Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Political Theater
Show Description +

Megan Garber leads an ongoing reader discussion about some of the most influential and entertaining films about elections. To have your views included, please drop us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 3 Newer Notes

Wag the Dog: The Cynical Movie Americans Deserve

New Line Cinema / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Wag the Dog is notable, mostly, for its cynicism—cynicism that is so deep, and so pervasive, that it takes for granted that the cynicism will be shared by its audience. The film’s satire is so searing, in part, because it starts with the premise that politics is performance (or, ahem, that it is Political Theater, if you will)—and then it takes that premise to its logical conclusion. The argument undergirding the whole thing is that what Americans experience as the details of their civic life is actually an enormous production. All of it—the pageantry, the policy divisions, the things that suggest that Americans, by way of our hard-fought representative democracy, have an active say in our own future—is basically one elaborate Truman Show.

Wag the Dog, for my money, is very, very good satire. But what I kept thinking about after I watched it was why, in particular, its satire was so successful. And I think it had something to do with the fact that the film is based on a truth that is so widely distributed, I think, as to be largely invisible: that Americans, nowadays, take for granted the idea that politics is, in some sense, a lie.

Refat / Shutterstock / New Line Cinema / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Mid-way through October—and aaaaalmost approaching the finish line of this long-running election season—it seems appropriate to consider, for the next installment of Political Theater, the October surprise.

Wag the Dog, the 1997 satire starring Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Kirsten Dunst, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, and a handful of many other mid-’90s luminaries, is all about the last-minute revelations that can change the course of an election. That might be why it was one of your most up-voted movie selections for Political Theater. As one reader explained, “This movie gave me my first look into the government communications machine and drove my interest in political PR, which I ended up making my career.”

Wag the Dog, indeed, is all about the interplay between politics and pageantry. It follows the PR guy Conrad Brean (De Niro) as he attempts to distract the U.S. electorate from a presidential sex scandal—by orchestrating, with the help of a Hollywood producer, a fake war with that unlikeliest of foes: Albania.

Yes. A little bit Argo, a little bit Canadian Bacon, Wag the Dog is uniquely cynical—and, in that, possibly even more relevant today than it was when it premiered nearly 20 years ago.

Here’s a preview:

We’ll be watching Wag the Dog on Monday, 10/17, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. (Wag the Dog is streaming on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and other digital platforms for $2.99.) If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join in! I’ll be tweeting some initial thoughts about it then, with the hashtag #AtlanticPoliticalTheater. As before, though, watch it whenever is good for you, and join the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber) or via an email to hello@theatlantic.com.

Looking forward to watching and chatting with you!

MTV Films / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

As we were watching Election on Wednesday, my colleague Matt alerted me to something I’d had no idea about: the film’s creators had originally provided a different ending. A really, really different ending.

It went like this:

Which is, yes … shockingly different from the conclusion the filmmakers went with! [Warning: From here, I should say, there will be intense spoilers about that ending.]

The ending that ultimately made the cut is, I think, tremendous: It almost single-handedly elevates—even, you could argue, redeems—Election, transforming it from a high-school soap opera into something that more strictly resembles a sweeping morality play.

The official ending is twofold: First, it finds Mr. McAllister catching a glimpse of Tracy, years after they both left Nebraska, in Washington—just down the street from the White House. She has graduated from Georgetown; she’s now an aide to Mike Geiger, a Republican representative; she’s leading exactly the kind of life you would expect Tracy Flick to be leading. When she and Mr. McAllister cross paths—she’s across the street getting into a limo with Geiger—she looks in his direction, with an expression of triumph on her face, but he’ll never know whether she actually saw him.

And then: He can’t resist. As the limo pulls away, heading away from the White House up 16th Street … he throws his cup of soda at it. The drink explodes on the back window of the car. He runs away. He is just as petty as ever. And she, once again, has won.

Watch the whole glorious scene for yourself:

And then there’s the very last scene: We find Mr. McAllister back in New York, where he works in the educational department at the Museum of Natural History—he guides tours for kids, basically. In the museum, surrounded by dioramas depicting early man, he asks a question: “So will that make this an igneous rock, or sedimentary? What’s the difference between igneous and sedimentary, anyway?”

The hand of a girl shoots up, eager and insistent: the next Tracy. Tracys, the movie suggests, here in this monument to the inevitability of evolution, are everywhere. And they will win, in the end. Darwinism is on their side.

Compare all that, then, to the ending that director Alexander Payne et al almost appended to Election: one that finds Tracy and Mr. McAllister reconciling, awkwardly, via that most idealistically American of rituals: the purchase of a new car. This ending features Tracy, having just graduated from Carver, confessing to Mr. McAllister that she is scared about what the future might hold. This ending, in short, humbles Tracy, and defangs her. It finds her confessing, actually, exactly the thing Mr. McAllister would want her to confess.

Which is all to say: It’s a very, very good thing Election’s creators went with the ending they did.

What about you? What are your thoughts about the ending, or the film in general? Let us know at hello@theatlantic.com.

Refat / Shutterstock / MTV Films / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When Hillary Clinton met Reese Witherspoon, the politician had a good way of breaking the ice: “Everybody talks to me,” Clinton is reported to have said, “about Tracy Flick in Election.”

It’s not necessarily a flattering comparison: Tracy Flick is, in one sense, a kind of comic-book villain in a plaid skirt. She’s obsessed with winning. She will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. And she’s also that most fraught of things for a woman to be: openly ambitious.

Because of all that, Tracy is an extremely relevant character for the era that is still (still!) grappling with the political ascendancy of Hillary Clinton. So let’s talk about Ms. Flick! And about the movie she stars in! Our next installment of Political Theater will be … 1999’s Election.

Here’s a preview:

We’ll be watching Election on Wednesday, 10/12, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join in! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about it then. (Election is streaming on Hulu and Amazon—where it’s free with a Prime membership—and it’s available for purchase for $2-3 on iTunes, YouTube, and other platforms.) But, as before, watch it whenever is good for you, and join the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber) or via hello@theatlantic.com.

Looking forward to watching and chatting—and to reveling in high school political intrigue—with you!

NBC / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

One of the election-season clichés that has been a standby in previous cycles, and that has been obliterated in this one, is the Beer Question. Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? Who, basically, do you find engaging, and interesting, and on your level? Who would you want to have over for a pint or two?

It’s the question at the heart of “Game On,” the West Wing episode that finds President Bartlet in a climactic, live-televised meet-up with his Republican challenger, Florida’s Governor Ritchie. The episode may only loosely feature beer; it revolves, though, around the qualities the Beer Question really tests: matters of “relatability” and, with them, “authenticity.” The question is about the gut feeling voters have about the people who put themselves forward to be their leaders. It’s about the tricky paradox that candidates have been navigating ever since the Washingtons welcomed that first eager traveler to Mount Vernon: Americans want leaders who will lead them, but who will also not be above them. They want the world’s most powerful elected leader to be a regular guy. Or a regular girl. They want … a peer.

So “Game On”! Ritchie, here, is very clearly the candidate you’d want to have a beer with. He’s folksy and charming and plainspoken. He probably has thoughts about the Dolphins’ defense. Bartlet, on the other hand … probably does not. He’s the know-it-all, the nerd, the snob, the kind of guy who probably eats a lot of quinoa (and who knows that it’s pronounced “KEEN-wah,” and will totally tell you so when you marvel at how ubiquitous “kin-OH-a” has become). If you came over to hang out with him, let’s be honest, he’d probably offer you a cheeky Zinfandel.

And “Game On” is not subtle about laying any of this out. (The episode is, perhaps relatedly, part of the last season of West Wing episodes to be written by Aaron Sorkin.) Indeed, throughout the televised campaign, Bartlet versus Ritchie, these blunt oppositions have been the stakes: smart versus not, educated versus not, thinking with your head versus knowing with your heart. George H.W. Bush versus George W. Bush.

The stakes are, to be clear, extremely glib: Ritchie is essentially a walking (well, dais-grasping) straw man, standing in for a great many of the stereotypes within which progressives are fond of packaging conservatives. During the debate, Ritchie talks about “Eskimo poetry.” He calls “unfunded mandate” “a big word.” He seems confused. He seems unprepared—not just for the debate, but for leadership. It is simply not a fair fight.

And that, of course, is the point. As Sam and Will are savoring Bartlet’s victory after the debate, Will registers his surprise about how forthrightly superior Bartlet was as it played out. “I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial!” Will says.

“So did we,” Sam replies. “But then,” he adds,

we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning at 3:10, my phone rings, and it’s Toby Ziegler. He says, “Don’t you get it? It’s a gift that they’re irreversibly convinced that he's arrogant ‘cause now he can be.” If your guy’s seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.

Again: so smug. Smuggity smug smug. We can acknowledge our own superiority, without shame or retribution! But I think there’s something hopeful in it, too.

Tom Kirkman, surrounded by screens as always, in Designated Survivor. ABC

I caught up with the first couple episodes of the new show Designated Survivor this past weekend. In the show, the top 12 people in the line of presidential succession, including the president and his entire cabinet and almost everyone in Congress, all perish in a bomb attack during the State of the Union address. So the running of the country falls to a somewhat obscure cabinet member, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), the “designated survivor” who’d been picked to watch the address from an undisclosed location in the event of just such a crisis.

Watching Kirkman wrestle with the burden of the presidency crystallized for me what bugged me about The Candidate (a film discussed by Megan here and here). Like Bill McKay (Robert Redford), Tom Kirkman is ambivalent at best about taking on a high-profile political office. But Kirkman’s ambivalence comes from the momentous regard he has for the office. McKay, on the other hand, treats the Senate seat he’s pretending to campaign for as something of a joke.

The promise McKay’s campaign manager makes him—the one that convinces him to run—is that he won’t actually have to follow through on any of the idealism of his campaign message. He can say whatever he wants, because he doesn’t intend to win. Although he gradually evolves into a more conventional politician, what drives him is his impulse to spread his cynicism about politics. He runs to mock the artifice of campaigning, and the biting satirical point of the movie (spoiler alert) is that his phony campaign compels voters all the more for its insincerity.

It’s hard to think of a more cynical move than asking people to invest their hopes, their votes, and their money in one’s campaign, all the while intending for that campaign to go down in flames. Yet many viewed McKay as a hero. Legend has it that the film inspired Dan Quayle to run for office, which inspired Jeremy Larner to address the future vice president in a 1988 op-ed in The New York Times. Larner wrote:

Refat / Shutterstock / NBC / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

This week’s presidential debate! It was … something, right? (Joe Biden summed things up well, I thought, when he told Jimmy Fallon last night, “I’ve never quite seen anything like that.”)

Since presidential debate season is upon us (this Tuesday will feature the veep debate, and the following Sunday will bring the second Clinton/Trump face-off), this time around we’re taking a slight detour from films: For our next Political Theater segment, we’ll watch … “Game On,” the debate episode of The West Wing. (This is the first one, to be clear, the one that aired in 2002—not the experimental live debate between Santos and Vinick that would follow in 2005.)

“Game On” finds President Bartlet running against the George W. Bush-esque Governor Ritchie, and the episode contains, for my money, everything I love to hate—and hate to love—about The West Wing: blithe partisanship, broad-brush treatments of complicated public policies, optimistic institution porn, characters delightfully pranking each other.

Here’s a preview:  

We’ll be watching “Game On” on Monday, 10/3, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join in! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about the episode then. (“Game On” is streaming on Netflix—it’s Episode 6 of The West Wing’s Season 4—and available for purchase for $2-3 on Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms.) But, as before, watch it whenever is good for you, and join in the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber), or via hello@theatlantic.com.

Looking forward to watching/chatting/catharting with all of you, and to reveling in the pageantry of this unprecedented election season. Game on.

Warner Bros. / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Jeff, the J.S. reader who wrote in before with great thoughts about The Candidate, followed up with a fascinating tidbit I hadn’t been aware of: The movie almost—almost—got a sequel. “In case you hadn’t heard,” Jeff writes, “there was talk a few years ago of a sequel, in which an older Robert Redford would play Bill McKay as the president he went on to become later in his career. Redford reportedly wanted to do it, but apparently the project never came off—unfortunately!”

The project was discussed, best I can find, in 2002. Here’s Entertainment Weekly’s write-up of the sequel that, alas, was not to be:

At the end of the classic 1972 political satire The Candidate, having won an upset victory for U.S. Senator from California, the once-idealistic young candidate played by Robert Redford asks, “What do we do now?” Thirty years later, we’ll find out. Variety reports that Redford is planning to direct a sequel, where he’ll play an older Senator Bill McKay. Writing the sequel will be veteran comedy scriptwriter Larry Gelbart (Tootsie, TV’s M*A*S*H).

“Interesting further questions,” Jeff notes: “What might a film about a President Bill McKay try to do? What would it satirize? How would it update the 1970s vision of The Candidate in light of later developments?”

Turns out that, before the project was scrapped, its would-be creators answered some of Jeff’s questions. In 2003, Larry Gelbart told Maureen Dowd that “he’d like this one to show the daily grind of compromises and governing, ‘like trying to make a U-turn with an aircraft carrier.’”

And Redford, for his part—though he told Dowd that he was, at that point, “anti-sequel”—also told the Times columnist that “he wanted to bring back McKay because things had gotten so much worse with the collusion of business, money, media, politics and celebrity.” As Redford put it: “The truth is so awful, but in its own horrible way, it’s entertaining.”

Dowd offered her own wry explanation: “Perhaps Mr. Redford figures this is his best chance of seeing a Democrat back in the White House in his lifetime.”

J.S.—a reader who first voted in 1976 and has seen The Candidate, for the record, “four or five times”—writes in with a really smart answer to my question about the movie and its status as satire:

The Candidate is the story of the education of a novice politician. It presents us with various individual lessons he learns, the overall gist of which is that it’s not enough actually to be an attractive, smart young idealist; you need to become “the attractive, smart young idealist,” i.e. a certain media type that voters will recognize as such. The satirical point, you might say, is that creating even a true image takes careful crafting, and that this process has an undertow—the crafting itself induces cynicism, thus making the image at least a bit less true.

But “satire” is just a label we put on all this after the fact. As you say, the bludgeoning political satires of the ’90s like Wag the Dog have somewhat spoiled the term. The Candidate is a comedy based on close observation of what actually happens in political campaigns. Through the eyes of the politician-in-training, we learn, for instance, how it doesn’t just matter what you say during a TV interview, but that you remember not to look up, because on camera that makes you look stupid. And that the powers of incumbency include being able to overwhelm a smart analysis, say of the causes of brushfires, with spectacle: swooping in by helicopter, deus ex machina, to announce that you’ve just secured the President’s promise of disaster relief. And that being effective means staying on message, which means repeating the same formulaic lines until they start to sound like random nonsense even in your own head.

You might say that this is the “wagging the dog” that happens in real life: the craftedness, the staging, gradually become the point, instead of merely a means to get the point across.

My own view, though, is that the film overstates this, hence the ending [embedded above] rings a bit false. There’s no reason that Bill McKay, upon winning, would be so completely at a loss, or that we should believe he will likely do little or no good in the Senate. If we’re to believe he’s the smart, decent person that made it plausible to run him in the first place, then there’s no reason to suppose he couldn’t be a kind of Paul Wellstone or Russ Feingold. Senators like those have had to run campaigns too, using many of same techniques and making many of the same compromises as McKay and his handlers, and yet the Republic has benefited greatly from them.

I really like that idea: that the satire here, to the extent that there is satire to be found, comes down to the interplay between person and persona—and between the candidate as a human and the candidate as a self-contained spectacle. One of the things that struck me while I was watching The Candidate was how much the movie made of the technologies that helped to encourage that dynamic: the whirring film reels, the crackling TV screens, the popping flash bulbs. These machines of political engagement carried with them a certain sense of menace. They were not merely omnipresent, but physically omnipresent: They were loud and leering and looming. They were everywhere.

Warner Bros. / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

This week, for our inaugural Political Theater conversation, Atlantic staffers and I watched your most-requested movie: The Candidate, the 1972 dark comedy starring Robert Redford. And many of us left our screening … a little confused, actually! We had gone into the movie expecting it to be, as it been described, a “satirical comedy-drama”; I’d been imagining it, basically, as The Ides of March but with wider lapels.

The consensus among our watching party, though, seemed to be that it was difficult to tell how, exactly, the movie was working as satire. Was the crux of the argument that Redford’s character—Bill McKay—was selected to run for Senate almost entirely because of his good looks and, secondarily, nepotism? Was it that he had, in the end, sold out his ideals simply to gain political power? Was it the broader, more tragic notion of how powerless the individual person can be against the lurching machinery of party politics?

Those are all part of the story, definitely—and you could make a good case for each. For me, though, none of them came through terribly strongly, as messages or takeaways or, yep, evidence of satire. McKay, after all, wasn’t that great of a guy at the beginning; for my money, he didn’t turn into that bad of a guy by the end. He sold out, a little, definitely … not that much? And all that in addition to the fact—and this was my greatest source of confusion—that none of the stakes in this election ever seemed that high.

And maybe, you could say, that is the crux of The Candidate’s satire! Here, after all, are politicians asking for power over major and sometimes life-and-death issues in people’s lives (in this case, school busing, women’s reproductive rights, crime, the environment, etc.); and here are those politicians, at the same time, blissfully—cynically—able to treat those things merely as “issues.” Maybe the point here is the ironic privilege of the politician. If so, of course, that would make The Candidate, as many of you pointed out in nominating the movie for discussion in the first place, urgently relevant today. But I didn’t come away, actually, thinking that the people/politician disconnect was the obvious point of the movie. It was too subtle for that. Possibly too nuanced.

So I guess my main question coming out of The Candidate—one I hope you’ll weigh in on—is: Have movies changed, or have people’s perceptions of politics?

Warner Bros. / Refat / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The people have spoken. For our inaugural installment of Political Theater, our new reader series, we’ll be watching … The Candidate, the 1972 Robert Redford comedy-satire that received, by far, the largest number of your votes. (Thanks to everyone who cast their ballots!) I haven’t seen the movie before, so I’ll be watching it for the first time, along with fellow Atlantic staffers, this coming week—and I hope you’ll join us!

Here’s more on The Candidate:

Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a political election specialist, must find a Democratic candidate to oppose California U.S. Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), a popular Republican. With no big-name Democrat eager to enter the unwinnable race, Lucas seeks out Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the idealistic, charismatic son of former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas).

Lucas gives McKay a proposition: since Jarmon cannot lose and the race is already decided, McKay is free to campaign saying exactly what he wants. McKay accepts in order to have the chance to spread his values, and hits the trail. With no serious Democratic opposition, McKay cruises to the nomination on his name alone.

No spoilers, but it looks like, from there … the plot thickens. Here’s the original trailer:

We’ll be watching The Candidate on Wednesday, 9/21, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join us! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about the movie then. (The Candidate is available for free on Amazon Prime, and for $2-$3 on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.) Watch it whenever is good for you, though, and join in the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber), or via an email to hello@theatlantic.com. I’ll be thinking about it throughout the week.

I’m looking forward to reveling in the wonders of ’70s-era political satire—and to hearing your thoughts about it!

Jim Young / Reuters

I love Dave—not just because it’s a thoroughly charming comedy, and not just because it’s a perfect relic of the early ’90s, shoulder pads and all, but also because it’s a whimsical fairy tale about … the behind-the-scenes workings of the U.S. executive branch. It goes like this: Dave Kovic, owner of a temp agency in Georgetown, happens to look almost exactly like President Bill Mitchell—so much so that, in his spare time, he moonlights at parties and car-dealership openings as “the president.” But when the real Bill Mitchell has a stroke that leaves him in a coma, Dave, under the direction of two scheming West Wing advisers, steps in so that the Mitchell administration can continue despite its lack of Mitchell himself.

I know that doesn’t sound like much of a fairy tale, but here’s the real magic: Dave, the Regular Guy, ends up being a better president—more practical, more ethical, more compassionate, more fun—than the person the American public had actually elected to office. Dave is Cinderella, basically, only with a bulletproof limo instead of a bedazzled pumpkin.

And that’s why I love it so much: Dave is a fictional story about Americans’ extremely non-fictional tendency to idealize the ordinariness of our leaders. It is a movie for the age of “the president I’d want to have a beer with.” This perfect relic of 1993 feels fresh and urgently relevant during the current presidential campaign.

So, with that in mind: We’re going to watch Dave again! And, while we’re at it, we’re going to watch other political movies, too!

Every week or so, starting in September, we’ll be getting together—the “we” being myself, other Atlantic folk, and, I hope, you—to watch, and discuss, a particular political movie. And the films we watch (except for Dave, which pretty much nominates itself) will depend on you. The American President? All the President’s Men? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde? They’re all on the table. In the form here, let us know which movies you’d most like to watch (and, for extra credit, why you’d like to watch them). We’ll use your ideas to put together a roster of movies that we’ll talk about, in Notes, over the months (yes, it’s still months) leading up to the election. We’re thinking of it as a way both to embrace and to escape the day-to-day doings of this long-running campaign season—’90s-tastic shoulder pads optional.