Reporter's Notebook

Political Theater
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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.

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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 / 3 Arts Entertainment / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

One of the themes that has emerged in our Political Theater viewings is the way individual candidates have chafed against the machinery of American retail politics. We’ve seen both sellouts and compromises, ambitions both rewarded and destroyed, idealism both elevated and mocked.

For our next selection, because we are in desperate need of some laughs, we’ll be watching a movie that explores that theme from a blessedly comedic perspective: Head of State. The 2003 film stars Chris Rock as Mays Gilliam, a D.C. alderman who is selected as a replacement candidate when a presidential contender and his running mate die in a plane crash in the middle of the campaign. The movie’s motto? “He’s got the people in his corner, and the truth on his side.”

Here’s the trailer:

We’ll be watching Head of State today, Wednesday, 10/26, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. (The movie 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!

3 Arts Entertainment / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Head of State’s climactic scene finds the presidential campaign that the film has revolved around—D.C. alderman Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) versus Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy)—distilled down to a single event: the live-televised presidential debate. It’s the ultimate show-down between those two enduring tropes in American politics: the outsider versus the career politician. And Lewis plays exactly according to type: He’s smooth. He’s calm. He speaks in soundbites. He says things like “this is what America’s all about,” and he ends his statements with “God bless America, and no place else.”

Gilliam, on the other hand … is surprising. He can’t play to type, because the political outsider, by definition, has no type: Outsiders are their own people. They have no patience for the traditional pageantries of politics. They simply tell the truth as they see it. And that is precisely what Gilliam does as he summarizes his position in the debate. “When it comes to paying farmers not to grow food, while people in this country starve every day,” he says—“yes, I’m an amateur.”

The crowd erupts into applause.

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

We have come full circle, friends. The election is drawing to a close, and, with it, Political Theater. So we’re going to end where we started: with Dave, the ultimate White House fairy tale.

The 1993 Ivan Reitman film, if you’ll allow me to borrow from that original note, 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.

The whole thing is cheesy and ridiculous. And it, like Head of State before it, celebrates the romance of the outsider in American political life—the very contemporary notion that there is something gross about “career politicians,” and that there is something to be celebrated, at the same time, about someone with no political experience being given political power.

Here’s the trailer:

We’ll be watching Dave today, Wednesday, 11/2, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. (The movie 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.