The relationship between Hollywood and politics dates back to classic movies such as Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941).
Citizen Kane, directed by and starring acting great Orson Welles, was considered to be a masterpiece of its day and is viewed by film critics as one of the best films ever. The story tracks the rise of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles. Citizen Kane is a portrait of an American icon and his search for power through politics, wealth, fame and the media. It features one of the most famous lines of cinema as the lead character dies in his bed saying the word "Rosebud."
Mr Smith Goes to Washington, directed by Frank Capra, is a patriotic movie showcasing a young, idealistic Jimmy Stewart as the title character who fights corruption in the Senate. When the film was first released, many senators were offended that political corruption was the main drive of the plot. However, sentiment changed as fans of the movie embraced the freedom inherent in a society that could reveal flaws in a system and rally people to demand change.
Another populist classic of the 1940s is The Farmer's Daughter (1947) in which Loretta Young played the leading character, later winning an Academy Award. While Mr Smith Goes to Washington pays homage to Abraham Lincoln, this film, which carried the working title Katie for Congress, salutes Woodrow Wilson and his wife. This seminal early women's political picture can be compared to The Contender (2000), where the vice president of Democratic President Jackson Evans dies suddenly. He nominates a liberal senator to fill the vacancy but a scandal from her past threatens to block this opportunity.
The 1949 screen adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men examines the manipulative populism of Willie Stark, played by Broderick Crawford. The movie is a cautionary tale about the dark side of populism, and reveals how power can corrupt a man of the people. It helped usher in a period when many Americans began second guessing populism's belief in the inherent wisdom of the people. State of the Union (1948), which was also directed by Capra, features a liberal Republican candidate for president who struggles with the compromises to his integrity that are demanded by the campaign. The director questions populism and the American political process.
All the President's Men (1976), tells the story of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively, who investigated the Watergate break-in that ultimately resulted in bringing down the Nixon White House. The film won Oscars for best picture and script and once again made people laud American democracy for being bold enough to reveal flaws in the system.
The Candidate (1972) also stars Redford in a political satire that stays close to reality. The title character is a Senate candidate who is allowed to maintain his ideals during the campaign since it is assumed he cannot win. Director Michael Ritchie said the character was "the kind of guy who hated politics, then got involved in it and pulled an upset. "
A number of films drew their inspiration from the Cold War, including The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a chilling thriller that starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury. The movie, which was produced and directed by John Frankenheimer, tells a story about brainwashing, Communism and McCarthyism. It was remade in 2004, directed by Jonathan Demme and casting Denzel Washington in the lead role instead of Sinatra.
To understand the relationship between politics and film it is essential to understand that films are designed to make money. The imperative that movies make a profit means that they seek large audiences. Overtly political subjects have always been present in films, although they have never been predominant. The industry's conventional wisdom is that political subjects should be avoided. When films address political topics, they usually personalize them and take advantage of the drama of political situations.
One way to hide the politics of a film is to structure a story that parallels political events and personalities. There are also a number of political topics that by virtue of consensus developed over time become safe, such as films dealing with combat in Vietnam and the war's aftermath. Another common way to deal with politics is to avoid being specific about it or to treat the topic ambivalently and balance contending sides.