Times May Change, but Political Movies Don't

The issues and references in films like The Campaign reflect their times, but Hollywood's vision of Washington, D.C. has remained remarkably consistent over the decades.

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W. (2008), The Campaign (2012), The Dark Horse (1932) (Lionsgate / Warner Bros.)

The Campaign, the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis political comedy that hits theaters this weekend, features a pivotal scene in which one of the "Motch" brothers (played by John Lithgow) delivers the film's take on contemporary American politics: "When you've got the money, nothing is unpredictable." The same could be said of the film's approach to comedy. On the surface, The Campaign is a wacky, mass-market studio film starring two of America's most successful comic actors. But it also manages to be a bleak indictment of the American political system, as summed up in the film's epigrammatic Ross Perot quote: "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules... Politics has no rules."

Paradoxically, films that center on fictional politicians offer realer insight into the eras of their release.

Anyone with an even passing knowledge of contemporary American politics will nod in recognition at the film's many targets: the dimwitted, pliable candidates, the sheep-like electorate, and the shady consortium of political-activist businessmen who aim to "double their already doubled profits" at the expense of their fellows Americans. The Campaign has already been praised as a uniquely contemporary satire on American politics. But in the end, the most surprising thing about the film's insights is how unsurprising they are. Hollywood has been leveling similar critiques at the American political system for the better part of a century—and The Campaign's attacks on ennui and corruption put it in very good company.

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The film industry has long held a fascination with the lives of actual politicians, with recent examples including movies based on people like Richard Nixon, Harvey Milk, and Abraham Lincoln (vampire hunter). But with rare exceptions—like Oliver Stone's W.—films about real-life politicians all have one thing in common: They arrive in theaters long after the political career of their central protagonist has ended.

It is, paradoxically, films like The Campaign, which center on fictional politicians, that offer insight into the eras in which they were released. The political skepticism that followed the Great Depression led to movies like Gabriel Over the White House and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Three separate films from the early 1960s—The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, and Seven Days in May—channeled America's fear of communism. And post-Watergate America has seen the release of comedies like Bob Roberts, Dave, and Man of the Year—which posit that only untainted, non-politicos can overcome the corruption of Washington, D.C.—and satires like Wag the Dog and In the Loop, which portray politicians as petty, self-absorbed, and corrupt. Each of these films is a time capsule for the political issues and concerns of its era.

But the wide range of political films offers more than a simple overview politics at the time of their release; they offer insight into how little American politics has changed. In fact, the most surprising thing about the earliest American political films is how much their satire still feels relevant today. 1932's The Dark Horse features an unqualified candidate coached by his campaign manager to respond to every difficult question by saying, "Yes... but then again, no." 1948's Frank Capra-directed State of the Union centers on an unlikely presidential candidate whose campaign is buoyed by a biased newspaper and a series of backroom deals. And 1949's All the King's Men chronicles an idealistic candidate's path to compromise, and eventually to corruption. It's telling that both All the King's Men and The Manchurian Candidate saw remakes decades after the original films were released; their themes remained resonant enough for a Hollywood studio to deem them worth revisiting.

There are shades of pretty much every film about American politics in The Campaign. For all its pointed references to Super PACs and Goldman Sachs, the movie's insights can best be summed up by the catchphrase of the politician played by Zach Galifianakis: "It's a mess." It's the rallying cry that Hollywood has been offering for decades—and the rallying cry that decades of audiences have found themselves agreeing with.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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