Unanimously Overturning Fraud at the Box Office
The greatest boon to American political films came, oh, some four score and eight years ago, when movie studios brought forth a new gimmick for your night out on the town: sound, given that this particular kind of film depicts the change that can come only through ceaseless yammering. Over the decades since, there’ve been a hundred different kinds of political film: revealing the machinations of candidates good and evil (The Best Man, 1964; Ides of March, 2011), the festering of corruption at the top (All the President’s Men, 1976; The Parallax View, 1974), the relative ease of demagogic overreach (A Face in the Crowd, 1957; Seven Days in May, 1964), as well as biographies pro and con (Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939; Nixon, 1995), documentaries straight and with chasers (Primary, 1960; Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004), gloating satires (Dr. Strangelove, 1964; In the Loop, 2009), and a ton more, pushing across all genres from comedy (Man of the Year, 2006), to drama (Fail-Safe, 1964), to thriller (Blow Out, 1981), to action (Air Force One, 1997), to western (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962), to romance (The American President, 1995), to – why not? – science fiction/horror (The Dead Zone, 1983), like some unbridled celluloid manifest destiny. They’ve popped up in every generation, with slight shifts across the century, moving from periods of general reverence and revelation, to bleaker periods of paranoia and anxiety and rampant disenfranchisement.
…it’s fascinating to put your nose right in the process of government, filtered through a hopefully good story.
Political films provide a method for codifying our national identity – a sort of agreed upon, self-directed propaganda that helps us get on the same political page, broadly speaking. But let’s admit it, we watch political films for two reasons: to cynically validate our suspicions of corruption in the system and to optimistically hope for a restoration of normalcy and virtue in the system. Also, if you’re a wonk like me, it’s fascinating to put your nose right in the process of government, filtered through a hopefully good story. So then, with all this headiness in tow, and to celebrate or mourn the political process as it stands now, as it looms over us again in this bizzaro presidential election season, we here at ZekeFilm want to do our part to promote and ensure a good and healthy Netflix queue for the next generation, so we’ve watched and written about films that we heretofore had not seen, but feel like we should’ve by now. Let’s call it a self-imposed civics lesson. Or let’s call it an escape into a reasonable reconfiguring of reality into something not so hair-pullingly infuriating. Now, if you’ll please make your way into the booth…
– Robert Hornak
(2007/Zipporah Films/WNET/Dir. Frederick Wiseman)
by Dean Treadway
Frederick Wiseman, who’s never been nominated for an Academy Award in his nearly 40 years as America’s most exhaustive and deep-feeling documentarian, has finally been deemed worthy of an Honorary Oscar this year. Finally, justice is done. Whatever subject he chooses—usually spelled out in straightforward titles like Domestic Violence, Missile, Boxing Gym, National Gallery, High School, Welfare, At Berkeley, Central Park, and Public Housing (though his most famous work is his first, a damning 1967 indictment of mental asylum cruelty called Titicut Follies)—Wiseman covers his topic in such a completely immersive manner that it makes the viewer feel as if they’ve experienced life right there on the front lines. With a Wiseman film, we’re inevitably fully schooled by a master whose attention to detail is paramount. This is certainly true with his 2007 film State Legislature, which takes us on a tour of the daily political machinations taking place at Boise’s Idaho State Capitol Building.
The great majority of films about politics concentrate on the electoral process. In fact, I’m hard pressed to recall many that focus in on the performance of the job once the race has been run. There are a few that peer into operations behind closed capitol doors when times are tough, like Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (still my favorite of all U.S.-based political films), Robert Drew’s Crisis (about the Kennedy administration’s 1963 clash with then-Alabama governor George Wallace over school segregation) or Otto Preminger’s 1962 drama Advise and Consent (following a bitter political backstabbing over the appointment of a contested Secretary of State nominee). But examples of such are wistfully rare in today’s film landscape. That’s the prime reason why Wiseman’s typically lengthy doc, clocking in at a massive 3 hours and 39 minutes, is so essential. Calmly, it lets us finally see how the civic sausage is made.
For some, this is bound to be pretty dry stuff. State Legislature is a difficult movie to consume in one sitting (for me, it took three); watching it feels a little like shuffling papers late night at work. But if you’re a political junkie, it’s enormously revealing, seeing these Idaho denizens navigate the myriad of tiny details facing the smooth agency of their state government. A dizzying, sometimes stultifying array of subjects are broached in the film, in short but somehow radically precise scenes that make you feel you’ve witnessed the full legislative conjecture over their aims (complete with sometimes dull, unschooled speakers; Wiseman finds room for humor here and, as always, without voice-over commentary or other now-popular documentary googaws like animation or stock footage).
In the painfully beige rooms of the nonetheless regal Idaho capitol building, we’re let in on debates over the punishments required for practitioners of “video voyeurism”; the posting of the Ten Commandments at a capitol monument; the struggle for clean water; the dangers of public smoking; the encroachment of Mad Cow Disease on the state’s cattle population; the viability of lawsuits brought against restaurants by customers who claim they’ve been made obese by their food; the establishment of a building contractors registry aimed at ferreting out those outfits that’re defrauding their customers (this one leads to probably the most entertainingly tense arguments in the film); the scourge of school violence; the nagging illegal immigration issue; African-American protest (which is disturbingly, if not surprisingly, shut down by a senator of this mostly Caucasian state as he driftingly listens to a passionate black constituent); the issuance of medications to mental health patients; and the detailed operations of the senate itself. All the while, Wiseman is generously attentive in showing us scenes of the gigantic staff of workers that support this political effort, whether they’re vacuuming the floors, answering phones, or physically collating pages for a hefty tome bound for the senatorial chamber.
In all of the film’s well-edited scenes, one gets a surprisingly comforting sense that the dialogue between politicians and the public is getting a fair shake. Here, people of all stripes are, for the most part, ardently listening to one another rather than shouting over opposing thoughts. Wiseman’s invaluable point here is that democracy works, even if the embattled election process convinces us otherwise. The deliberation over issues is strenuous, yes, but the film makes U.S. citizens acutely consider what’s going on under their own state dome (because, let’s face it, that old bromide of all politics being local is essentially true). Meanwhile, Wiseman boldly shows the world entire what democracy truly looks like. In the end, when one sees State Legislature, one feels grateful or desirous to be living in a country such as America. That said, the film is nearly ten years old now. I’m not so positive today’s capitol atmospheres are as affably productive as they seemed to be in 2007.
The War Room
(1993/Pennebaker Associates/Dir. Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker)
by Jim Tudor
“‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow’… I love that song!”
Cue my gag reflex, circa Fall of 1992. I was having lunch in the university center, overhearing yet another euphoric rhapsody about how glorious the promise of a Clinton presidency will be. The sentiment was epidemic.
How things have changed. As the ubiquitous adopted campaign theme song by Fleetwood Mac goes on to tell us, “Open your eyes and look at the day/You’ll see things in a different way.” Twenty-four years later, having gotten to know the Clintons on a far more realistic footing, supporters of the currently in-progress Hillary Clinton bid for the White House do so out of a pronounced lesser of two evils motivation.
In a flurry of rose colored charisma and a hunger for idealistic renewal, the 1992 Clinton/Gore juggernaut, opposing incumbent President George Bush, had little trouble velvet steamrollering college campuses, the entertainment media, and just enough other voters to tip it to victory. Not being on board with that momentary cultural Clinton love affair, I knee-jerkingly avoided the acclaimed documentary The War Room, which chronicled the inner workings of the campaign itself. Unbeknownst to me, Siskel, Ebert and the myriad of others who so vocally championed the film were right about it.
Edited to perfection in short, well-ordered snippets, The War Room details a ragtag lot of spirited crusaders holed up in a humble Little Rock storefront, fueled by adrenaline, caffeine and idealism. They’re doing their job, but it’s a job they believe in. With access denied to the candidate himself, Hegedus and Pennebaker were restricted to focusing on main strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos . Quite fortunately, these two media-savvy string-pullers have more than enough personality for the ninety-six minute fly-on-the-wall portrait. Utilizing the tenants of “Direct Cinema”, the purely observational style of documentary filmmaking that Pennebaker himself helped forge under the tutelage of Robert Drew during John F. Kennedy’s run for president, the filmmakers’ work is full of energy, enthusiasm, and carefully managed truth. The filmmakers of course know and understand this, so they scurry for reality in other ways. As Al Gore gives a most compelling speech full of crowd-winning hyperbole and buzzwords, the camera ignores him, locking in on the sign language interpreter off to the side of the stage. She’s flanked by hastily taped up signage, patriotic bunting, and attentive behind-the-scenes workers. In the office, Carville’s Cajun brashness and humor dominates. He’s under pressure but also putting on a great show. Consequently, one won’t come away from The War Room with a clear understanding of how Clinton/Gore won so much as a warm familiarity with the people who got them to the victory, and what it was like to win.
The filmmakers couldn’t have known it at the time, but The War Room was lightning in a bottle several times over, whether it be from their decision to follow the candidate who ended up winning, to access to the unlikely blooming love relationship between Carville and Bush Deputy Political Director Mary Matalin, to its release at just such a time as the public was still enamored with Bill Clinton. Today though, we sadly don’t need Hegedes and Pennebaker to make a documentary to show us the inner workings of a Clinton campaign. We have WikiLeaks.
(1992/Miramax/Dir. Tim Robbins)
by Robert Hornak
Bob Roberts is definitely disturbing to watch amidst the final weeks of our current debacle, but at least it has the decency to be fictitious. Tim Robbins plays conservative Senatorial candidate Bob Roberts as boyishly charming, generally unflappable, and completely manufactured. This satirical B-side to Jim’s Film Admission, The War Room, follows Roberts’ populist campaign, spreading beat-the-rich bromides across the great state of Pennsylvania as a combo political wunderkind and folk-ditty troubadour – the movie is just shy of a musical, forever cutting to crowds of supporters that are at once musically entertained and politically placated. The conceit takes joy in conflating our hero worship of entertainers with the more shaded brand of hero worship we render unto those groping us for the keys to power. It’s best on this point when Roberts is on stage, essentially crooning his party’s platform, but plays more subtly in a scene on the Roberts bus, a female staffer strumming a campaign tune on guitar while he hums along typing on a keyboard – it’s the image of a duo on guitar and keyboard, respectively plucking out and pecking out his plan for the future while quietly cementing the now-ubiquitous political-entertainment complex. Meanwhile, there’s an impenetrability to Roberts’ affability, and we don’t know how to take him at first. Instead, the opening half hour does that Kuleshov thing of changing our impression of him not by changing up his smiley tone, but by varying the descriptions of Roberts by those around him – ranging from wild-eyed sycophants to dirt-digging radical pamphleteers. Soon the smarm beneath the charm is revealed, and we’re seeing him for the “fascist yuppie” that he really is.
The mockumentary trappings, which thankfully only lean into actual spoof once or twice, allow us to see Roberts in a myriad of typical campaign photo-ops, political ads, music videos, hotel speeches, and, in a maneuver that seems de rigueur for a modern candidacy, an “and I’m funny too!” appearance on an SNL type show, where the pools of hostility that boil over among the gaggle of left-leaning comedy writers bring the movie as close as it gets to the gold standard of something like Network. It’s a bit too one-layer to be much more than a very accurate lob from the smart-aleck in the back of the classroom, but there’s nonetheless a clear and pointed message from, and to, blue-state sensibilities re: the dangers of populist crooners as policy wonks. The final act finds Robbins – who also wrote and directed the movie – feeling a little too good about his message to let the intelligent snark stay tamped down: a redux of the RFK assassination comes off a bit tasteless, but at least the lawless mob that forms to squash the assassin is a chilling lesson on the unthinking lengths the all-but-brainwashed followers of a person/cause/philosophy will go when their misbegotten hopes are derailed. But for Roberts’ supporter-fans, there is hope, as the candidate survives another day to play his newly-won, almost-martyrdom as a new tool for fooling some of the people all of the time. It’s a fun movie that counts on our cynicism to interpret its cynical message, which is that a clear-eyed cynicism might be your only shield against the Bob Roberts of the world.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
(1939, Columbia Pictures Corporation/Dir. Frank Capra)
by Erik Yates
Frank Capra’s naïve, yet pure tale of American idealism in the face of corruption is an ideal situation for the second pairing of Capra with quintessentially American actor, Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, the most naïve man a corrupt kingmaker and media owner can find to replace a recently deceased U.S. senator. When he gets to Washington, he is so in awe of the majesty of the place and what it is supposed to represent that he finds himself being duped by his fellow Senator who was once friends with his father, and whom he has looked up to his whole life. His honesty, and romantic notion of America eventually wins over his secretary Suanders, played by the wonderful Jean Arthur. With Saunders help, Jefferson stages a filibuster to save the environmental area he loves, even if it means standing against the very Senator he used to respect, and the corrupt political machine that is backing him.
Watching this film from 1939, in the midst of the 2016 Presidential race is a little surreal. Capra’s often criticized naiveté, here comes off as a breath of fresh air. I found myself wishing for the idealism that Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith espouses in this role, especially after being bombarded by one of the most corrupt and sickening election cycles I’ve witnessed. We need a man like Jefferson Smith to stand against the power and corruption of Washington, D.C., the media, and the would-be power-brokers working behind the scenes to buy influence, all at the expense of the grandiose ideals of our nation and the idea that is America. And frankly, I’m tired of the cynicism with which we must view our politicians and news media on both sides of the political aisle.
John Lennon once sang in the song “Gimmie Some Truth”, “I’ve had enough of reading things from neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians….All I want is the truth. Just Gimmie some Truth”. Capra’s film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, predates that John Lennon song by 32 years, but it echoes the same sentiments. The only difference being that the film doesn’t leave the frustration, distrust and cynicism lingering in the air the way the song does. Instead, all-American Jimmy Stewart shows us an example of what is possible, if we are willing to be true to our ideals and the grander notions of truth, justice, and right over wrong. Politics have always been corrupt. Frank Capra doesn’t deny that in his film. He just embodies the sentiments expressed by John Lennon and so many people wanting the truth, and gives us a hero that reminds us what we could be as a nation if we held fast to our shared values that make this nation great. That may be naïve, but I for one would welcome it about now.
The Great McGinty
(1940, Paramount Pictures/Dir. Preston Sturges)
by Sharon Autenrieth
If you want a movie to restore your faith in human nature and our democracy, watch Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). If you want wry humor, cynicism and a bittersweet ending, try instead Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty, released just one year later. Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is a hobo who is willing to commit voter fraud (so timely!) for a couple of bucks – or to be precise, he’s willing to commit voter fraud 37 times, for a couple of bucks each time. What McGinty lacks in scruples he makes up for in work ethic and self confidence, both of which draw the attention and patronage of the local mob boss and political fixer (Akim Tamiroff). This inauspicious beginning is McGinty’s entry into politics, and he begins a steady climb from mob goon to alderman, mayor and governor.
McGinty the hobo has nothing to lose, including principles. McGinty the politician gains both a family and a conscience; and as we know from another great political film, On the Waterfront, “Conscience….that stuff can drive you nuts!” In McGinty’s case, conscience drives him to do the right thing, but remember – this is no Capra film. Preston Sturges comedies are funny, but it’s always humor with a bite. In fact, if there’s a moral to The Great McGinty, it may be that virtue doesn’t pay. Maybe that seems a little too dark for this election cycle, but I found found this tart concoction, with Sturges’s sharp script and deft directorial touch, just the right blend for where we are now.
(1998, Twentieth Century Fox, Dir. Warren Beatty)
by Krystal Lyon
The O’Jays said it best in their 1975 song “Give The People What They Want”, “Well, it’s about time for things to get better, We want the truth, the truth and no more lies!” Sounds about right for 1975, 2016 and for 1998’s Bulworth. In this crazy good political satire, Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth has made some bad choices and he decides to make the best of an insurance policy by taking out a hit on himself! With the burden of life and responsibilities lifted he finally starts being honest with the voters of California. He strikes political gold with that candidness and wins votes in the most unexpected spots. So there’s Dole and Clinton running for the presidency with the same old political jargon, and all of a sudden there’s Bulworth saying, “You got half your kids out of work and the other half are in jail. Do you see any Democrat doing anything about it? Certainly not me! So what’re you gonna do, vote Republican? Come on! Come on, you’re not gonna vote Republican! Let’s call a spade a spade!” This candor and honesty sounds pretty relevant to 2016, is this why Trump has made it so far in this election cycle?
Warren Beatty’s Bulworth is what we all want. We want to see Hillary Clinton crying in her office because she’s overwhelmed. We wonder if Trump is really tired of saying he’s going to make America great again or if he even believes that crock pot of ridiculousness. We are tired of the political robots and we want something unrehearsed, human and truthful. We want senators and potential presidents to sit down and have conversations with middle class families and minorities that feel marginalized and unheard. And personally, I want a candidate that raps really poorly. “Let me hear you say it, Big Money! Big Money! One man, one vote, Now is that really real? The name of our game is ‘let’s make a deal’ Now, people got their problems, the haves and have-nots, But the ones that make me listen pay for 30 seconds spots.”
What you don’t see in Bulworth is whether all that truth and candor actually do any good for America. While we want someone that is approachable and real, does the political mumbo jumbo actually keep the country going? What will enact actual change and good? We do see that Bulworth, the man, is changed. Not only does he value his own life but he seems to believe what he is saying for the first time. Bulworth is a must watch during the next couple of weeks. Watch it for the laughs, the interview Bulworth does about obscenities, for the insane 90’s soundtrack and for young Halle Berry and Don Cheadle. They are fierce! Bulworth is relevant, funny and thought provoking all in under 2 hours. Stream Bulworth on Netflix tonight for a much needed break and laugh.
(1999, Paramount Pictures, Dir. Alexander Payne)
by Taylor Blake
No matter your politics, it seems we’ve unanimously decided the 2016 U.S. election is unprecedentedly loopy. However, I’d like to nominate another candidate for most unpredictable polling season: the race for Carver High School Student Council President in Alexander Payne’s Election.
The parallels to 2016’s presidential race are uncanny. Members of the establishment are running against unconventional disrupters. The voters are weighing experience versus popularity, and almost every player in the process feels just one slip-up away from a sex scandal. (Given the film’s release at the bookend of Bill Clinton’s administration, it’s hardly surprising.)
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a young but already-beloved Social Studies teacher at Carver, determined to teach his students values like the importance of democracy and the differences between morals and ethics. But his idealism is challenged in the cutthroat ambition of one Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), whose enthusiastic hand-raising and ubiquitous “Pick Flick” buttons are beginning to make him twitch. After one of her youthful indiscretions causes the sacking of one of his closest colleagues, he takes it upon himself to challenge her clear path to victory as STUCO President. He recruits the dim-witted but good-natured jock Paul (Chris Klein) to run against her, which only sharpens her competitive edge.
The other uncanny parallel to Election? Matthew Broderick’s most famous film role as Ferris Bueller. Imagine Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from the perspective of Principal Rooney, that his defeated bus ride was the mid-point of the story, and the rest of the film showed his spiral into self-destruction. Now you have Jim’s trajectory. Broderick is, of course, the most obvious link between the two films, but the similar shot compositions, the voiceover narration, and repeated motifs (like an educator fixated on one student) make Election the darkest timeline of Ferris growing up to become Rooney. Apparently this is all coincidental, but it reinforces one of the essential questions of Payne’s film: Can we really make the future better, or are we subject to destiny?
The answer does not come with definition. Because politics are the narratives we choose to believe—especially when circumstances don’t go as planned—we see the results of our votes and choices through that narrative lens. The more Jim, Tracy, and Paul share their perspectives, the more we see their worldviews don’t match reality. Delusional narratives only last as long as you can run from the cold hard facts, and it’s only a matter of time before the facts catch up with these candidates.
The Seduction of Joe Tynan
(1979, Universal Pictures, Dir. Jerry Schatzberg)
by Oscar Jackson III
Written by Alan Alda, The Seduction of Joe Tynan stars Rip Torn, Barbara Harris, and Meryl Streep a few years from breaking out as one of the premiere actresses of our time. Released in 1979, Seduction came out close to the zenith of M*A*S*H popularity, and no one was more popular that Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce. It makes him a perfect fit for the titular Joe Tynan, the politician that is beloved by all. He is the proto-Barack Obama, and people can’t help but come up to him time and time again to ask for his autograph or to tell him how much they love him. He even appears on late night TV.
The film establishes what a standup guy he is early, showing Tynan speaking about the passage of a bill that would give some 1,000 people jobs or he passionately states, “Why are we even here?” He has a fun, healthy physical relationship with his wife, Ellie (Harris), and is the type of dad that goes upstairs to have a sit-down heart-to-heart with his daughter.
As the movie progresses, however, it becomes more and more clear that the only thing at the core of Tynan is himself. What makes the film interesting, though, is that even as Tynan succumbs to this temptation, the film never treats it as all that bad. It is as if the film grudgingly wants him to be a good guy even while it is evident he is far from it.
A nominee for the Supreme Court is the catalyst for much of what unfolds as Tynan is led to oppose an old friend and senator who also happens to be going senile, suddenly speaking in French without realizing. The nominee has said some racist things in the past on segregation, and Tynan sees an opportunity. It never seems like Tynan really believes the nominee is racist, even saying so much at one point, or that he has a problem with it; he just sees a political opportunity.
Helping him in this is Karen Traynor (Streep), a savvy and beautiful woman, steeped in Louisiana politics and dealing with a loveless marriage. It isn’t long before the two have confessed they are infatuated with one another and an affair begins. While Ellie hates politics but accepts her husband in spite of it, Traynor relishes it, dealing Tynan opposition research and stroking his political ego at every turn. There’s a cursory treatment of this being wrong, but it really never is more than that.
The music for the film is by Bill Conti, the musician behind the greatest everyman story put to film, Rocky. Conti’s score always treats the going-ons as folky and not that bad, even as the film is showing a husband cheat on his wife, a wife who has a history of struggling emotionally with her husband’s work and has a hard time accepting that everything is political. Ellie is easily the most sympathetic, and it’s incredible seeing how little the film gives to her plight, even after she discovers the affair. Tynan’s first instinct, again showing that he isn’t that good of a person, is to physically restrain her rather than hear her out.
By the film’s end, Tynan chooses to give up the affair and stay with his wife, but his reasoning seems to have more to do with political aspirations than any real love. He is never going to give up politics, but the film tries to make you think he would in the end, and as he stands silently before a cheering crowd at the Democratic Convention, it is only when his wife, eyes red with tears, gives a sad nod that he feels he can proceed with his aspirations. He wins.
I never felt like Joe Tynan was seduced by either politics or Traynor. He was always that way. It was the other part, the good husband and father and the politician who cares that was a lie. In the end, he shows his true colors. I want to say the acting is good, and I will say that, but I can’t help but hesitate over whether the intent was to make Tynan sympathetic or con artist exposed. The film is worth seeing just to ponder that question.
(1979, Embassy Pictures, Dir. William Richert)
by Justin Mory
My own admission for this month’s Political Film Admissions feature is that I originally had no interest in participating. A conscientious objector as far as the current cultural and political wars are concerned, I recently found my unspoken sentiments echoed while paging idly through that invaluable volume of popular film criticism, and, by extension, the moral responsibility of popular art, Agee on Film (1958). In an August 1944 review for the periodical New Nation, on the now near-forgotten presidential political biography Wilson (1944, dir. Henry King), the most brilliant and perceptive film critic of his day, James Agee, opined:
that political ideas at their most mature and serious are still childish and frivolous as compared with those ideas or conceptions which attempt to work in, to perceive, and to illuminate the bottom of the souls of human beings (Agee on Film; Library of America, 2005, pg. 133).
Well, take that, [insert political commentator/filmmaker of choice here]!
That being said, popular movies have been extremely entertaining on the subject of politics; mostly, however, when the drama and intrigue of its inherently theatrical nature provide a backdrop to the personalities and conflicts involved rather than espousing a particular view. And while I couldn’t fully recommend the late ’70s politically-themed oddity I happened to view this bleak October, I can at least say that the bizarrely-toned and strongly-cast Winter Kills is never less than interesting.
Based on a 1974 novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the 1959 novel of The Manchurian Candidate), the film stars Jeff Bridges as the last scion of a great political dynasty that came to an abrupt end on February 22, 1960 when his elder half-brother, the 35th U.S. President, was fatally shot by a sniper’s bullet in a motorcade through the streets of Philadelphia. A crazy mirror/alternate history view of the Kennedy Assassination, along with 19 years of political paranoia and conspiracy theories, Winter Kills reached screens in 1979 as a one-of-a-kind political thriller/satire that floundered at the box office and quickly earned a critical reputation as the sort of overreaching “failure” American cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s seemed to specialize in.
The political flip-flop here regarding this latter-day cult favorite is for cinemaddicts, borrowing Agee’s favored term, who think they have seen it all. If watching an actor 19 years before he achieved screen immortality as The Dude (Bridges) screen icon-interacting with, in succession, Richard Boone, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Toshiro Mifune, Sterling Hayden, and Dorothy Malone – to say nothing of flashback sequences with Eli Wallach, Ralph Meeker, and Elizabeth Taylor – isn’t enough to earn one’s cinemaddicted attention, then possibly nothing appearing on the silver screen ever has or will.
And even the most apolitical of film aesthetes, myself included, would have to admit that 38 years after the famed director threw a low-angle shot against a bloated and bloviating Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941), the image of John Huston as the most powerful man in the country hanging from a Metropolitan tower in a similar framing of glaring ostentation and bellicose corruption — gripping and bodily tearing through a giant American flag — retains every bit of its outsized and outré symbolic relevance after yet another 38 years.