IT’S NO secret that everyone is weighing in on politics these days, from David Letterman to Barbara Walters and the esteemed ladies of “The View” -- who, as the New York Times pointed out, have had Barack Obama, John McCain and even Bill Clinton on their couch, with McCain clearly getting the toughest grilling. But should film critics be weighing in on the presidential race as well? America’s leading film critic, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, certainly thinks so, and has been on quite a roll lately, writing a series of barbed commentaries about GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Ebert leaped into the fray with an essay about Palin where he dubbed her the “American Idol” candidate. Ebert said, in part: “There’s a reason ‘American Idol’ gets such high ratings. People identify with the candidates. They think, ‘Hey, that could be me up there on the show!’ ” He added that he didn’t want a candidate who simply appointed people to study global warming long after the scientific consensus was in.
Ebert is hardly the only critic who’s begun to focus on politics. When I was up at the recent Toronto Film Festival, I found myself seeing the event in an entirely different light after reading a variety of online commentaries from New York Post critic Kyle Smith, who had tons of fun mocking a number of lefty-minded films.
But back to my original question: Liberal or conservative, should film critics be at work on a second front, offering their take on America’s politicians? Judging from past e-mails I’ve received, I’d say a majority of our readers would say no. You’d probably get the same answer -- no -- if you asked a traditional journalism professor or newspaper editor. I guess that (once again) makes me a contrarian. To me, film critics, like TV and theater critics, are especially well equipped to analyze today’s politics, which is why Frank Rich made such a seamless transition from theater to media and political commentator. In fact, in some ways film critics are probably better equipped to assess the political theater of today’s presidential campaigns, since our campaigns are -- as has surely been obvious for some time -- far more about theater and image creation than politics.
As far back as the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and certainly since the era of Ronald Reagan’s media mastermind Michael Deaver and campaign operative Lee Atwater, political campaigns have revolved around the dark art of media manipulation, in particular in their use of campaign-commercial image-making to engage our emotions and fears instead of our ideas or intellect. Filmmakers have known this for years, which is why so many gifted directors, including Oliver Stone (“JFK,” “Nixon,” “Talk Radio” and the upcoming “W”), Warren Beatty (“Reds,” “Bulworth” and as an actor-writer-producer on “Shampoo”) and Ron Howard (“EDtv” and the upcoming “Frost/Nixon”) have eagerly dissected the messy intersection of media and politics.
If filmmakers have found fertile ground doing it, why shouldn’t critics explore it too? Ebert’s assessment of Palin as an “American Idol"-style aspirant was also right on the mark. He shrewdly saw her as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, understanding how powerfully her seemingly down-home, small-town vibe connected with the average American voter -- who, having largely declined to pay any attention to much real political reporting, doesn’t know any more about politics than “Idol” viewers know about music.
To use an even more primal example, Palin is a modern-day reinvention of Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s 1939 populist fantasy that also portrays Washington the way it is portrayed in McCain TV ads, as a cesspool of corruption.
David Thomson, another film critic who often writes on politics and social issues, is harsher on “Mr. Smith” than I would be, calling it a “kind of fascist inspirationalism,” but he makes a point that seems especially relevant to our current political debate. Thomson despises what he calls the film’s resort to “patriotism, statuary and quotation,” calling Stewart’s Jefferson Smith character “a tyrant, a wicked folksy idiot, who commandeers James Stewart’s alarming sweetness. He is the real threat in the film.”
I’d never thought of the film in that way, but that’s what makes good critics so valuable. Like art, politics can be uplifting, fascinating and unnervingly disturbing, which makes it far too important to be locked away from some of our most insightful observers.
This item and others can be found on the Big Picture blog at latimes.com/thebigpicture.