Navigating Political Movies

by Sean on June 12, 2012

I was on the hunt for a political drama recently and came across Carlos, an IFC miniseries that’s also been edited and released as a movie. It’s part biopic, part political drama in three installments. And since it’s really not that good, it’s got me thinking about what does make a good political movie?

Personally, I gravitate towards films that either take a unique stance on well-known issues or people, or explore the underexposed, and will forgive clunky political messages if the filmic experience is successful.

There are many different kinds of political films. Even ones dubbed as “apolitical”, like Oliver Stone’s W. By portraying political figures or politically-infused events, you’re taking a stance – however hard or soft it may be.

Genres Blend or Die

I think we’ve evolved beyond the timeworn political thriller genre conventions such as those nailed down by North by NorthWest - or more recently revisited by The Constant Gardener or The Interpreter. Politics-as-background scenery is the mainstream filmmaker’s preferable mode, and it’s on the wane. These are films about politics, but I’d argue they’re not “political films”. With so much to talk about in our world today, it’s hard to justify spending so much time and effort to say nothing.

As an example: Forrest Gump is a toothless, but enjoyable, safari through tumultuous moments in American politics. Familiar images – the ‘60s protester, morally-compromised soldiers in Vietnam, stoic Black Panthers, ‘70s self-indulgence – are leveraged to lull audiences into thinking they’re watching something with weighty relevance, but it’s mere window-dressing… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Then there are movies that actually have an artful bite to them: character-first biopics like Milk; anti-character docudramas like The Battle of Algiers; sprawling, kitchen-sink Stephen Gaghan films like Syriana and Traffic; and oddball arms-length “bio-epics” like Soderbergh’s Che. Genre conventions, when strictly adhered to, can soften the effects of a film – and that goes against the entire purpose of a political film. Colouring outside the lines keeps audiences on their toes and creates a more lasting impact.

Softer Hands, Stronger Message

One of the most memorable political dramas I’ve ever seen had very little dialogue. I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch Day Night Day Night at the Vancouver International Film Festival a few years ago. It was in the middle of the day and only a few dozen people joined me in the theatre. I remember the entire 90-minute experience being so quiet that walking out into the daylight and noise of the street was overwhelming.

The film follows a young woman on a suicide-bombing mission to Times Square. The visual details, at first glance, seem pretty mundane; it’s someone going through the muted motions of an extremely powerful political act.

While it’s way too arty for mainstream audiences, the visual storytelling techniques on display in Day Night Day Night provide a strong argument to consider the causes and implications of the acts being portrayed on screen. And that’s a sign of a good film – not just a political one. The lack of predictable preaching sends a much stronger message than hitting an audience over the head.

Narrow Means Broad

I think Carlos falls short because it doesn’t commit to one direction wholeheartedly. Is it an extended biopic of “Carlos the Jackal”? Kinda. Is it a denunciation of the imperialist doctrine? Sometimes. Is it a docudrama that tries to accurately represent a turbulent political era? Meh.

There are a lot of facts and dates that shape the narrative in Carlos, but there is very little to keep an audience’s attention for the 5 hour-plus viewing time. We never find out enough interesting things about “Carlos” (his real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez) as a screen-worthy personality. Soderbergh can get away with providing scant character insights like this in Che because an extremely compelling actor — Benicio Del Toro — allows him to cheat. [Fanboy note: I'd probably watch Del Toro watch someone else watch paint dry.] The miscast Edgar Ramirez, unfortunately, falls short in this department. It also doesn’t hurt that Soderbergh’s got a great visual sensibility that keeps eyeballs glued to the screen throughout the double-feature running time.

The more the filmmaker narrows down what he or she is trying to do, the more achievable the desired experience becomes.  Few filmmakers, however, want to work in conceptual minutiae – it’s the “wow” effect of great political films that they’re trying to replicate, which is a frustrating and elusive goal. But when the planets align, like in Day Night Day Night, it’s worth all the hours spent watching the Forrest Gumps of the world.

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