Why isn’t the ‘political film’ a genre of cinema? Hollywood puts out a consistent stream of politically-themed films, but rarely if ever promotes them as such. In this episode I review and critique the book The ‘Disguised’ Political Film in Contemporary Hollywood, discussing both the good and the bad, before trying to answer this key question.
I was made aware of the book The ‘Disguised’ Political Film in Contemporary Hollywood, written by Greek academic Betty Kaklamanidou, by Matt, who is cited in the book in a couple of places. So I asked the publisher for a review copy and gave it a read.
My overall impression is that it is like almost every other academic book about cinema that I’ve ever read – basically a well-researched and well-articulated opinion piece about films. It has lots of useful references and is certainly interesting, though I did find that some of the technical vocabulary was excessive and alienating.
This is, of course, not just a problem with this book but with academia in general. In order to prove how well educated you are and how you’re on top of your field you have to use a bunch of words that most people aren’t familiar with – it’s a means of rhetorically separating yourself from the plebs. But it’s also the reason why the plebs don’t read academic books or find academia particularly relevant or approachable. It’s a largely closed shop of intelligent people with no interest in or ability to influence the popular dialogue.
So when Kalkamanidou uses the word ‘isotopy’ to refer to repeated visual themes in the movies she analyses, I’m not sure what this accomplishes except to alienate ordinary readers. Why not just say ‘repeated visual themes’ or some other phrase that most people will immediately understand?
Of course, part of this is academic publishing – which almost exclusively markets academic books to other academics. They don’t anticipate that ordinary people will read the book, so they don’t care about making the text accessible to them. But as a consequence of this even the best academic books have almost no influence on what most people think, begging the question of whether there’s any point in publishing them. I’m certainly not saying this book is a waste of paper, I’m asking the question as to what the purpose of academic publishing really is. Is it about maintaining ivory tower elitism, or about actually helping people understand the world around them?
They are two quite different goals, and require vastly different approaches. I go out of my way to make my writing as accessible as I can, because while a large proportion of my readership are students and academics, a bigger proportion are ex-military and ex-intelligence types, people from the film industry and just random ordinary people who are curious and want to learn about the world. I could dress my writing up in a bunch of fashionable intellectual lingo but it would add nothing except making me look clever, and I already know how clever I am.
Another problem I have with this book, and with almost all academia when it comes to popular culture, is that it is basically a series of interpretations of films and assessments of their political content. Back in the days of the Frankfurt School the process by which culutre was produced – and the motives behind that process – were a central concern. While I find Theodore Adorno’s work a bit depressing and lacking in humanity, he wasn’t wrong that there is a culture industry. But then the Frankfurters got involved with the OSS, who apparently encouraged them down the Freudian road of merely interpreting the end product of culture, not the mechanisms that bring it into existence, and since then the overwhelming majority of academia has followed suit.
Matt and I made this point in one of our papers for an academic journal, that the academy treats films as merely something to be endlessly interpreted and re-interpreted, and this has got worse since the rise of postmodern critical theory. The popularisation of this form of critical theory is little more than relativism – the idea that all interpretations are equally valid. Well, they aren’t. It is possible to interpret Apocalypse Now as a metaphor for what teenage girls go through during adolescence, but that’s a fucking stupid interpretation of far less merit and value than the idea that it’s about the Vietnam war and the Phoenix Program.
This is where the work Matt and I, and Roger Stahl, Tricia Jenkins and a few others, differs from the majority of academic treatments of cinema. Instead of simply watching and interpreting the end products – the finished films – we look into the forces that are brought to bear during the creation process, in particular how the government is involved in the creative process. This basic question of who determines the content of culture is, for me, far more important than coming up with an original interpretation of something. The former involves active investigation, the latter involves passive interpretation.
Defining the Political Film Genre
The start of the book seeks to define the political film genre, and outlines the selection process for the ‘corpus’ of films analysed in the remainder of the text. Kaklamanidou limits her selection to films released between 2002 and 2012, and ones that made at least $15 million at the box office. There are problems with these exclusive criteria but I can see why she employed them because you have to impose some kind of limits.
This netted 200 movies, which she then reduced to 78 films which exclusively dealt with politics, i.e. were set inside government institutions or otherwise had overt political content. After all, one could argue that almost all films are political, particularly with the rise of ‘the personal is the political’ types of thinking. However, she does make a couple of errors here if you ask me.
The first is the exclusion of the 2003 movie The Recruit, which is all about a young man who is recruited into the CIA. Kaklamanidou rules this film out because she says it is primarily about the relationship between the young man and his older instructor – a sort of surrogate father figure – and hence isn’t overtly political. But in another spot she says that all films set in government institutions are inherently political, so she contradicts her own criteria.
More importantly, though she wasn’t to know this at the time of writing, The Recruit was basically written by the CIA’s entertainment liaison, Chase Brandon. How a film written by a government employee for propaganda purposes isn’t a political film is beyond me. This is particularly the case when she includes a bunch of other movies that are mostly romantic costume dramas set hundreds of years ago, but because they involve the British royal family they are considered political.
To be honest, I felt like she included those simply so she could include some films with female leads that were marketed primarily at women. In the chapter on those films she made heavy use of the cliché ‘strong woman’ and ‘strong female roles’ which made me roll my eyes. Nowhere does she mention strong men or strong male roles, so this appeared to just be about conforming to the usual, very shallow, pop feminist dialogue that has become very prominent in the last decade or more.
My point being that who cares about a ‘strong female role’ in a romantic drama set half a millenia ago? Is that really of political relevance to modern women? Or does it, in fact, reinforce the same old values that women are only interested in meeting a man to take care of them? If you actually want strong, independent women then you need to stop referring to every woman as a strong, independent woman, even when they aren’t.
The other mistake she made was to exclude a bunch of films that were made with the help of government agencies, including Deja Vu, Battleship and The Adjustment Bureau (made with the DOD’s help) and Public Enemies (made with the FBI’s help). Again, in some cases I can forgive this because in many cases the government support for a movie isn’t obvious from watching it, but in the case of Battleship it definitely is. Just because it is a sci-fi action movie doesn’t make it apolitical. If anything, the trend over the last 20 years of DOD-supported films is to make more use of sci-fi and fantasy movies, as Hollywood isn’t making many war movies these days.
And the author is well aware that the DOD help make movies and rewrite the scripts for political purposes, as she quotes Matt’s first book Reel Power about this. Nonetheless, she excluded the vast majority of DOD-supported films from the timeframe she examined. To my mind any film that is supported by the government is automatically a political film, even if it isn’t an explicitly political film. Even more so, any film that was rewritten by the government entertainment liaison offices, that includes politically-motivated script changes, is a political film, however implicit that political content might be. If the government is treating these films as political then so should we.
Admittedly, this book was largely written in 2015 and published in 2016, so much of what has been recently discovered (mostly by me) about the government involvement in cinema wasn’t known when she was researching and writing the text. Nonetheless, looking back a few years later it is clear to me that this book could have been much more comprehensive in the way it went about defining and selecting the films that it considers political, and that it excludes a large number that should have been included.
Instead, it mostly used theoretical and interpretive reasons for including or excluding the films it included or excluded. To be fair, the author acknowledges this and acknowledges that she did not engage in a protracted study of how these films were made in order to determine whether they are political or not. But this leads me back to one of the overriding problems in cultural studies – that the production process is largely ignored in favour of interpreting the finished product. And that the government influence on scripts is largely ignored in favour of identity politics agendas and similarly subjective approaches.
As a consequence, the book includes Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde but doesn’t include Iron Man, or indeed any Marvel film from this period. It includes The King’s Speech but not American Gangster. I would argue that a major US drugs trafficker who imports drugs with the help of the US military is a much more political basis for a film than one about the King having a speech impediment. It’s certainly a more relevant political film to what’s going on today, and therefore more worthy of study.
Ditto the author included Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center in the initial selection of 200 films, but excluded it from the main selection because the protagonist’s narrative thrust is apolitical – it’s about survival in the face of disaster. But isn’t survival in the face of disaster a political theme, especially when the disaster is a real event with massive political consequences? The book also leaves out United 93 for similar reasons, saying both films are ‘traumatic appeasement rather than polemical statements’.
But on the flipside the book leaves out Django Unchained – which makes a whole bunch of polemical statements – because the individual protagonist’s struggle has no wider political consequence. This I found simply odd, because to me it’s so clear that Django has a political subtext and was quite deliberately made and released during the administration of the US’s first black president.
Furthermore, I think it is a theoretical and practical mistake to exclude a film because – within the world of the film itself – the protagonist’s struggle and journey has no wider political impact. The important thing about a film is not whether the fictional world within the film undergoes political change, but whether the film inspires political change in the real world. One might argue that Black Lives Matter would not have become so big – or so hostile towards the police – if it weren’t for Django Unchained. I would certainly say Django has more political relevance, particularly for black audience members, than Robin Hood or The Queen or King Arthur. Just because Django doesn’t achieve any great political change within the non-existent world of the movie shouldn’t exclude the film from being considered a political movie.
My final problem with the selection and characterisation of the ‘political film’ genre in this book is that it includes and praises The Dictator, a hideous movie that did little more than turn the war in Libya into a trivial joke. I am not disputing it is a political movie, my problem is that the book treats it like it’s just a politically-themed comedy with no consequences for the real world. Again, this comes back to what I refer to as The Society of the Statement, where what a film says is considered more important than what it does.
Furthermore, I have a problem with the way Western media portrays dictatorships as though they are inherently bad, as though dictatorship inherently means evil government. It was the democratic US and UK who ran a worldwide kidnap and torture program. It is the democratic government of Israel which brutalises Palestinians in a slow-motion genocide. It was the democratic nations of the West who supported both fascists and Islamic fanatics to help destroy Yugoslavia. It was the democratic Western countries who invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya all at the same time. Gaddafi never did any of that.
The Political Films
The remainder of the book is devoted to a breakdown and analysis of several groups of political films. I quite enjoyed much of the author’s analysis and agree with most of it too, I especially liked the section on political thrillers because it’s full of movies supported by the CIA or by ex-CIA officers. Sadly, the book only makes scant reference to this but it was still my favourite section.
One more gripe I have – and this applies to almost all academia – is the incessant need to quote other people saying something that is so obvious it doesn’t require a reference. In the chapter on films about the US elections the author quotes another academic talking about how important the media is to modern politics.
No shit, Sherlock. I didn’t need someone with a PhD to tell me that, and nor does anyone else. Again, this smacks of ivory tower elitism, as though ordinary people are merely subject to political manipulation through media and it’s only the intellectually superior few who recognise the importance of this.
What most people don’t recognise is that it isn’t just news media that is a vehicle for this sort of political manipulation, and in fact entertainment media plays a much bigger and influential role than news media. But given that the author only makes fleeting references to government influence on entertainment media, I find this more than a little ironic.
To engage in a moment of self-glorification: it mostly isn’t academics who have pushed the topic of entertainment propaganda forward. The initial explosive revelations were by David Robb, a journalist, and then very little new information and research was done until Matt and I teamed up. While Matt is an academic he’s a pretty unconventional one who doesn’t have that much interest in being an academic, these days he focuses more on his comedy and other creative projects, while I’m a freelance journalist and podcaster. Between the two of us we’ve done more to document and explain the government entertainment propaganda machine than 99% of academics have done. My recent article on Shadowproof about the Benghazi movie 13 Hours went viral, it was the most popular article Shadowproof have published in the last year, and the academic articles I’ve written or co-written with Matt have been far more widely read and shared than most academic journal pieces are.
Nonetheless I did enjoy a lot of Kaklamanidou’s commentary and analysis of these films, and I enjoyed watching some of these movies. I’ll pick just one to focus on – Swing Vote, starring Kevin Costner. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is clearly playing on the hotly contested 2000 presidential election with the hanging chads and the other problems in Florida.
Basically, Costner plays Bud Johnson – a heavy-drinking single father whose young daughter is very politically engaged, and she hassles him to vote in the upcoming presidential election. He gets drunk and forgets to go to the polling centre, so his daughter ends up voting for him. But as she’s voting there’s a power cut and the voting machine conks out. Through the magic of Hollywood screenwriting this results in Costner having to re-cast his vote, which is the swing vote not just for his state but for the entire election. One man gets to choose the next president.
So we see both candidates schmoozing him and trying to get him to vote for them, and Costner has to pretend he isn’t some politically apathetic guy who drinks too much. He becomes a national celebrity, and with his daughter’s help he engages in politics and ultimately ends up casting the swing vote. It’s a sweet, funny, well observed film that made no money and was largely ignored at the time of its release, but it is a good film that’s worth a watch.
I especially like the daughter, who is ridiculously precocious and well-informed, with a cynicism towards politicians that belies her age in quite a comedic fashion. So here’s a clip from when the Republican incumbent, played by Kelsey Grammar – invites Bud and his daughter on board Air Force One.
I love this little exchange between Molly and the President’s campaign manager played by Stanley Tucci. Tucci’s character seems loosely based on Karl Rove, and at this point it seems like the film is leaning towards the Democrat candidate (played by Dennis Hopper) but as the story progresses both candidates are shown to be liars, lacking in principle, who will do anything to try to win Bud’s vote. When Bud makes a comment about ‘in-sourcing’ i.e. the importing of immigrant labour because they’re cheaper than the locals, the Democrat reverses his position and comes out against immigration. When Bud says he doesn’t care about gay marriage the Republican reverses himself and comes out in favour of gay marriage.
It isn’t the most sophisticated script but it quite well-observed and at times very funny, and Costner’s performance as the everyman Bud is very sympathetic, even though Bud is kind of an idiot. The book covers several similar films – The Campaign, Man of the Year and Head of State – all of which are comedies about the electoral process. I think Swing Vote is the pick of the bunch.
Kaklamanidou notes how Costner had to invest his own money to get the film made, because major studios didn’t see it as a commercially viable venture. And they were probably right because the film lost money, but she also points out that studios have a tendency to not greenlight political films, especially explicitly political films like this one.
This gets into an interesting assumption – that entertainment and politics are somehow divorced, that when audiences go to the cinema they don’t want to see a political essay in cinematic form. But the success of films like Vice, The East and Kill the Messenger – at least, the success allowed by their limited distribution runs – vs the failure of numerous mega-budget blockbusters suggests otherwise. I think there is an audience out there for political films, and other types of films that lie outside of the usual range of Hollywood’s output.
For one thing, political news coverage is so narrow and self-serving, typically picking a demographic sweet spot and acting like everyone outside of that is a threat or a moron. A film that satirises this, and treats its audience like it understands political deceptions i.e. treats them with some respect rather than as pets who need spoon-feeding, has a much better chance of getting people to reflect, reconsider, maybe even talk to someone with opposing political views. Humour and entertainment help bring people together.
The Political Film as a Genre
One of Kaklamanidou’s main conclusions in the book is that the political film genre can only exist as an abstraction, because Hollywood does not market its films in this way. She points out that most major film-oriented sites have no genre or sub-genre for political films, that such films are always marketed as comedies or dramas or thrillers – i.e. use pre-existing genres recognised by audiences in order to brand even explicitly political films.
She isn’t wrong about this – you’ll struggle to find film-makers and performers who talk about their products being political, even when they obviously are. Hence the title of the book, because she’s not talking about films where their political content is disguised, she’s talking about how even explicitly political films have to be disguised as something else for marketing and distribution purposes.
So I partly agree with her conclusion, that the ‘political film’ doesn’t exist in the same way that a ‘historical drama’ or a ‘gross-out comedy’ or a ‘slasher horror’ exists. But I’m not sure I agree with her second conclusion, that the ‘political film’ can only exist as an abstraction.
After all, we aren’t dependent on Hollywood’s marketing techniques in order to discover and learn about films. The internet provides various means for bypassing the conventional means of defining and promoting films, and if you go onto a search engine and type in ‘best political films’ you’ll get loads of results. It’s clearly something that critics and audiences recognise and enjoy, even seek out.
So I think it’s a false dichotomy, between genres officially recognised by the Hollywood machine and abstractions only recognised by academics and critics. Again, this smacks of the same elitism I find in a lot of academic critiques of popular culture, as though ordinary people can’t identify political films, only the highly-educated can.
Well, it wasn’t the highly-educated conventional academics who revealed the most malicious political influences in Hollywood, it was a handful of independents and journalists doing it in their free time. And while there are a reasonable number of academics who have used my research to help teach their classes and write their articles and so on, the vast majority of cultural studies and film studies academics have not. They’ve simply ignored or overlooked hard evidence of the forces shaping the cultural production process. Or treated them as unquantifiable abstractions so they can be problematised and theorised without ever having to verify or falsify any claim about them.
So while I am not dismissing this book, nor am I telling anyone not to read it, I do think it’s a great example of how the entire academic field of cultural studies is looking for the wrong things in the wrong places, reducing culture to something that is endlessly interpreted and re-interpreted. It turns the most educated critics into just another bunch of film-watchers, passive participants in the cultural process, rather than active investigators into how and why that culture is produced.