By Megan Bianco
It’s election season in America and that means the government and media are working overtime. And so is the rest of the country in discovering the current state of politics and how they want their government run. In south Orange County, we have permanent reminders of political history with the Nixon estate in San Clemente and the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. Throughout time, creative people, such as writers and musicians, have been inspired by huge mainstream current events such as the presidential election and other controversial political episodes. Some of the best novels, albums and films have been inspired by politics, and often times it is this kind of news-inspired art that gets fans interested in digging deeper and learning more about what goes on in the government. One group of artists that certainly doesn’t mind going political for entertainment is the Hollywood film industry, delivering an abundance of films from which to choose.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation restoring the Mission San Juan Capistrano proper to the Catholic Church. In 1939, Henry Fonda played one of his most remembered roles: Lincoln. John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln portrayed the beloved president in the early days of his career as a small town lawyer defending two men wrongly accused of murder. One of the earliest portrayals of Lincoln on film, Fonda’s honest, easy going persona fit appropriately for people’s perception of the man and still lives up today.
Also in 1939, Fonda’s best friend, Jimmy Stewart, played Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Smith is a Boy Rangers leader who’s suddenly swept into the position of U.S. senator and discovers that his colleagues would rather spend time and money on turning his campsite into a graft induced dam. When his own team turns against him, Smith stands his ground for what he thinks is right. His secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) teaches him, and the audience, how laws and bills are passed and can be used in his defense. Robert Redford would later play a similar type of character with optimistic naiveté named Bill McKay in 1972’s The Candidate, in the role of a California lawyer recruited to campaign as the next U.S. senator. What characters like Stewart’s Smith, Fonda’s Lincoln and Redford’s McKay show is the possibility for a decent common man who truly cares to be in power.
Real life politician, president, and later a San Clemente local seldom shown in a positive light in cinema is Richard Nixon, who is instead portrayed as paranoid, clumsy and awkward in the position of leadership. Oliver Stone’s biodrama Nixon (1995) caused complaints from the president’s close friends and family, but audiences and critics were fascinated by the performances by Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen as the first couple of the early ’70s and the origins of the president’s infamous downfall. Dan Hedaya played Nixon in the 1999 teen comedy Dick, where he is fictionally duped by two ditzy school girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) when they discover his Watergate plans and tapes. The Ron Howard film adaptation of Frost/Nixon (2008) not only featured a couple of scenes at the real Nixon estate, but also gave the former president (this time played by Frank Langella) a little more depth by showing him as a man tired and embarrassed for constantly being reminded of his mistakes. Redeeming or unlikable, films such as these illustrate that people in office are often flawed and human.
Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) went behind the scenes with journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford on screen) while they uncovered top secrets behind the Watergate scandal. By the end, Nixon resigns and Bernstein and Woodward become icons, while viewers get a sense that shady things are still happening all around. In John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a soldier (Laurence Harvey) returning home from the Korean War is brainwashed into becoming a political assassin by communists, while his former platoon commander (Frank Sinatra) tries to unfold the truth of his current state. George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011) features a bright staffer on the rise (Ryan Gosling) who leads a popular and likable presidential candidate (Clooney) only to discover he’s involved with a mistress (Evan Rachel Wood) who got an abortion. Filmmakers like Capra and Ford may prefer having a more positive outlook on politics in their idealistic movies, but Pakula, Frankenheimer and Clooney go all out on a dark and cynical view with scenarios that are unfortunately not too hard to imagine in real life as well as cinema.
Movies are meant to entertain and also inform. With movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frost/Nixon and The Manchurian Candidate, they may inspire us to pay attention to the news or elections more closely. Likewise, election season can also inspire us to discover or rediscover politically-themed movies.