Politics - The Hollywood Version

September 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
It’s like a really bad Disney movie, “The Hockey Mom.” “Oh, I’m just a hockey mom from Alaska,” and she’s president. She’s facing down Vladimir Putin and using the folksy stuff she learned at the hockey rink. It’s absurd.
Matt Damon knows the movies. He has picked up on a theme that has run through American films for decades: the triumph of innocence over intrigue. Damon is thinking of Disney comedies, but the idea is so deeply embedded in American culture that it underlies darker entertainments as well.

Typically, the ordinary American – honest, incapable of guile – lands in some nefarious web of intrigue and deceit woven by powerful but evil people. These are often foreigners, but they can also be domestic gangsters or malefactors of great wealth, the kind of people who drink expensive wine or collect modern art. In a word, elitists.

The official authorities, especially if they wear uniforms, are no help. They are either incompetent or in cahoots with the bad guys. In fact, they are usually a hindrance, threatening or even imprisoning the hero. Yet our hero, through good old American straightforwardness and resourcefulness, outwits the baddies, disrupts the their plot, rescues whoever was in danger, and restores the world to order. If there’s a pretty, single girl, he winds up with her too. Innocence beats intrigue every time.*

It’s not just Disney, and it’s not just Spiderman, Batman, and other films derived from children’s comic books. It’s Capra, Hitchcock (“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North By Northwest”), and dozens of lesser directors. Maybe it’s even Matt Damon movies (I confess, I have not seen or read “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if it contained some of these elements.)

At least Damon has the good sense to know that the world of movies is not the real world, and that being the plucky hockey mom might not necessarily qualify someone to be one septuagenarian heartbeat away from the presidency. But the PR strategists that work for our politicians try to present the real world as though it were a movie, and the public often seems to accept that presentation.

The networks should be running “Wag the Dog” on a continuous loop.

*My favorite counter-example is “The Third Man.” The protagonist (played by Joseph Cotten) thinks he’s in an American film, but he’s not. He’s in a European film. His friend, the man whose innocence he tries to prove, turns out in fact to be a baddie, just like the British officer has said. And even though Cotten realizes that the British officer was right and winds up killing his friend, the intrigue, conspiracy, and evil in Vienna will continue. And he doesn’t get the girl.

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