gross-out comedy is progressive enough – although not unprecedented (Bridesmaids) – but the focus on female pleasure is a new one, and it’s especially culturally significant because Hollywood has ignored it for so long. Writer/director Maggie Carey uses the film as a catch-all on sexually progressive topics. A conversation late in the film between Brandy and her male friend ends with the realization that, “Sex is a big deal, but it’s also no big deal,” and there is even a one-scene digression into a discussion on the barbarity of male circumcision.
Given the dearth of films that take women sexuality serious, The To-Do List is a very big deal, but what’s also impressive is how Carey weaves these themes into such a palatable form. The film completely works as a juvenile gross-out comedy, or even an homage to the sex comedies of the 1980s. But the use of genre acts as a safe space to offer a representation of a sexually-active female that is funny, sweet, and real. By way of contrast, Blue is the Warmest Color also features depictions of female pleasure, but it’s a 3-hour French drama with intense emotional content and long, graphic sex scenes. In other words, it’s not for everybody. The To-Do List pushes the boundaries further because it puts entertainment first.
An obviously NSFW clip: