Hollywood: Fear of Political Movies

American movies rarely debate the political problems of the day. This may stem from a mistrust of power and authority, which has been a pervasive strand in American life. Uncomfortable by politics, Americans like to think of themselves as being outside or above politics–which is why politicians continue to play their outsidedness. The only “political movies” that continue to be made are those about big, powerful corporations covering up conspiracies, because the American public likes the notion of heroic individuals pitted against cruel and impersonal forces.

Indeed, some ideas about society and politics have remained permanent in American films. Prominent among these is the value of individualism: Film after film suggests that any problem, political or economic, can be resolved by a charismatic individual. American films tell viewers that ordinary people can make a difference by rising up to challenges and fighting the system effectively. But “ordinary” in Hollywood terms means casting a role with attractive and powerful stars like Jane Fonda, Robert Redford or Tom Cruise.

Action in American movies is always individual, seldom collective. Bad individuals and greedy corporations are blamed, but not the system as a whole. The message of the few socially-conscious films made is limited, because they locate problems in individuals, not in the society at large. Movies seldom question the system itself, seldom raise issues that are not resolvable. At best, they point to a need for an occasional action to regulate or to correct what's essentially a well-functioning structure. And since there's always an heroic individual to take care of problems, most movies are reassuring rather than provocative–all viewers have to do is to sit and watch passively.

Moreover, mainstream movies are uneasy with displaying any extreme ideology, which means that their narratives are centrist, presenting issues within accepted parameters. Hollywood films steer clear of taking a specific stand because they don't want to offend any segment of their potential audience. Psychologist Krin Gabbard has observed that, if anything, American films tend the right, because the right is in favor of maintaining the status quo: “Filmmakers are nervous about undermining the status quo. They want people to walk out of the theaters feeling their lives are O.K., and that has to do with nuclear family and capitalist economy.”

For most people, political movies concern political parties and affiliations: right versus left, Republican versus Democrat. What they fail to realize is that every action and relationship has a political dimension is political if the political is defined in terms of power and influence. The exclusion of ideology reduces all motives to self-interest and trivializes politics. American movies have supported the status quo through narrowing the political spectrum, insisting that the political process works. Movies that lean to the left are often perceived as radical simply for raising relevant issues (nuclear, racism, greed, corruption).
American movies are liberal in intent, but not in effect. They reinforce faith in the system, endorsing rather than criticizing it. The cautious nature of American films is a direct result of Hollywood's blind commitment to entertainment. Obsessed with the box-office, the ultimate measure of success, filmmakers aim to please audiences, who expect to be entertained because movies have trained them to do so. Accustomed to shallow TV fare, viewers grow impatient with subtle movies of ideas, favoring action over talk, slick and mindless entertainment over disturbing provocation.

The studios' primary responsibility is to make money for their shareholders, which results in every picture being weighed as a “moneymaking machine.” American movies are profit-driven ventures that rely on the investment of banks and insurance companies, institutions that are inherently conservative. Moreover, as director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) observed: “The studios are guided by foreign sales, and domestic politics is a very tough sell. The stuff that translates best is big action and star-driven movies.” Demographics also play a role, as screenwriter Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) explained: “The studios' principal interest is gratifying an audience that is defined as 14-to 24 year old males, who are by nature the least political of animals.”

“To open movies wide,” said John Sayles, “you're talking about 'elements,' which must be some kind of genre or plot or stars that people are dying to see.” But the heavy reliance on movie stars necessarily tones down American movies. Stars alter radically a film's message: Imagine All the President's Men without Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Reds or Bulworth without Warren Betty, Saving Private Ryan without Tom Hanks. A close-up of Jane Fonda's face, instead of a long shot of a nuclear reactor in The China Syndrome, distorts filmgoers' perception of the issue. By focusing on one person, films individualize everything, losing sight of the broader socio-political context.

The collapse of the studio system has made it easier for independent filmmakers to make political movies. Yet avoidance of politics is one of the anomalies of contemporary indie cinema. John Sayles and Spike Lee may be the only major independents to make overtly political films, and left-leaning films at that. Like their Hollywood counterparts, indie filmmakers elude probing issues, which explains the paucity of films about racial strife, class disparity, sexual harassment, and other social ills.

Indie cinema has not been an “engaged” art form, to borrow Jean-Paul Sartre's concept, indie directors don't see their primary role as bearing witness to contemporary life. Like Hollywood filmmakers, they are afraid that dealing with burning issues would mean sending “messages,” and American audiences have proved time and again their reluctance to embrace serious movies, even if they concern worthy issues such as slavery. Hence, the lukewarm reception accorded Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) and the failure of Jonathan Demme's Beloved (1998).

Quite disappointingly, most issue-oriented indies have dealt with one institution: The family. In a critical piece, Mary C. Henderson reproached American dramatists for their narrow dramatic focus: “The world is too large a place, too teeming with the stuff of drama, and the table too small a human zone for playwrights to continue to rely on such a restrictive dramatic device.” Henderson finds it alarming that playwrights' world has shrunk to the size of a tabletop, the claustrophobic milieu of the American family. Henderson's comments on the theater can easily be applied to film, both Hollywood and indie: The American family remains the center of our national concern.

*This essay was written in 1998.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).