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September 12, 2012
Electioneering on the Silver Screen
My guess is that if you're willing to buy a ticket to a Will Ferrell movie you're well aware of what you're in for: a good dose of screen raunch showcased as biting (maybe a better word would be be "nibbling") satire. The Ferrell protagonist generally comes in the guise of a public figure who is thrust into a competition that requires cunning, underhanded—and often crude—methods of fighting back.
In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) Ferrell plays a talking head whose commanding reign of the San Diego airwaves is put to the test when a beautiful rival (Christina Applegate) appears on the scene. In Blades of Glory (2007) Ferrell is a champion singles figure skater whose competitive shenanigans with a rival get both of them banned from the sport. Forced into an unholy alliance, the former enemies team up as the first male duo in pairs skating, thus rewriting the rules for the typically genteel competitions. For Semi-Pro (2008) Ferrell appears as a has-been singer who buys a basketball team and, as both a novice player and its boss, shoots for NBA-quality results.
A Bit Sketchy
Ferrell's comedic star rose by way of the NBC mainstay "Saturday Night Live." His films owe much to the traditions of sketch comedy as the actor parodies everyone from politicians to celebrities on screens both large and small. (In fact, he crafted a popular and hilarious caricature of President George W. Bush during his "SNL" tenure.) So it's not surprising that Ferrell's films have that "sketchy" feel, and his latest effort, The Campaign, is just as you would expect.
This time he's all-American family man Cam Brady, running for reelection in North Carolina's 14th Congressional District. He's not particularly bright but possesses a folksy charisma and a gift for hollow rhetoric that brings rally cheers from supporters. Of course, Ferrell's Brady is more interested in luring beautiful women into bed than serving his would-be constituents.
Most significantly no one is running against him. Until, that is, the wealthy Motch brothers anoint and finance an opposing candidate to depose Brady. Their pawn is Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis, a doofus with an anything-but-all-American family). When a misdialed phone call by Brady leads to a public sex scandal that damages his campaign and boosts Huggins', the political satire takes off at full speed, with many truisms at work in the zany race to election day. Media barrages, anything-to-win lies, campaign strategy tricks, more sex scandals, and hypocritical religious pandering all come into play. In one funny and original campaign strategy, the political issue of outsourcing is countered by a call for "insourcing," which involves selling the 14th Congressional District to China. It's a ploy by the Motch brothers to make more money.
Honesty: Not Always the Best Policy
The Campaign may be a broad, slapstick take on American electioneering. But it does provoke conversation while tipping its hat to some earlier, more serious campaign-themed motion pictures. The choice of a nonentity like Marty Huggins to run against Cam Brady reminded me of writer/director Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty (1940) in which a corrupt political machine engineers a governor's seat for a "bum" (Brian Donlevy). Sturges' Oscar-winning script, originally titled The Biography of a Bum, has the protagonist experience a change of heart midstream and resort to honesty during the stump. In The Campaign candidate Huggins uses a televised address to declare honesty is the best policy—and his popularity increases with potential voters. Sturges' McGinty does not fare as well; his stab at honesty precipitates his ultimate demise. The thematic idea of hypocrisy versus sincerity also is central to writer/director Warren Beatty's Bulworth (1998) about a disillusioned, depressed senator (Beatty) who is rejuvenated when he begins to tell the truth while campaigning for reelection.
Hype and Glory
Media targeting, a prevalent sub-theme in The Campaign, takes center stage in director Sidney Lumet's Power (1986), with Richard Gere as a political consultant who works endlessly to manipulate the media on behalf of his candidates. The same subject gets a comic twist in The Campaign, with actors Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott taking on the press. Barry Levinson's biting satire Wag the Dog (1997) toys with the concept of manipulating the media to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart, this film casts Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as political fixers charged with getting the sexually indiscreet president reelected. They actually stage bogus current events to deflect the public's attention away from their candidate's pesky misconduct.
Satire on the Stump
Another film that came to mind while watching The Campaign was writer/director Tim Robbins' satirical Bob Roberts (1992). Robbins, in the title role, is a conservative folksinger running for a Pennsylvania senate seat. Beyond personality and musical talent, there is little substance behind Roberts' ability to sway voters and the media. Robbins' cast includes celebrities as TV news reporters and anchors to delightful effect. In The Campaign 10 actual network anchors appear to report on the bizarre race between the Ferrell and Galifianikis characters. CNN's Wolf Blitzer and HBO's Bill Maher are just some familiar faces who report on the fictional events as if they portend earth-shaking significance.
Stranger than Fiction
As modern political campaigns go, truth often is stranger than fiction. But it you're looking to escape today's strange reality, there are plenty of election-oriented films to get you thinking. A few that I consider outstanding include John Ford's sentimental The Last Hurrah (1958), which chronicles the final election campaign of a New England political boss (Spencer Tracy); The Best Man, directed by Franklin Shaffner and based on Gore Vidal's stage play, which follows two ideologically-opposed presidential candidates; and The Candidate (1972), with Robert Redford in an Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner, which tracks a senate hopeful who campaigns with absolute integrity because he doesn't expect to win—but does. And finally, I must recommend the riveting and revealing documentary The War Room (1998), DA Pennebaker's cinema-verite-styled study of President Bill Clinton's 1990 campaign manager James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos. The strategists are followed through the campaign from pre-primary days to election night. Fascinating stuff. And definitely stranger than fiction.
Do you have a recommendation?
is a film historian and critic, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.