Tag: Political dramas

Reds (1981)

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Warren Beatty brings his passion to life in Ken Loachesque Reds

Director: Warren Beatty

Cast: Warren Beatty (John Reed), Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant), Edward Herrmann (Max Eastman), Jerzy Kosinski (Grigory Zinoviev), Jack Nicholson (Eugene O’Neill), Paul Sorvino (Louis C Farina), Maureen Stapleton (Emma Goldman), Nicolas Coster (Paul Trullinger), William Daniels (Julius Gerber), Jan Triska (Karl Rodek), Gene Hackman (Pete van Wherry)

Reds is the film only Warren Beatty could have made. Imagine the pitch meeting: I want to make a three hour long biopic about American communists, with the hero being the only American buried in the Kremlin, and I need $30million dollars to do it. Only Beatty had the force of personality to get major companies to invest greenbacks into a film celebrating a man who would have happily cheered their demise. Reds is a tribute above all to the dedication of its multi-titled director and his refusal to compromise. It’s a big piece of serious minded, educational but also dramatic and romantic storytelling. Not many people could have pulled it off.

In 1915 Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a young would-be journalist and suffragette, meets and falls in love with left-wing journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty). The two of them tun off together to Reed’s bohemian circle in Greenwich Village, New York then to Massachusetts, becoming the centre of a community of anarchists, socialists and artists. Their mutual love is damaged by affairs – in particular Bryant’s heartfelt affair with the sensitive Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Reed’s own (off-screen) infidelities – but is rekindled as they are swept up in the Russian Revolution, an event that motivates Reed to try and build a similar communist party in America (with very little success). But, when Reed is trapped in Soviet Russia, how far will Bryant go to reunite with him?

Beatty’s dream of making a film on Reed’s life had been knocking around in his head since the 1960s, but it took the success of Heaven Can Wait in 1978 for him to finally have the muscle to get the film made (when Studio execs, having signed the deal, begged him to consider another subject Beatty stuck to his guns). He originally planned only to produce: that quickly expanded into also writing the script (with Marxist British playwright Trevor Griffiths, a hilarious personality mismatch with the Virginian millionaire Beatty), then directing it and finally, to be completely sure the project went where he wanted it to go, playing Reed as well. It would result in Beatty joining the short list of people nominated in four different categories for one film at the Oscars (but he won only Best Director, Reds losing out the big one to Chariots of Fire).

The real strength of Reds is probably Beatty’s producing. This is a huge epic, filmed across multiple countries in Europe (standing in for each other and for America), marshalling a vast number of sets and locations. Much like Attenborough’s Gandhi, it’s a film directed with a smooth, professional competence, but stage-managed to the screen with the flair of a master producer. Each department was staffed by an expert: Vittorio Storaro shot the film with a Golden Age beauty; Stephen Sondheim contributed to the score; Dede Allen assembled thousands of hours of footage, and dozens and dozens of takes of every scene, into a coherent, pacey movie that effectively balances politics and romance.

In many ways, Reds is like the mirror image of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (it even has a late train ambush set-piece, chugging through the Spanish wheat fields, that could have come out of Lean’s epic). That film was a romance-for-the-ages that used politics and revolution as a backdrop. Reds uses romance and personal stories as a context-setting background, to push to the forefront politics and revolution. This is perhaps the most earnest and impassioned exploration of the history of American left-wing politics in film history. Giving a lot of time  – particularly in its second half – to scenes made-up entirely of impassioned socialists sitting in a room arguing at each other over the minutia of party rules and ideology, this is the sort of epic Ken Loach would have been proud of making.

The politics are also genuinely interesting, quite a feat in itself. Beatty is unafraid to look at the fundamental weaknesses of Western left-wing politics: its own worst enemy is always itself. People who agree on 90% of the issues, swear themselves to become life-long enemies because of differences over the remaining 10%. In one dynamically filmed sequence, Bryant is a frustrated and resigned observer as Reed oversees the split of the American Socialist Party into no less than three factions, two of which set up rival claims to be the “official” Communist party of America.

Not that Reds has any sentiment for Russia: Beatty is savvy enough to know (I wonder if Griffiths was?) that the USSR is about a million miles away from ideal. Factionalism is just as prevalent there, with the difference being the main faction happily uses, suppresses and crushes the others. Reed’s time in Russia sees him becoming increasingly disillusioned and homesick, as he realises a dictatorship isn’t made palatable just because it’s a Communist Dictatorship. As the representative of that system, author Jerzy Kosinski makes for a grippingly stone-faced and ruthless Zinoviev, brow-beating any deviation from the party line.

Beatty makes all this political theorising and left-wing political infighting palatable, by framing it carefully around a genuine romance between Bryant and Reed. For all the unconventionality of their open-ish relationship (their feelings on this change from infidelity to infidelity), these are two people who share a deep and lasting bond on both an emotional and a political level. Both skilled writers, we are shown time and again that they bring out their best work from the other and that when they are focused on each other, they have a mutual understanding few can hope to match.

As Bryant, Beatty (who was in a relationship with her at the time – which didn‘t survive the epic shooting schedule) cast Diane Keaton. It’s a stroke of genius – and this is certainly Keaton’s finest performance. In a way no other role has allowed her, this looks past Keaton’s comedic skills and allows her to match her intelligence and spark with a woman who challenged norms, as a skilled writer and journalist. Keaton can play heart-rending emotion just as well – her breakdown fury at discovering Reed’s infidelity is fully-committed without being OTT – and she’s perfect as the increasingly disillusioned observer of left-wing failures. She believably flourishes from a woman uncertain of who she is to become a determined intellectual willing to cross continents to find what she wants. It’s a brilliant performance, smart, sharp and moving.

Beatty fronts-and-centres her so much, he slightly short-changes himself – playing Reed he doubles down on the boyish charm and enthusiasm (and he feels really young here), making Reed an enthusiastic, vulnerable, naïve figure. We just don’t quite get a real sense of who he is beyond that. You can’t say the same for Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill, delivering a remarkably low-key, restrained and sensitive performance. He’s loving, emotionally vulnerable and eventually devastated, in one of his finest acting performances. Maureen Stapleton won the Best Supporting Actress for her Earth-mother anarchist Emma Goldman, the cuddly aunt of firey, confrontational anarchic politics.

Reds is marshalled by Beatty into an epic that powers along effectively. The first half of the film gets its narrative balance right: contrasting personal and political growth with a backdrop of War and Revolution. The second half leaves a little too much to chew, a vast amount of political debate rushed through with a series of increasingly short and sometimes disconnected scenes. Beatty balances the narrative with extensive “witness” interviews, from real-life contemporaries of the characters. (These are never identified, which is a bit of shame as it never allows to really know what their perspective was). It adds a feeling of earnestness to a project that gets an effective balance between politics and the personal, between showmanship and details and between scale and intimacy. While it is more of a producer’s film – and rushed in its second half – than a triumph of directorial imagination, it’s still an impressive – and informative – achievement.

All the King's Men (1949)

Broderick Crawford is a corrupt politician in All the King’s Men

Director: Robert Rossen

Cast: Broderick Crawford (Willie Stark), John Ireland (Jack Burden), Joanna Dru (Anne Stanton), John Derek (Tom Stark), Mercedes McCambridge (Sadie Burke), Shepperd Strudwick (Adam Stanton), Ralph Dumke (Tiny Duffy), Anne Seymour (Lucy Stark), Katherine Warren (Mrs Burden), Raymond Greenleaf (Judge Monte Stanton), Walter Burke (Sugar Boy)

We only need to look at recent elections to see populist demagogues are far from being consigned to history. So, there will always be a touch of relevance to Robert Rossen’s Oscar-winning film All the King’s Men. Based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, which was itself a fictionalised version of the life of Huey P Long, the Louisiana Governor who championed the working man but also turned the State into his own personal fiefdom, until his assassination. Rossen’s film looks at the dangers of populist politicians, but at times it’s a blunted, simplistic look and is too quick to colour shades of grey into more digestible black and white.

Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a hick with a dream of running from office. His first campaign for county treasurer is impassioned but naïve, and he stands no chance against the ruthless (Democratic – although it’s not named) party system ranged against him. He loses but gains the attention of idealistic journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland), dissatisfied scion of a rich family. Stark teaches himself law and runs for Governor – but is manipulated by the party machine to split the ‘hick’ vote and allow their own candidate in. However, Stark rediscovers his fire and later runs again and wins. Stark promises a state run for the little people: but his pockets are lined by big-business and the man who started as a sober Christian becomes a drinker juggling two mistresses: his secretary and advisor Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge) and (proving power is an aphrodisiac) Jack’s girlfriend Anne Stanton (Joanna Dru). But can proof of his growing corruption bring him down?

All the King’s Men is a film that would be far more effective if it allowed more scope to seeing the good in Stark, not just the bad. This is after all, a self-made man (teaching himself law at home), who builds roads, hospitals and schools. He’s not a Trump, interested only in himself and damn the consequences. Many of his policies are solid Roosevelt New Deal fare. Sure, he becomes grasping, lascivious and a terrible father – but how did this happen? Was it that Stark realised that corruption was the game and he needed to play it if he wanted to win? Were there deep lying flaws already in his character? We just don’t really know.

Instead this film sets out its stall very cleanly: populist working-class politicians are much worse than tortured wealthy liberals. The characters the film admires all hail from the same gated island community of the rich. Any hypocrisy or corruption on their part is a tragic character flaw. Stark comes from poor farm land – but any corruption makes him a monster. Really is Stark all that bad? The film stresses its moral disgust at his drinking and womanising, but in office he produces the sort of modern infrastructure the State will need. Sure a newsreel questions if the state needs a modern highway (in a patronising “they are just country folk” way) and maybe it didn’t immediately – but ask how they feel ten or fifteen years down the line.

The real problem with politics in this era is not demagogues like Stark. It’s the corrupt machine style politics that settles the elections in advance, shuts the doors against anyone they don’t like and uses muscle (metaphorical and literal) to enforce its will. This is an institutional fault line in American politics of the era: and you could argue Stark’s tragedy is not that he’s corrupt, but rather that he has to fashion himself into exactly the sort of corrupt, machine-style politics boss that the system can accept in order to win. The film isn’t really astute enough to recognise this. Instead it settles for the standard “Great Man” approach, where we can point at a single man and say “yup, he’s the problem. Get rid of him and problem solved”.

Rossen’s film takes an easy soft-left approach. The poor people love Stark, because the media tell them to (although the film has its cake and eats it by only really showing the liberal press attacking him). Stark raising campaign contributions to run from office is an unpardonable sign of tar coating his hand – never mind that we’ve seen his personally funded campaign for a minor office didn’t stand a chance. Working for the people, its argued, doesn’t cancel out the evils of trousering some cash for yourself – never mind that the wealthy liberals Rossen sympathises with, living in their large country houses, have clearly been doing so for decades.

Instead All the King’s Men is a simple film that only scratches the surface of demagoguery. Stark makes great speeches, but we never find how far it’s a show and how far it’s empty rhetoric. We never find out enough either about what he has done or hasn’t done in office to make our own minds up. Rossen’s film fixes the tables and places all the blame not on the system but on a single man – and even suggests that getting rid of that man by violence and murder is in fact justified if the liberal elite decide it is. It’s not a good look for a film.

It bungles it’s politically and personally commentary, but you can’t argue that it’s not a well-made film. Inspired by neo-Realism, much of the film was shot on location (including effectively running a mock Governor campaign in parts of California) and its shot with an edgy immediacy, in places using non-professional actors. That’s a feeling helped by its sharp, jagged editing. Rumour has it that, with the first cut running long, Rossen asked the editor to find the narrative centre of every scene and then cut a hundred feet of film either side of it. The cleaned-up result of this is a edgy film that has the air of genuine reportage and effectively uses montage.

Broderick Crawford won the Oscar as Stark, and he plays the role with a sweetness that turns into brilliant bombastic swagger. The film uses his hulking physicality to marvellous effect, and while his character often feels simplistic, Crawford nails the speeches and Stark’s Lyndon B. Johnson like powers of physical intimidation. John Ireland (Oscar-nominated) does a decent if uninspired job as the weak-willed Burden, and Joanna Dru is a little too theatrical as Anne Stanton.

The most fascinating character though might well be political fixer/secretary Sadie Burke, played by fellow Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge. A radio actress making her film debut, McCambridge’s performance frequently avoids the obvious choices. Sadie is a hard-edged woman, unreadable, who has sharpened her personality to survive in a man’s world. Rossen’s film subtly codes that she is Stark’s mistress, but her relationship with him seems conflicted. She’s both vulnerable, but also bitter and cold to him – moments when you expect her voice to break, she’s hard, where you expect her to be sharp she’s brittle. She’s a bitterly cynical character who has given up hope. It’s a fascinating performance.

Rossen’s film is well made and is always going to have some relevance. But you feel it could have delved far deeper into its themes. But bluntly as a portrait of corruption, it’s not a patch on Citizen Kane and in Stark it sets up a monster we can have uncomplicated fun knocking over and then patting ourselves on the back once it’s done. For all its edgy, reportive feel, it’s a fantasy film.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

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Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face-off in famous interviews in Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Frank Langella (Richard M Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Irving “Swifty” Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jnr), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis)

If there is a bogeyman in American politics, it will always be disgraced President Richard Nixon. Because, however divisive Donald Trump is, Nixon will always be the king who was toppled, the man some consider a crook and a war criminal, others a gifted politician and negotiator. The truth is somewhere, as always, in the middle – but what seems inarguable is that Nixon was a man of deep personal flaws, which contributed considerably to his fall. Peter Morgan’s play explored the complexities of Nixon’s character through his famous TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, a man with a few chips of his own. Ron Howard takes what was already a fairly cinematic script by Morgan, and produces a smoothly professional, entertaining and very well acted film.

After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has been forced into resigning, he is in the political wilderness. Watergate engrossed the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to follow every detail. Who in television could resist those numbers? Certainly not David Frost (Michael Sheen), who believes if he can secure an exclusive interview with Nixon he could have a television package that could pull in millions of viewers, make Frost a fortune, and catapult him into the front ranks of TV interviewers. Slowly the project comes together. But both participants have a lot to prove: for Nixon this could be a chance of redemption; for Frost to prove he is more than a chat show host better suited to grilling the Bee Gees than the President. With both men underestimating each other, who will emerge on top in the interviews?

One of Ron Howard’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to elicit fine performances from good actors. This is the real bonus he brings to this faithful adaptation of Morgan’s award-winning play. He presents it with a highly skilled professionalism and a refreshing lack of distraction that allows the audience to focus on the acting and the dialogue, its real strengths. Frost/Nixon is sharply written – with Peter Morgan’s expected mix of careful research and dramatic licence (most especially in a late-night phone call between the two men before the final day’s filming) – crammed with fine lines, well drawn characters and fascinating insights into both politics and television.

Perhaps Howard’s finest decision was to ensure the two stars of the play (in both the West End and Broadway) were retained for the film. Langella and Sheen’s performances – already brilliant in the stage version, which I was lucky enough to see – are outstanding here, both of them completely inhabiting their characters. The comfort and familiarity between the two performers are crucial – and ensure that the vital scenes between the two characters carry an electric charge.

Langella brilliantly captures the physicality and voice of Nixon, but also finds deep insights into the President’s tortured soul. He communicates Nixon’s sense of inadequacy and bitterness, his resentment at having to fight all his life for things others have been gifted. He balances this with Nixon’s pride and paranoia that constantly leads him to cheat others first. Langella’s Nixon, lost and bored in retirement, is desperate to regain his statue, but also tortured by a guilt and regret he can hardly bring himself to name. Under his robustness and confidence, lies deep shame and sorrow. It’s a brilliant capturing of perhaps the most psychologically complex leader America ever had.

Sheen is just as superb as Frost. As you would expect from an accomplished mimic, the voice is almost alarmingly accurate (he makes a better Frost than Frost did!). But just as insightful is his understanding of Frost’s psychology. Just like Nixon, Frost is a hard-working lad from a poorer background who has had to fight for everything he has. Sheen’s Frost is a phenomenal hard worker – producer, financier and star of his own career – who works hardest of all to appear an effortlessly confident dilettante. Sheen’s Frost balances immense pressures – facing personal and financial ruin – with an assured smile, keeping every plate spinning by never allowing a moment of doubt.

It leads into fascinatingly different attitudes to the interviews themselves. Nixon prepares in detail – and determines his best strategy is long winded answers that present his case and prevent attack. Frost is so focused on delivering the interviews that he sacrifices his actual interview preparation (certainly more so than he did in real life). Morgan uses the conventions of boxing dramas – corners, breaks between ‘rounds’, advice from their trainers – to capture a sense of gladiatorial combat.

However, the play is more complex than this. The reason why Frost struggles to land a glove on Nixon in earlier interviews on his domestic and foreign policies is that Nixon genuinely believes he is in the right – but (perhaps as Frost understood) the final interviews based on Watergate will see a more vulnerable Nixon as on that subject he knows he’s in the wrong. I suspect the real Frost knew that to get to Nixon on that final topic, he needed to be ‘softened up’ first to feel comfortable and produce a revelation.

Because the film is refreshingly positive in its view of television. A medium that films often attack for being trivial and boiling things down to soundbites and snippets, here acknowledges the strengths that can bring. A single snippet of an apologetic and crushed Nixon is worth thousands of words – and small moments can turn a TV programme from a failure to an event. Howard uses the power of the close-up at these moments to demonstrate how TV can zero in with a merciless gaze on a single moment. It’s a defence of the power of TV and its ability to reduce things down to moments.

Howard’s understanding of the strengths that lie at the heart of the play – and to tell the story simply – is what makes an already cinematic play translate wonderfully to the screen. With Langella and Sheen outstanding (with the supporting cast all equally excellent), the film entertainingly demonstrates the preparation and delivery of the interviews, while offering shrewd psychological insights into two men who had a lot more at a stake – and in common – than at first appeared. Professional, handsome and captivating, this is Hollywood movie making at its best.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart campaigns for truth and justice in Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Senator Joseph Harrison Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper”), Thomas Mitchell (“Diz” Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGinn), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith), H.B. Warner (Senate Majority Leader), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine)

Capra’s film are known, above everything, for their fundamental optimism about life, friendship and the American Way. Few films cemented that opinion more than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the quintessential “one man in the right place can make a difference” movie. And where else would that one man need to be, but Washington? Where laws are framed and ideals come to die. It’s our hope that those at the heart of the political system are there for the good of the people. Of course, even Capra knew most of them were there to line their pockets and do their best for powerful business interests. So who can blame Capra for a little fantasy where naïve, innocent but morally decent Jefferson Smith decides enough is enough?

In an unnamed mid-Western State (the story the film is based on named it as Montana), the junior senator unexpectantly dies. The Governor (Guy Kibbee) needs a new man. Should he go for a reformer or the latest stooge put forward by political power broker in the State Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). A tricky choice, so he splits the difference by appointing Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) – because he’s wholesome and clean but also naïve enough to manipulate. Jeff heads to Washington, under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) – but Paine is in the pocket of Taylor.

Taylor and his cronies want an appropriation bill forced through that includes a clause to build a dam in their state. The dam will be built on land secretly bought up by Taylor and others, making them a fortune from public money. When Jeff announces in the Senate a bill to host a national boy’s summer camp on that same land, it throws a spanner in the works. Despite threats and bribes, Jeff refuses to go along with the shady deal over the dam, so they set out to destroy his reputation. With the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff mounts an epic filibuster in the Senate to clear his name, stop the dam and reveal the political corruption in his state.

Capra’s film is earnest, well-meaning and at times even a little bit sanctimonious and preachy – but it gets away with it because it’s also so energetic, honest and fun. It’s strange watching it today to think that the Senate at the time responded so poorly to it. Leading public figures either denounced it’s view of government and even tried to have it banned. Ironically of course, it probably inspired more people to get involved in Government than any other movie.

That was bad news for the corrupt political machines that ran so many parts of America at the time. Capra’s film is remarkably open-eyed about how these machines worked. Powerful business interests at the centre, with a raft of politicians in their pay – from Governors and senators on down. Jim Taylor – very well played with a swaggering, crude, bullying tone by Edward Arnold – only has to snap his fingers to get things done. During the film he mobilises the press, the police, the fire service and an army of heavies to enforce his will in the state and suppress free speech. The Governor (a neatly tremulous Guy Kibbee) is so firmly in his pocket, he can barely tie his shoe-laces without Taylor directing it. Senator Paine is patrician, dignified and has every inch of respectability – but he is soaking in filth up his neck from contact with Taylor.

It’s this system the film has a quiet anger about. Whatever happened to having “a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness – and a little lookin’ out for the other fella too”? Capra’s sprightly film also makes clear that we both don’t look too closely at how our government is really run and are very quick to hoover up any story we get from our political masters and accept it as gospel. An honest, decent man in the middle of all this is as unlikely a sight as you can imagine.

But that’s what these people get with Jefferson Smith – and discover someone who should be easy to manipulate, but doesn’t understand the rules of the game he’s playing. Instead Jeff thinks they are all there to help other people, not to themselves. Now you can argue, as some critics have, that law-making is the art of compromise – and that once the dam is under way, the benefits it will produce to Jeff’s home State (in terms of employment and energy) will be huge. So why shouldn’t Jeff bow down and move his boys camp in order to let the Bill go through?

Well the point is that Jeff isn’t opposed to the dam – he’s opposed to the corrupt profiteering that will spring out of it, and the way the cesspool of Washington (amongst all those fine monuments he so adoringly looks at) doesn’t care. This is a filibuster campaign to put honesty and decency back into American politics – and what’s not to like about that? It’s a film that firmly believes that one good man in the right place (that’s both Jeff and the President of the Senate, who tacitly encourages him) can change the day and save the country from itself.

There was of course no one better for such a job than Jimmy Stewart (and surely it’s this film that made him “Jimmy” to one and all). Capra had James Stewart in mind from the start – and it’s a perfect role for him, an iconic performance that stands as surely one of his greatest roles. Stewart has the skill to make Jeff endearing but not saccharine, naïve but not frustrating, innocent but not a rube, gentle but determined. Despite its corniness (and some of the film is very corny) you relate to his reverence for Lincoln’s memorial and the Capital. Stewart’s homespun charm is perfect, but it’s matched with the steel he could give characters. There is an adamant quality to his filibuster, his refusal to back down and go along with injustice. The final quarter of the film that deals with the filibuster is quite superb stuff, Stewart delivering some very-well written speeches with commitment, passion and bravura. It’s no understatement to say the film would work half as well as it does without him.

But then the entire film is also a feast of great acting, all sparked by a superb script from Sidney Buchman which mixes razor-sharp dialogue with wonderful speeches. Jean Arthur (who actually gets top billing) is very good as a cynical Washington insider who rediscovers her ideals – and finds her heart melting – under Jeff’s honest influence. Claude Rains gives one of his finest performances as the patrician Paine, a man who tries to close his eyes to his own corruption, but swallows down his own guilt and shame every day. Harry Carey gets a twinkly cameo as an amused and supportive President of the Senate. (Both actors were nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach who also appears here in a fun turn as the drunken but principled reporter Diz).

Capra keeps the pace up perfectly, and his direction handles both smaller scale scenes of romance and idealism, with the larger scale fireworks of the Senate (a superb set, that looks so convincing it’s amazing to think it was built on a sound stage). His biggest trick here is to create a film that, in many ways, is a political lecture, but never makes it feel like one. Instead it delivers it’s messages on truth, justice and the American way with such lightness – but yet such pure decency – that it all works. It helps a great deal that the film doesn’t shy away from the corruption and – apart from a final turn that saves the day – resists melodrama and contrivance. Charming, funny but also thoughtful and committed, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of Capra’s very best.

Land and Freedom (1995)

Ian Hart fights for Land and Freedom in Ken Loach’s impassioned Spanish Civil War drama

Director: Ken Loach

Cast: Ian Hart (David Carr), Rosana Pastor (Bianca), Frédéric Pierrot (Bernard Goujon), Tom Gilroy (Lawrence), Icíar Bollaín (Lawrence), Marc Martinez (Juan Vidal), Paul Laverty (Militia Member)

What do we really know about our elders? After David Carr passes away, his granddaughter finds a box full of memories from his time as a young man (Ian Hart) who went to Spain in 1936 to fight against fascism. His granddaughter uncovers a whole side of her radical grandfather she never knew – his passions, his love and the reasons for his disillusionment with the communist party.

If there was someone who was going to make a film about the Spanish Civil War, it would be Ken Loach. The Spanish Civil War is a totemic event for left-wing politics, where the dream of a truly commune-based left-wing government in Europe, by the people for the people, died in a long civil war with right-wing military forces. Loach’s film hums with anger at this missed opportunity and fury at the way these crusaders for justice were left high and dry by both the rest of Europe, and the Russian-controlled forces that should have been on their side.

The Spanish Civil War is a war that it’s easy to slightly forget – a dress rehearsal for World War Two but with a different result. It’s striking that this is one of the very few films – perhaps the only film – to really tackle it. Perhaps that’s because, for many, it’s a hazy and confusing combat with no clear goodies and baddies. On one side the left-wing forces were riddled with internal conflict, with many in thrall to Stalin, while the right-wing forces were anti-Stalin (good) but fascist (very bad). It’s a war that ended with an elected government overthrown in a military coup, tacitly endorsed by the Allied powers – not something that fits well with our narrative of the World War Two era.

It’s clearly a war where Loach has picked a side. His sympathies – and the film’s – are certainly not with the leadership of the communist party, who are portrayed as heartless, two-faced and only concerned with assuring Soviet control over the country. Instead he sides with the common working-class man, fighting in the trenches, full of idealistic passion and righteous anger. Loach’s film is unashamedly political, awash with ideas and idealism.

Not many other films feature at their heart an impassioned, semi-improvised, debate on the merits of forming a commune and economic self-determination. This scene, the key moment in the film, really works by the way, with the actors throwing in their contributions alongside extras, many of them veteran Spanish trade unionists. You can question the naivety of it – and also the way, as often, Loach tends to paint compromise as a vice nearly as bad as betrayal – but it makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. Because, if nothing else, it’s clear everyone, from the director down, really believes in the virtues of the politics being offered and the hope they bring – and that’s infectious.

It’s also because Loach is a highly skilled director who has carefully used the film to build our empathy with these brave campaigners. There are some truly impressive performances. Ian Hart is superb as the young David Carr, young, idealistic, funny, brave and angry. Rosana Pastor is just as good as the woman he loses his heart too, the sort of feminist warrior ideal that is the staple of films like this, but whom she makes feel exceptionally vibrant and alive. Loach throws us into the trenches with these guys, showing us their lives and loves, allowing us to follow them through triumph and loss. It’s a film that demands we respect and admire these people who came from far and wide to fight for what they believed in – and it’s right to do so.

As always with Loach, what I miss is the shades of grey. You cannot doubt the honesty and true feeling behind these people’s views. They believe that what they are saying is the only way. What Loach tends to do – and does here – is show anyone who disagrees with this view, no matter the reason, as either cowardly or self-serving. An American communist who stresses the need for moderation in their politics (to win sympathy from the Western powers) and professionalism in the military campaign is dismissed as a sell-out and a patsy. As often with Loach, the idea of getting results from moderation and organic change is seen as worse than a romantic failure that sticks completely to ideals. Perhaps it’s an interesting insight into why so many left-wing political movements have ended in failure?

But away from the politics this is a fine film, one of Loach’s best. The reconstruction of the Civil War – often confused, rushed trench warfare fighting unclear enemies – is brilliantly done. A storming of a village by David Carr’s militia group is shot with the sort of immediacy that would make Paul Greengrass jealous. And what Loach does better than almost any other filmmaker is bring real, living, passion to the screen. As the militia is finally betrayed for good by the Communists, the spittle-flecked, teary-cheeked anger of the characters at the Soviet-backed forces rounding them up feels almost unwatchably real.

I don’t always agree with Loach’s politics – and I strongly favour compromise and moderation as a better way of achieving long-term goals than blindly sticking to principles – but I have no argument with his qualities as a filmmaker. And Land and Freedom is so clearly one-from-the-heart that you can’t argue with it. No matter your political stance, you must be moved by it. And feel a profound sorrow about how a generation saw their dreams ripped away and betrayed.

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Spencer Tracy runs for office in John Ford’s toothless satire The Last Hurrah

Director: John Ford

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Major Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Maeve Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (“Cuke” Gillen), Edward Brophy (“Ditto” Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J Hennessey), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner)

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for a fifth term of a “New England city”. Skeffington’s roots lie in the town sprawling Irish population, and has successfully played the game of machine politics all his life. He’s alienated the members of the towns traditional elite – who can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower – but he’s loved by the regular people of the city. But is Skeffington going to find himself out of touch with a political world starting to embrace populism and the power of television?

John Ford’s adaptation of a hit novel by Edwin O’Connor, is one of his rare “present day” pictures. But it’s a bit of a busted flush. What should have been an exploration of a tipping point in American politics, totally fails to successfully land any of the points it could make. It’s a film that doesn’t understand the Kennedy-esque world America was moments away from embracing, and looks with such ridiculously excessive sentimentality at old-school politics it manages to tell us nothing about the corruption and dirty deals of this sort of machine politics. Effectively it’s a film that takes two long hours to tell us almost nothing at all. 

The film adores two things – and it’s not a surprise in a Ford film – the past and the Irish. Anything from yesteryear is covered in a halo, with the parade of old-school Hollywood character actors from the Ford rep company taking it in turns to denounce and condemn anything and anyone less than 40 years old. Every young person in the film is either a feckless idiot – Skeffington and Cass’ sons are a playboy and an embarrassing moron – or, like Jeffrey Hunter’s Adam Caulfield (Skeffington’s nephew covering the election for the local paper) is there merely to provide doe-eyed adoration. 

As for the Irish, the film loves the grace and charm of this old immigrant community. Skeffington’s Irish political machine is sanitised beyond belief. In the real world these sort of organisations operated on a system of back room deals, intimidation and careful arrangements to deliver set quotas of votes on polling day. Sure many of these politicians also delivered a number of social reforms – as Skeffington does – but any suggestion that any of Skeffington’s dealings could ever be described as dirty are roundly dismissed. Here it’s all about what Skeffington could do for other people, and no mention of the endemic corruption in many politicians like this. Instead Skeffington is presented with nothing but rose-tinted sentimentalism, a respectful widower, a kind man, whose actions are often more about other people than politics.

Former Boston mayor James Michael Curley – who Skeffington was clearly based on – was imprisoned for corruption. No chance of that happening to Skeffington who only uses intimidation and back-street savvy to fight the causes of orphans and widows (literally) and takes nothing at all from the public purse (although he still lives in a lovely big home). By contrast his elite opponents are the sort of scowling, greedy, penny-counters you might find in a Frank Capra film, shameless bankers and newspaper types who care nothing for truth and justice and only their own selfish needs.

Perhaps that’s why Skeffington’s opponent McCluskey (an early Kennedy substitute with his perfect family life, war record and lack of actual accomplishments) is portrayed as such an empty suit, a mindless, grinning yes-man who has nothing to say and no goals to meet. Ford’s contempt for him – and for the new word of television – drips off the screen. The TV shot we see McCluskey shooting is a farcical mess, poorly shot, edited and delivered with stilted artificiality by McCluskey and his tongue-tied wife. Not only is it not particularly funny, the presentation of this just shows how out of touch Ford was with modern America. Two years after this, Kennedy would win an election largely off the back of his ability to present a dynamic image on TV. Skeffington even crumbles in the election due to his traditional, press-the-flesh campaign not competing effectively with TV slots. How can that look even remotely convincing when Ford shows his rival has no mastery of the new media at all? That in fact he’s worse at making TV than Skeffington proves to be?

What exactly was Ford going for? By failing to criticise anything at all about the old-school politics and pouring loathing on the new politics, he ends up saying very little at all. Skeffington is a twinkly angel, but we never understand why so many in the church and the city oppose him – other than the fact I guess that he is Irish. Donald Crisp’s cardinal promises at one point near the end to reveal why he always opposed Skeffington – only to be hushed. If anything bad ever happened, Ford ain’t telling us making this one of the most dishonest of his tributes to Old America.

None of this is to criticise much of the acting, which is great. Spencer Tracy dominates the film with his accustomed skill and charisma, his Skeffington both a twinkly charmer and a practised flesh-presser who manages to subtly pitch and adjust his character depending on his audience and whose physicality helps to assert his dominance in every scene. Pat O’Brien does fine work as his fixer and Basil Rathbone is suitably sinister as a his principle financial opponent. Ford also puts together some memorable shots – especially a long walk Skeffington takes past a victory parade – and scenes, but the film is an empty mess. And, with its extended final twenty minute coda, goes on way too long.

The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford as a political puppet in The Candidate

Director: Michael Ritchie

Cast: Robert Redford (Bill McKay), Peter Boyle (Marvin Lucas), Melvyn Douglas (Former Governor John J McKay), Don Porter (Senator Crocker Jarmon), Allen Garfield (Howard Klein), Karen Carlson (Nancy McKay), Quinn Redeker (Rich Jenkin), Michael Lerner (Paul Corliss), Kenneth Tobey (Floyd J Starkey)

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) has it all – the looks, the charm, the ideals, and he’s the son of former California governor John McKay (Melvyn Douglas). Who else could stand a chance as the Democratic candidate against long-time incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter)? McKay is reluctant to run – but he’s promised by Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), election specialist, that he has no chance of winning so sure, he can say whatever he wants. But Lucas has another plan, to turn the good-looking, charismatic McKay into his ideal candidate – workshopped, bland, generic and with as wide (and shallow) an appeal as possible. And as the election goes on, McKay turns from not caring, to not wanting to get humiliated, to wanting to win. What price idealism in a political game like this one?

Today, The Candidate looks considerably less fresh and inventive than it seemed in 1972. Back then it caught the wave of an America becoming increasingly disillusioned with its leaders and elections. Then, the idea of mass media manipulating focus-grouped candidates into something pliable, bland and uncontroversial to appeal to as many people as possible, seemed revelatory. Today, when even the optimistic The West Wing chronicles how even the good guys are obsessed with being on message and putting together political ideas into simple, repeatable soundbites with image as everything, The Candidate hardly looks ground breaking.

It won an Oscar for its screenplay, but it looks behind the times now – or even telling us only what we know already. So politics is all about image? Well big news there. In its Faustus-like structure, with McKay being corrupted away from his initial principles into the sort of cookie-cutter candidate focus group organisers dream of, it should be compelling. It isn’t really, part of the problem being that, even with his ideals, McKay is not really an interesting character.

He’s a character that can almost be defined as “looks like Robert Redford”. That’s what makes him appealing – the script spends no time at all on establishing any political or social ideas in McKay early-on beyond a vague wish to “do good” with his low-key law consultancy representing only the poorest. There is a half-hearted attempt to add some daddy issues, with the son determined to never become the principle-free politician his father (a blithely uncaring Melvyn Douglas) is. But these don’t really come into shape. Perhaps that’s the point? What makes McKay so appealing to Lucas from the start is he looks like a Kennedy, but has no real personality or ideas of his own.

He is, basically, a weak person who is quickly shuttled from place to place, told what to say and what to do and willingly converted one step at a time into an even greater non-entity. McKay clings to the idea of his political videos being about an idea, but quickly accepts “ideas don’t work” in these short pieces and allows them to be turned into puff pieces praising his youth and vigour. The film does get some fun out of the emptiness of campaigning – the slogan “McKay: The Better Way” means nothing at all – not to mention McKay becoming so dependent taking direction he can’t even do a broadcast without asking if his jacket should be buttoned or unbuttoned. But it lacks a real oomph.

Perhaps that’s because the film doesn’t really have a plot or characters as such. Every person in the film is there to fill an objective, no more and no less. Even Lucas, the arch manipulator, is little more than a cipher to represent spin doctors (years before the term was coined) for whom the competition and battle is all that matters and principles count for nothing. Ritchie shoots the film with a sort of sub-Altmanesque observational style with overlapping dialogue, but never really immerses the viewer in the quick-moving world of politics, instead serving up a series of mediocre images and scenes that serve as sketches or statements (Campaign ads are empty! Politicians are pre-packaged! They don’’t answer questions!) that eventually become a bit wearing.

Without this sense of narrative, events drift by and character developments just seem to happen with no logic. Redford supplies no real character to the part, unable to convey a sense of growing corruption and ambition in his performance. So when McKay starts doing things – like the mistress he takes during the course of the campaign – it just feels like the film has a nihilistic loathing for politicians rather than the ability to make any actual points that carry weight. 

It’s a disappointment as this is a good idea, and could have really worked if the writers and directors had allowed the film to have some heart alongside its cold cynicism, or even had allowed some clear story to play alongside. Instead we simply watch McKay becoming even more empty and artificial – taking part in a debate with his rival on air, in which he skilfully never answers a single question but parrots quotes from his briefings – only addressing at the very end that all this leaves us with politicians good at winning elections but with no idea about how to run the country. While it is one of the first films of its type, you feel it has long since been surpassed.

Missing (1982)

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are on a quest for the Missing

Director: Costa-Gravas

Cast: Jack Lemmon (Edmund Horman), Sissy Spacey (Beth Horman), John Shea (Charles Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), Charles Cioffi (Captain Ray Tower), David Clennon (Consul Phil Putnam), Richard Venture (US Ambassador), Jerry Hardin (Colonel Sean Patrick), Janice Rule (Kate Newman), Richard Bradford (Andrew Babcock)

Politically motivated American films are few and far between, especially ones that take such a starkly critical view of American foreign policy. So it’s a testament to the respect given to Greek director Costa-Gravas that his first American film is an angry denunciation of America’s attitude towards Latin and South America and a criticism of the cosy assumption of so many of its citizens that the very fact of their being American will open all doors and make them invulnerable to harm. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973 (although for various legal reasons Chile itself is never named), young American journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman (John Shea) goes missing. His wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) is left alone in the increasingly dangerous city, while his father Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) flies into the country. Ed assumes his government will swiftly work with him to solve the mystery, and that his son must have been wrapped up in some dodgy dealings to have gone missing. He is to be brutally disabused of both notions with a painful swiftness, as he finds he and his son are insignificant factors in America’s geopolitical interests.

Costa-Gravas’ film wisely avoids focusing too much on the details of Chilean politics, or the causes of the coup, or even really concentrating on the left-wing politics of many of the American citizens wrapped up in the coup. Instead it zeroes in on the human impact of loss and pain, and by focusing less on the politics of a coup but on the impact of it, it places the audience attention instead on the atrocities that military revolutions bring. Alongside this, Costa-Gravas places front-and-centre of the story not a firebrand liberal, or a left-wing polemicist, but a character who could not be more of a strait-laced conservative, a quintessential American who firmly believes his country is the greatest in the world and heads into a foreign land anticipating doors will be opened for him and his government is here to help. 

It’s vital for the film’s success that it’s the experience of Ed Horman that drives the film narrative. First appearing 25 minutes into the film, the rest of the narrative charts Ed’s growing shocked realisation that his government doesn’t give a damn about his son and, even worse, is more than happy to lie to his face about the level of their involvement. While Ed believes America to be the font of all goodness in the world, he is horrified to discover that it is at the centre of a far more shady world of realpolitik. And that his own complacent belief in the country, and unquestioning assumption that it can do no wrong, is part of what empowers its representatives to back murderous regimes. “If you hadn’t been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you’d be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this” the Ambassador haughtily tells Ed, after the frantic father has angrily denounced America’s policies. And, from what we saw of Ed at the start, he’s right.

It’s a superb role of growing disillusionment and a stunned realisation that his own home-grown principles and believe in truth, justice and the American Way turn out to be just words. And Jack Lemmon is just about the perfect actor for it. This might be Lemmon’s finest performance, superb from start to finish, a perfect emobodiment of All-American principles that disintegrates into someone angry, bitter and disillusioned. But at its heart as well – and the films – is the very real grief of a father who has lost his son. Worse, a father who only feels he grows close to – and understanding of – his son after losing him. Lemmon’s performances mines every ounce of empathetic sympathy from the role, in a series of heartbreaking moments as Ed begins to realise just how much he has lost in a son he begins to feel he never gave a chance.

This very personal story is at the centre of the film, but Costa-Gravas never for one moment allows us to forget – or avert our eyes – from the horrors coups like this bring. By not naming Chile, it manages to make this the face of all brutal revolutions. As characters move through the streets, or squares, in controlled, carefully framed long-shots and takes we see all around, uncommented on by the camera, unfocused on by the director, the signs of brutality. Throughout the film the background action sees casual arrests, violence, assaults, book burnings, bodies being left in the street or thrown into trucks… All around ordinary people keep their heads down or run for terror. Curfews leave people trapped outside – Sissy Spacek (very impressive) as Beth is caught out and is forced to spend a night hiding in the porch of a hotel, while gun shots ring out around the city (a regular soundtrack for every scene).

The investigation into Charles’ disappearance is pushed forward not the embassy – which presents a series of acceptable faces of the new regime and a smiling reassurance that every thing is being done – but by harried and scared survivors and asylum seekers in European embassies, who tell snippets of the events they have seen, the deaths they have seen glimpses off, the horrors of detention centres. It’s finally dragged home to Ed and Beth as they are taken to an office block with every room containing executed corpses, some identified some not, the bodies piled on every floor of the building. 

In all this America – and shady military and industrial interests – are complicit, and the executions and deaths of citizens of this country (and a few Americans who unwisely mixed themselves up in it) are seen as acceptable collateral damage, the price of doing business to protect American financial interests. The Government is happy bed fellows with murderers and crooked officials, and the idea that the death of one American citizen is going to matter at all is nonsense. Costa-Gravas’ film has a firm point to make – but it makes it within the context of a very human and personal story. “They can’t hurt us, we’re Americans!” are Charlie’s final (on-screen) words: in this attitude he’s as naïve as his father, and he clearly believes just as much in the divine goodness and special status of his homeland. America has no special or outstanding moral character: it’s as mired in dirty world realities as anyone else. This rude awakening will cost the son his life and cause untold grief to his father as well as shattering all his cosy greatest generation idealism.

Primary Colors (1998)

John Travolta and Emma Thompson are definitely not the Clintons in Primary Colors

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: John Travolta (Governor Jack Stanton), Emma Thompson (Susan Stanton), Adrian Lester (Henry Burton), Billy Bob Thornton (Richard Jemmons), Kathy Bates (Libby Holden), Larry Hagman (Governor Fred Picker), Stacy Edwards (Jennifer Rodgers), Maura Tierney (Daisy Green), Diane Ladd (Mamma Stanton), Paul Guilfoyle (Howard Ferguson), Kevin Cooney (Senator Lawrence Harris), Rebecca Walker (March Cunningham), Allison Janney (Miss Walsh), Mykelti Williamson (Dewayne Smith)

In 1998, America was engrossed in what seemed like a never-ending series of scandals around Bill Clinton, with Clinton facing impeachment. The news was filled with Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal catch-ups seemingly non-stop. Surely in the middle of that, a film that charted earlier scandals about Slick Willie would be a hit? Well Primary Colors proved that wrong. A thinly veiled portrait of the Clinton run for the White House, based on a novel written by Joe Klein who followed the Clintons on the campaign, it tanked at the box office. Possibly due to audiences having Clinton-fatigue – but also perhaps because it’s a stodgy, overlong and slightly too pleased-with-itself piece of Hollywood political commentary.

The film sticks pretty close to real-life timelines. John Travolta is Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton (Travolta does a consistent impersonation of Bill Clinton both vocally and physically during the whole film), who’s running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, supported by his (perhaps) smarter, ambitious wife Susan (Emma Thompson, doing a neat embodiment of Hillary without impersonation). Eager young black political operator Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to help run the campaign – and finds himself increasingly drawn into the secrets of the Stantons, not least Jack’s persistent infidelities that seem to go hand-in-hand with his empathy and genuine passion for helping people. As scandal builds on scandal, the campaign to run for President becomes ever more unseemly.

Primary Colors asks questions that, to be honest, are pretty familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood film about politics. We’re presented with a Clinton-Stanton who wants to help America to re-educate itself in a modern world, who weeps with emotion when hearing a man recount his struggles with literacy (a fine cameo from Mykelti Williamson), who wants to rebuild America’s economy and build opportunities for all. And at the same time, he can’t keep it in his pants, is quite happy to dodge as much as possible the consequences of his actions, and is blithely disinterested in the impact his infidelities have on other people. Essentially the film wants to ask: at what point does a man’s personal behaviour and morals start to outweigh his good intentions?

It just takes a long time to ask it. A very long time. Primary Colors is a film that could easily be half an hour shorter, and you would miss very little. It’s a stodgy, overlong, smug drama that takes a gleeful delight in how clever it’s being making a film about the Clintons that-isn’t-about-them. It’s weakened as well by using an overly familiar device of putting a naïve and well-meaning audience surrogate character at its centre. We’ve seen this growth of disillusionment before, but Adrian Lester (in a break out role) fails to make Henry Burton a really interesting character – he’s little more than a cipher that we can project our views onto, and Lester is too reserved an actor to make him a character we can effectively invest in as a person. Instead he becomes a largely passive observer that more interesting characters revolve around.

Those characters being largely the Stantons themselves. John Travolta does a very good impersonation of Clinton, but he offers very little insight into the sort of person Clinton is, his motivations or his feelings. Like the character, the role is all performance and you never get a sense of how genuine his goals are and how much ambition is his main driver. As scandals pile up, Travolta is great at capturing Clinton’s sense of hurt that anyone would question his morals (even as his actions display his fundamental lack of them), but the role is short on depth. 

Emma Thompson gets less to play with as Hillary. In fact, she disappears from the second half of the film, after an affair plotline between her and Lester was cut completely from the film (something that makes certain scenes, where actors are clearly responding to this non-existent plotline, amusing to watch). But she manages to make the role something a little more than impersonation, delivering a whipper-sharp, ambitious woman who has buried her resentments about her husband’s betrayals under a wish to achieve a higher goal.

The rest of the cast deliver decent performances, but the stand-out is Kathy Bates as a long-time Stanton friend turned political fixer, who sees her idealisation of the Stantons turn to bitter disillusionment. Bates at first seems to be delivering another of her custom-made “larger than life” roles, but as the stuff hits the fan she layers it with a real emotional depth and complexity. It’s a caricature role that she turns into something real, a woman who feels genuine pain at seeing her deeply held political convictions and ideals being slowly disregarded by her heroes.

But then we get her point. Don’t we all feel a bit like that when we think back about Bill Clinton? The more we learn about his affairs and sexual scandals – and the more that #MeToo develops our understanding of how powerful men can abuse their power to take advantage of star-struck young women – the less sympathetic he seems. The film too suffers from some really out-of-date views of male sexuality. Billy Bob Thornton’s political fixer exposes himself early on in the film to a female worker, but this is shrugged off as “banter”, as opposed to a criminal offence – and the film largely avoids giving any air time to Stanton’s principal victim, the teenage daughter of a black restauranter whom he may or may not have impregnated. Stanton uses his power to gain sexual favours – one of his earliest acts is casually picking up a gawky English teacher who’s giving him a guided tour of her school (a funny cameo from Allison Janney) – but this is largely categorised as a personal weakness that doesn’t impact his suitability for the Presidency, something that feels more and more uncomfortable.

However, Primary Colors’ real problem is that it is overlong and a little bit too pleased with its intricate reconstruction of semi-true events. Although there are funny lines and decent performances, the film lacks any real zip and it gives no real insight into modern politics (other than perhaps deploring the compromises politicians must make) or the Clintons themselves. Instead it settles for telling us things we already know at great length and making safe but empty points about modern America. Far from exploring a Faustian pact where we accept deep personal failings in politicians because we believe that, overall, they could be a force for good, instead Primary Colors is all about turning shades of grey into obvious clear-cut moral choices.

Syriana (2005)

George Clooney gets crushed by the corruption of major oil companies in Syriana

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Cast: George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), Nicky Henson (Sydney Hewitt), David Clennon (Donald Farish III), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Peter Gerety (Leland Janus), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mark Strong (Mussawi), Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Nadim Sawalha (Emir Hamed Al-Subaai), Akbar Kurtha (Prince Meshal Al-Subaai)

The more I think about Syriana the more I think Stephen Gaghan was unlucky. If he had made this story today, you can be sure this would have become a ten episode series on HBO or Netflix. Instead, Gaghan made it into a film in the early 2000s. This means the bloated, over expanded plot gets crammed into two short hours at the cost of much of the emotional and political complexity it needs. Without this Syriana is an angry lecture, something that throws some interesting observations at the viewer, but basically resorts more often to shouting at them about how shit the world is. With its interlinking storylines and “serious” content it looks like intelligent filmmaking, but it’s more like a misguided opportunity.

Gaghan’s film follows four plotlines. Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA field agent, and expert on the Middle East, coming to end of his effectiveness as a field agent, struggling to get his superiors in Washington to understand the complexities of Middle Eastern oil politics. He is ordered to arrange the assassination of the eldest son of the Emir of a Persian Oil Kingdom Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig). Nasir is suspected of the States of harbouring terrorist sympathies. In fact he is a passionate reformer, desperate to modernise his country. Nasir is working with Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) a representative of an American energy company, whose son is tragically killed by an electrical fault at one of the Emir’s estates during a business trip. The Kingdom is also being courted by a newly merged US oil company Connex-Killen for exclusive drilling rights – with attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) tasked to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the merger and the riches that will follow. As these three storylines of political and economic oil matters interweave, migrant oil worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) struggles to find work in the kingdom, and is slowly wooed by extremists.

Gaghan directs his own script and that might be his first mistake, as he is not a confident or imaginative enough director to craft something truly dramatic and engaging out of this highly researched, technical script. Instead, the script – or rather the research behind the script – drives events at every turn and leads to scenes that feel like they should be intelligent but tend to be actors reciting reams of dialogue and stats at each other. Combined with that, the film has a slightly smug preachy tone to it, desperate to let us know how shady and corrupt the world is and how trapped we are on a continual downward spiral of greed and corruption preventing us from improving and changing the world. It doesn’t always make for compelling viewing.

On top of that the complexity of the narrative is often mistaken for smartness, but often feels rather more like rushed and sudden execution of a story that doesn’t really have time to breath. Frankly the story that Gaghan wants to tell needed 8-10 hours of screen time and he doesn’t get it. Instead he throws everything and the kitchen sink into this sprawling study of oil based corruption. From Washington, to private oil firms, to intelligence agencies, to the cash rich families sitting on top of these oil geysers everyone gets a kicking as part of the same sordid mess that has led to the world being dominated by the rich and the regular guys of the middle east being left adrift and easy picking for extremists.

It feels like it should carry real weight, but it never really does because it’s hard for us to get a handle on what is going on half the time and even less harder to care once you realise the film has sacrificed character and motivation for the drive of putting together its polemical view of the world. The film is stuffed with actors, but its striking how few of the characters they play make an impression. Every part is played by a star – except of course for the inexplicable casting of jobbing 1980s Brit TV actor Nicky Henson as an arrogant oil exec, a casting so outlandishly out of place for an actor you are more likely to see in One Foot in the Grave that I kind of love the film for it – but none of the roles is really much more than a cipher.

That’s not to say there isn’t decent work. Christopher Plummer brings great heft and menace to a law firm Washington bigwig. Jeffrey Wright nailed so well playing this sort of on-the-surface meek functionary who quietly learns (albeit reluctantly) to play the game as well as the loudmouths that he has played the same role several times afterwards. Alexander Siddig owes much of his post DS9 career to his exceptional thoughtful and sympathetic performance as an Arab Prince whose forward-thinking is a disaster for the governments who want to keep using his state as an ATM. 

George Clooney won a generous Oscar (it was surely partly a compensation for not winning anything for Good Night, and Good Luck that year) but gets the meatiest role as Bob Barnes, the tired and cynical CIA agent who slowly begins to question the orders he is given and the world he has been working to build for his masters. His story contains the most actual drama, possibly why it stands out – poor George gets a rough ride here, tortured, arrested, bruised and blooded. It’s pretty straight forward stuff for an actor of his quality (Clooney plays it with a world weary outrage) but it’s also the most memorable storyline of a film straining at every moment to be important. 

It’s quite telling actually that the film’s most memorable speech is put into the mouth of Tim Blake Nelson’s oil executive (“Corruption is why we win!”) a character so lightly sketched out he barely appears other than making that speech. It’s a sign of the weakness of the film: characters serve purposes to the narrative and then disappear. These lightly sketched characters act out a lecture on world politics and economic-energy-driven corruption. Syriana needed room to breath in order to become a drama rather than a lecture. Instead it’s a decent workmanlike movie with ideas that it never manages to really express in a way that will make you care. When it tells you rich businessmen love money and powerful politicians love power you’re likely to basically say “yeah. I know. Tell me something new…”