Should Movies Touch Political Topics?

There have been some fantastic politically centric films in our age. Politics can make for some fantastic drama, mystery, intrigue and entertainment. But the thing is, it seems like most people enjoy political movies when they really have little to do with real politics. We love seeing great movies like “Dave” (man I do love that movie) or “The American President” (don’t laugh, it’s my favorite Annette Bening performance), films that may have political figures… films that may have political environments… but a lot of people seem to cringe at movies that have political topics.

When movies come out that address political situations in our world, some people seem to recoil. Films like “Stop Loss”, “Rendition”, “Lions For Lambs” and others ended up getting blasted by a lot of people even before their first screenings simply because they were political in nature (or because of the specific political topic). The upcoming Oliver Stone movie on George W. Bush simply titled “W” is already starting to get some of that treatment.

One of the obvious observations I’ve made in the past is that people who complain about these sorts of movies (or about celebrities who are vocal about their political beliefs) usually only do so when they disagree about what the movie or celebrity is saying about certain topics. Some will love hearing Sean Penn talk about the war in Iraq and say he’s just being a good citizen trying to bring about change… but then loudly complain that James Belushi should “shut up” and that he shouldn’t talk about things he’s not an expert on when addressing the exact same issue, only from a different point of view. The opposite is true as well when we see some people praising Charlton Heston as a great american for speaking out and supporting the political causes he believed in, and then call Tim Robbins a traitor who should shut up when doing the exact same thing, only from a different point of view.

I think most people would agree that the United States has never in its history been more divided politically than it has been for the last few years. Right and Left hate each other with a dripping venom where neither side can do anything right in their eyes. So in an environment like this… are movies about political issues a good idea?

Let me give my personal opinion on the matter as a starting point and we can go from there.

To me, from the creative stand point, movies are by nature art. As art, film is subjective, giving everyone who looks at it, observes it and engages it a slightly different experience than the next person who stands in the same place and sees the exact same thing. That, in essence is the single most beautiful thing about film. But from the creators perspective… art is also about expression. Expression of ideas. Expression of experiences. Expressions of how they see the world. Expression of how they think the world should be. Expressions of love, fear, hate, loneliness, despair, excitement, hope and joy in serious, silly, parody or frightening ways.

If then, movies are at a base level a medium for that very expression, then why should certain topics, especially large topics that effect our society, our culture and our world be considered “off limits”? Why would we say it’s alright for an artist to express their thoughts and observations on the quirks of modern dating, but not allow for them to give their expressions on issues that seriously effect thousands or millions of people?

Much like art itself is subjective to those that observe it, the artists themselves will each have their own unique way of seeing the world around them and their art reflects that. Why must we precondition our appreciation of their unique expressions as long as we AGREE or share their views? I’ve never understood that. Why is it that something someone has to say is only valuable as long as we deem it “correct”? Why is something only worth observing as long as it already aligns with what we already believe? Isn’t there value in the expression itself? Isn’t there worth in the perception of the artist regardless of its synchronicity to our own perceptions?

For example, I don’t really think high school kids should be constantly getting hammered and humping like rabbits. But I still appreciate Super Bad. I personally don’t think force and violence are what will end the world’s problems… but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy Tears of the Sun or Rambo.

So to me, movies about political topics should be made, regardless if I agree with them or not. To limit that, is to ask an artist to limit what or how they see the world, and I don’t think that makes much sense. Everything that expresses an opinion is “preachy” and promoting a certain point of view to one degree or another, and in and of itself I think that’s fine. Just because we engage and even enjoy the expression of a certain point of view doesn’t mean we have to agree with is. To me all that really matter is “Does the expression come off to me in an engaging or entertaining way?”

But that’s just my point of view on this issue. I’m sure lot of you guys have a million variations of opinions on this matter. Share your thoughts below. Should movies address political issues? Why or why not?

17 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Steven Carroll

    I don’t like it when it is thrown out of left corner in just a line or two in a movie. If that is the topic of the movie then fine. I can choose to see it or not. If people want to make movies like that they can and I really shouldn’t have a say in that matter. Freedom of speech and all that I guess. As long as they are telling the truth, i don’t really see the problem with it.

  2. WillTheSecond

    Yes of course they should. Right-wing or left-wing, whatever, the views should be seen on the mass medium of cinema. I suppose all I can really say on this is: why shouldn’t they?

    Honestly, I don’t see any reason not to have political movies: El Cid; Apocalypse Now; A Clockwork Orange; American Psycho; Gladiator and very recently There Will Be Blood. And of course many, many more. All classics. And don’t forget all the old communist films like Battleship Potemkin, Man With A Movie Camera and Soy Cuba.

    Political cinema has constantly refined and redefined the conventions of cinema and it should stop now. Hell, the source of the idea of auteurism is inherently political. You can’t separate film from politics, I find the suggestion ridiculous. Only the most facile and unimaginative films will contain no political content at all.

  3. WillTheSecond

    Sorry, I wrote “it should stop now” when I meant to say “it shouldn’t stop now”. Sounded like I was disagreeing with myself…

  4. Reed

    To question what movies should be is pretty darn impossible. What they should be is good, whether they are politically intended or not. If a movie is a good film, then people will forgive, or even willfully ignore its politics. If it is bad and overtly political, then it becomes pure propaganda, bending away from the art of which you speak above.

    Look at the two leading contenders for Best Picture from a few years ago: Brokeback Mountain and Crash. (John, I can’t recall what you thought of either film.) Is Brokeback Mountain a political movie? If you haven’t seen it, my guess would be that your answer would be “absolutely.” It deals with a sensitive subject and one that has made for political fodder for years now. But the story itself distinctly apolitical. It is a compelling story of two characters.

    Crash, on the other hand, while not featuring political parties or institutions, was based almost entirely on societal issues - on the issues of race, diversity, and prejudice. While not specifically political, that’s pretty darn close. There was very little story within the movie - it was all about the issues, not the characters. I found it borderline intolerable, but I happen to dig character development and plot and verisimilitude and that kind of thing, areas in which Crash was sorely lacking.

    Yet, when analyzed in public discourse, Crash was the movie that “touched on some social issues,” and Brokeback Mountain was about “gay rights.” So again, I say “what is political?” At one extreme, you have Fahrenheit 9/11, and at the other, Chinatown. Yet, they’re both political movies, right? I don’t see where a line can be drawn.

    So I go back to what I started with. Art is art, movies are movies. All could be considered political if viewed from the appropriate lens. I’m sure someone who makes hay dealing with politics all the time (like Rush Limbaugh, say), would watch Spider Man and decide to take a political angle. Movies should do whatever they want. If the characters and story are compelling, the political fallout will be ultimately irrelevant. In other words, someone watching Brokeback Mountain 50 years from now (when gays are able to marry and are accepted as full-fledged members of our society) will still be able to appreciate the movie for the story it tells, regardless of any political issues inherent or otherwise.

  5. ChrisP

    Dude, Night of the Living Dead was political. A movie gets preachy, when the political elements aren’t executed well.

  6. chris (the real one)

    i dont know why but something about that pic doesnt sit right with me….

  7. Jesse Rosenberg

    of course there should be political movies. There should be more in my point of view addressing old political policies countries have and and current ones. For example there are movies about the horrors the U.S is committing right now like The road to guantanamo even though that was half a documentary and Amistad.
    Also, there is a surge of small documentaries about politics that deserve to get more notice. people probably can appreciate the documentaries more cause there is a lot less room to warp the story of what is actually happening than in a fictional film about a real policy

  8. Jay E

    The issue is more about being blatantly “preachy” in films. There are many great films that have political themes which I may disagree with, but the films tell a great story and only use the themes to support the story. In this case the story came first, and the themes were added later to add individuality (ie American President).

    Then there are films which were (hypothetically) made to make a political point and nothing more. The political point came first, then they crafted a story around it. This may work as a documentary, but no one wants their “entertainment” to force feed them a message, especially when oftentimes that message is “you are wrong and/or ignorant”.

    Then there is the issue of current events. Even good movies that deal with hot current political topics may not do well. People go to the movies to escape current events and be entertained, not to be beaten over the head with messages. Would movies like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket do as well if they were released during the actual Vietnam War? They may be good movies, but people living during that time heard enough about ‘nam on their TVs and radios and probably wouldn’t be interested in seeing it in the movies.

  9. BrDanzig

    I don’t disagree with films having political content and I think that they can help be a service to the public. The problem with the most recent films is that they are blatant and preachy. I know exactly what the message of the movie is before I even watch it. So I figure what is the point? I am more entertained by watching debates on C-Span (where you get intelligent views on both sides) than the recent anti war movies. I mean come on, does anyone go to the Left Behind movies and wonder what will happen? I think that is why 24 was so successful on tv, because they would not beat you over the head with a message. Me and my friends have joked around about writing a script that would be a parody of anti war movies but decided against it because they are a parody enough on their own.

  10. Alex

    My answer to that depends on the motives of filmmaker. An artist can put any message political or otherwise in his work as long as the quality of the work is not lost.

    The quality of the film will determine how may people see it as well as the level of impact the message will have on the public.

  11. Will

    Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?

    “I think most people would agree that the United States has never in its history been more divided politically than it has been for the last few years. Right and Left hate each other with a dripping venom where neither side can do anything right in their eyes.”

    The communist whitch hunt, vitnam, the civil war? I’m pretty sure almost every other time has been more divided politically than is has been in the past few years. The right and left have never liked each other, but we havn’t always had CNN shoving it down our gullets.

    If the topic of the movie is inherently political, there why should there be a problem with that. Politics is simply another topic like any other topic, be it our preceptions of reality or sex with pies.

  12. grendel25

    There have and always will continue to be political films which is fine. I just have a problem with the timeliness of them. No one wants to see movies about the Middle East right now.

  13. jimf

    I think political movies should be made if people will pay to see them.

    I do not think they should be referred to as documentaries when they are really just opinion pieces. The Academy cheapens all documentaries when they put films such as M Moore’s in the documentary category when they are really anything but an attempt at unbiased reporting.

  14. Hey JimF

    The problem is, documentaries are movies… not the 6 o’clock news. They are meant to tell a story, not to simply report events.

    All stories are told from a certain point of view, and as such, all documentaries (at least good ones) have some degree of bias, and so they should be.

  15. HandnHalfSword

    It seems to me that movies constantly “touch” political topics, much the way TV shows, music and journalism does.

    The really boring thing is that EVERY TIME a movie or TV show steps into the political sphere, it does so in a way that always shows that:

    Democrats are good, Republicans are bad

    Liberals are good, conservatives are bad

    Anti-death penalty…good, pro-death penalty…bad

    revolutionaries are good, capitalists are bad.

    And usually any white male, military officer, corporate executive is bad.

    Any lawyer who sues a corporation is good.

    The fact is that Hollywood has nothing new to offer the political sphere until its writers, directors, producers and such become more open minded at are willing to surprise us now and then with a political idea that isn’t knee jerk liberal.

  16. sfsilver

    Good piece John. I think the critical questions are execution (as with any film) and for overtly political films timing. The failure of the most recent spate of films dealing with the Iraq war/occupation is largely about these two elements. The timing of these films in particular is against their commercial success and success as polemic vehicles. It’s that old “is it too soon?” question.

  17. flapjaxx

    The difference between disagreeing with the premise of a movie like SuperBad and disagreeing with the premise of a documentary is simple: the one is mostly only trying to entertain, while the other (the documentary) seeks mostly to inform and convert the viewer (to a degree) toward the subjective beliefs of the filmmaker.

    Documentaries and politically charged movies seek to describe “HOW THE WORLD IS” in a way that most other harmlessly entertaining films do not. Sure, universal truths about life can be expressed in dramas and comedies, but political films seek to describe reality-OUR reality, the real world in which we live in. In short, they seek to get into the viewer’s mind and alter his or her reality. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the viewer’s initial reaction to where the political film is coming from.

    But I don’t have any problem with the RIGHT of any filmmaker to make any political movie of any time. But nor do I think that films of any type are “off-limits” from criticism. If someone feels the very premise of, oh I dunno, many recent political films as sophomoric, simplistic, and insulting to the viewer’s intelligence, then he or she has every right not to want to laud these filmmakers’ raw skills. Many political filmmakers have great skills, but there are many people who have very good reasons for denouncing them from the get-go once they sense what they perceive to be charlatanism. Yes they are artists, and all’s fair in art, but they are also engaging with reality and seeking to alter their viewers’ perceptions of it. That’s serious territory and thus they should be judged based on facts as well.

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