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.
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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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