Reel Politics (1987): Book Review

Reel Politics: American Political Movies from “Birth of the Nation” to “Platoon.” By Terry Christensen. New York: Basil Blackwell, l987. 244pp.

The American cinema has been quite consistent in its portrayal of politics and politicians, repeating in film after film that politics is corrupt and that politicians are self-serving, immoral, and greedy. These broad images of politics have endured, with few variations or exceptions, despite radical changes in our ideology, culture, economy, and social structure. The challenge, of course, is how to explain the origins of these myths and their persistence in American movies (and popular culture).

It is to this question that Christensen addresses himself in Reel Politics, a survey of political films from Birth of the Nation, in l915, to Platoon, seven decades later. The best way to describe the book is as an historical survey of Hollywood movies that have dealt with politics as a social institution and as a social process. Other scholars have described this kind of movies as “message” or “social problem” films.

Christensen takes the decade approach, focusing on political movies about wars (All Quiet on the Western Front), farmers (The Grapes of Wrath), anti-Communism (My Son John), nuclear energy (The China Syndrome) the Vietnam conflict (The Deer Hunter), foreign policy (Missing, The Killing Fields), etc. The Great Depression features prominently in the book as one which produced more explicitly political films (Frank Capra's output, for example) than subsequent decades.

The author attempts to examine the film industry's consistent treatment of politics by raising a number of alternative explanations. Is politics actually corrupt, and movies just reflect what is the state of the art in the outside reality Or, perhaps, greed and corruption are used repeatedly as thematic conventions because they provide a convenient source of tension and drama, which are necessary for the narrative structure of these movies as morality plays. But the author also suggests that the filmmakers themselves may be too idealistic and/or naive to realize how politics really works. No definitive answer is given to these interesting questions.

One of the many strengths of the book is its systematic description of the specific interplay between the broader political context and the kinds of movies made. For example, after the Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union moved toward detente, superpatriot American heroes and Communist villains went out of style. By contrast, the author claims that the Reagan administration “encouraged” the production of movies imbued a Cold War mentality, such as Red Dawn, and one might add to the list many of Sylvester Stallone's movies other than Rambo (some of the Rocky movies, for instance).

Analyzing the blockbuster Platoon, the author observes that it was more successful than other films about Vietnam because it avoided direct political comment about the reasons for the war. The movie was released in late l986, just as Reagan was beginning to lose his hold on the American public (following Irongate).

But this book also presents some problems. Political movies don't constitute a distinct genre, and they cross over various genres (a comedy may have stronger political overtones and messages than a serious drama or a war movie). Christensen doesn't provide a precise definition of what a political movie is. Some movies are defined political according to the manifest intent of their creators and their explicit concerns and themes. But one could think of movies that were not necessarily made to send a political “message,” and yet were read, interpreted, and perceived as political statements by the audience because of the historical and political contexts in which they were released.

The book is at its best when it analyzes films about specific political issues, such as All the President's Men or The Seduction of Joe Tynan. As is often the case with books which include many movies, some discussions are more perceptive than others; such is the case of The Candidate (l972), a Robert Redford star vehicle about the making–and selling–of a political candidate.

Christensen also provides interesting generalizations about American political movies. For example, movies have seldom dealt with the problem of the political system as a whole. Instead, they tend to provide individualistic solutions (usually in the form of a strong charismatic individual) for problems which are inherently social and political. However, one could claim that the tendency of Hollywood to reduce complex issues to an individualistic problem, action, and resolution, goes beyond political movies, embracing all types of films (historical epics, musicals, and thrillers).

Christensen observes that it's not enough to make a movie about the danger of nuclear power (The China Syndrome), then to show the glorious fight of one individual against unsafe regulations, reassuring audiences that the problem is taken care of. It's more important to analyze what movies actually say about a problem. Most political movies are liberal (though never radical) in intent rather than effect, which is invariably conservative and in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Despite the fact that Christensen's survey is not guided by a specific analytic approach and that it includes too many movies (mentioned too briefly), Reel Power is always a provocative reading and could serve as a useful book in courses on film and popular culture.

Finally, there's the problem of choice of specific films. The criteria of inclusion (and exclusion) are not clear. Often, selection of important films, at other times, popular films, still other innovative films. For example, Jeremiah Johnson is a political film, but it's not even mentioned. Clearly, the book had to be selective, but the question remains as to which films should have been–and were not–included.