Having been treated, over the last month or so, to a most dismaying display of bare-knuckles political hardball at its most venal, it is tempting to assume that such behavior in the political arena is unprecedented. Surely we have reached an all-time low, we say to ourselves, when even the United States Supreme Court, designed by the founding fathers to be beyond the reach of partisan politics, is drawn into the fray.
Well, maybe so. The manner in which shady political gamesmanship has been chronicled by filmmakers over the past century, however, would suggest otherwise. A glance at some of the screen portrayals of political corruption through the years serves to put the recent unpleasantness in perspective. To see what I mean, look for these titles on home video.
"The Great McGinty" (1940). Writer-director Preston Sturges knew that corrupt politicians can shrug off any number of gimlet-eyed exposes. He understood that if you really want to draw blood the most devastating weapon is comedy. This satire on political corruption in America remains a touchstone of cinematic social commentary as well as an entertaining showcase for some of Hollywood's best character actors. Brian Donlevy stars as a two-bit hustler who makes his fortune by impressing the local ward boss. He works his way up through the ranks to become alderman, mayor, and eventually governor. No matter how low he needs to stoop to further his career, he is always equal to the occasion. Ironically, the only thing that stops his ascendance in the political world is the one moment in his life when he uncharacteristically decides to do the right thing rather than the expedient thing. This is the one crime that American politics will not forgive, and his career is ruined as a result.
"All the King's Men" (1949). Adapted from Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, this film centers around a clever and ruthless demagogue named Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), who is a thinly disguised incarnation of former Louisiana governor Huey Long. Stark at the height of his power is a monster. No level of corruption is too egregious for him. But the insidious brilliance of the film is that we are not quite allowed the luxury of hating Stark. When we first meet him, he is a small time backwoods politician running for local office. He is naïve, idealistic, and sincere. You can't help liking the guy. The county politicos, of course, grind him under their heels without a second thought. It is only when he is resigned to losing, attending a rally with his tongue loosened by alcohol, that he discovers his gift for fiery populist oratory. If he bypasses issues and goes straight for raw emotion, he finds that he can have a crowd of voters eating out of his hand in nothing flat.
"Advise and Consent" (1962). Henry Fonda stars as a presidential appointee who must submit to the acid bath of the congressional confirmation process. As usual, there are powerful forces arrayed in opposition to the appointment, which means that the administration must apply pressure on those whose votes remain in play. It develops that one of the crucial swing votes is that of a freshman senator played by Don Murray. When he seems reluctant to fall in line, the arm twisting escalates to full scale blackmail when certain highly sensitive information surfaces about the senator's personal life.
"The Best Man" (1964). One of the most insightful and acerbic commentators on the American political scene is Gore Vidal. In this screenplay, based on his own stage play, Vidal pits two presidential candidates against each other. One, played by Henry Fonda, is a principled man, while the other, played by Cliff Robertson, is more than willing to fight dirty. As in "The Great McGinty," we are bitterly reminded that the one unforgivable sin in politics is moral rectitude.
In time, the rancor of the past month's events will become yesterday's news, and ultimately will find its place in the history books. Almost certainly there will be a movie made about this year's election in one form or another. In a real sense, however, that film will only be a remake of the titles we've looked at here. The names and faces change, but, as our filmmakers keep reminding us, the appalling political pageant remains eternally the same.