Politics and the Movies

city hall posterPolitics can be dramatic, and the movie industry has long acknowledged that.  To help introduce the Hollings Library to our public when we opened in 2010, we began a series of twelve politically themed movies presented over the course of two years.  This included a screening of City Hall.  The film stared John Cusack and Al Pacino and featured a cameo by our own Fritz Hollings as a U.S. Senator.  The producers felt that Hollings was the epitome of all a U.S. Senator should be — tall, white-haired, decisive, and possessed of a booming voice.

We introduced each film by linking it in some way to our collections.  This was great fun and it was surprising how readily we were able to connect the subject matter of each movie to our holdings.  The series was successful in drawing folks into our new home but was discontinued due to the drain the evening event presented to our small staff.

mr smith posterThere is no end to the list of films that make important statements on the political process.  These range from light comedy to documentaries and from high art to parody.  Our slate consisted of: City Hall, 1996; The Congress, 1989, a superb Ken Burns documentary; All The King’s Men, 2006, with Sean Penn starring in this Robert Penn Warren story; Advise and Consent, 1962, starring Henry Fonda; All The President’s Men, 1976, recounting the Watergate investigation; Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore, 2006, a wonderful documentary on a grassroots Missouri congressional campaign; the classic Jimmy Stewart film, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, 1939; Boogie Man, 2008, a documentary recounting the life story of South Carolina’s Lee Atwater; Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005, the George Clooney film on journalist Edward R. Murrow; Point of Order, 1964, a documentary presenting a selection of the 187 hours of testimony taken during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings; and the Eddie Murphy comedy, The Distinguished Gentleman, 1992.

distinguished gentleman posterCritic Roger Ebert gave The Distinguished Gentleman only two stars: “I would be tempted to say, The Distinguished Gentleman paints a jaundiced view of lobbyists and bribery in Washington, if the latest headlines didn’t make the movie seem almost soft on payola.”  I found that it shared many similarities to the Academy Award nominated Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Both stories center on neophyte politicians dealing with the pressures of service in Congress following the deaths of long-serving and well-loved members.  Mr. Smith had a strong and immediate impact and has achieved cult status.  The Distinguished Gentleman did not have that same impact, but the comedy still raises important issues, chiefly about the opportunities for graft and the importance of campaign fund raising.  These mirror themes raised in the earlier Capra movie and real-life concerns.

In one of its funniest scenes, Murphy visits the widow of the congressman whom he hopes to succeed.  In the guise of a professor at “Wilson Pickett State College,” he seeks the husband’s papers and ephemera for the college library.  Murphy intends to use the dead member’s campaign materials — posters, bumper stickers and buttons, in his own, successful, campaign.

There is a lot more to like in The Distinguished Gentleman.  Murphy is assigned a terrible office because he neglected to attend the office selection event (often broadcast live on C-SPAN).  There are, in real life, terrible congressional offices.  The office buildings are over-crowded, and I’ll never forget my first trip to Senator Hollings’ attic storage space, a cage in the Russell Senate Office Building.  To get to Hollings’ cage, I passed spaces that had been repurposed to house congressional staff.  Nice lighting and oriental rugs did nothing to counter the fact that the attic is generally dimly lit, poorly heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, and mainly provides space for non-active files which the senators are not yet ready to give up.  I recently watched The Distinguished Gentleman again and was pleased at how well the movie holds up.

Please email me at Herb@sc.edu and tell us about your favorite political movie!

By Herb Hartsook

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