It was hard to watch the Hillary Clinton Benghazi hearings on Thursday without a rush of reactions. Perhaps the most dominant one was entrancement. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t come up with some of the moments of partisan drama — and absurdist comedy — that played out in front of the House select committee.
As it turns out, a lot of screenwriters have come up with those moments, and the sight of lawmakers like Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) squaring off with the former secretary of State (and with panel Democrats) evoked more than its share of cinematic reference points.
The courtroom may be the cornerstone setting for the procedural drama, but the congressional hearing actually has more gravitas, more stakes, and for all its use in big movies, it’s almost surprising it hasn’t been used more.
The most literal on-screen deployment is probably “Advise & Consent,” Otto Preminger’s 1962 drama that, like the Benghazi hearings, also involves the office of secretary of State, a person being evaluated for a higher-profile position and some charged proceedings. As presidential appointee Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) seeks to gain confirmation to the State Dept.’s top post, some manifest enemies oppose him, the drama playing out across Washington society.
By placing the movie in this setting, Preminger has given himself a twofold advantage: He allows for forceful showdowns among politicians during hearings while also heightening the tension at backroom dealings. And if the film’s events tend toward the melodramatic, it’s nonetheless a classic example of how to make government jockeying interesting (almost, one might say after Thursday, as interesting as the real thing).
Still, though made at the height of the Cold War (and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that elegantly tapped into those currents), ideological issues are more incidental than explicit; this is a movie that uses communism as a plot device more than a political theme.
The congressional hearing has been a battleground for more explicit ideologies in movies about the House Un-American Activities Committee. Among them: Irwin Winkler’s 1991 morality play “Guilty by Suspicion” with Robert DeNiro and, more currently, Jay Roach’s upcoming release “Trumbo,” in which Bryan Cranston stars as the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Cranston plays the part with a mix of wry ennui and stony resolve, which give the hearings a crackle one doesn’t always see from these proceedings in other films. (Also, it’s a chance to watch Louis C.K. play a conflicted congressional witness, and who doesn’t want that?)
These movies don’t always delve into the finer points of American politics, however. Congressional hearings have been used for more general dramatic showdowns — essentially, they’re Perry Mason moments with bigger consequences. When Frank Pentangeli shows up to testify against Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II” then has second thoughts, it offers a dramatic payoff you couldn’t get from any old witness reversal.
The setting also expressed the franchise’s transition regarding how the Corleone family operated, from plotting in the shadows to one of the largest public stages in American life. It’s something big-budget action Hollywood has discovered lately as well, and that’s before you get to Michael Bay’s upcoming movie about the Benghazi attacks.
In these tent poles, the hearings often are used to fit the narrative of the maverick, long working under the radar, coming up against an unfeeling bureaucracy. That happens at the start of “Iron Man 2,” when Garry Shandling (random musing: who would he play in the inevitable movie based on the Benghazi-Clinton hearings?) stars as a politician who wants to make Tony Stark turn over his top-secret technology. Needless to say, such short-sightedness only enhances Stark’s moral position, and potential for quips; it also gives us a rooting interest we wouldn’t have if he were fighting his usual villains unfettered.
A similar dynamic is at play in the latest movie about Ethan Hunt & Co., “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation,” which this summer saw Jeremy Renner’s IMF member William Brandt appear before a skeptical congressional committee. The scenes solidified the group outlier status and gave Brandt — and us — the high ground while they’re at it. Brandt and the IMF also must convince Alec Baldwin’s CIA director, also testifying, to stand his ground, providing the movie an internal battle to parallel those taking place over global threats.
But in some instances, the hearing has less dramatic aims. Late last season, the HBO comedy “Veep” set an entire episode inside a hearing room. In the episode, titled “Testimony,” Congress was looking into whether Selina Meyer’s assistant, Gary, was responsible for tampering with the legislative process. Shot in a vérité style, it had various backstabbers and Keystone Cops called upon to explain themselves (or point fingers). “It was Ericsson,” many of them fall back on, as Diedrich Bader’s sharpie character squirmily takes the fall. It was really funny, if not as funny as what was happening at the House Select Committee on Thursday. Sometimes entertainment can get you only so close to the real thing.