Tag Archives: British politics

love actually

We Were Warned

Arguably, some of the best forewarnings have come from the British, even in the film Love Actually (2003), where the PM is none too happy with the bullying of his American counterpart.

There is no question that Hollywood warrants its old label as a home of escapist entertainment.  But it is also true that there is a growing list of mainstream films offering narratives about the devolution of American political life.  Most were first presented as fiction; but hindsight makes some remarkably prescient.  These are films plotted around acts of political corruption, deception or exploitative media. Who knew that we should have paid closer attention?

Overcoming studio timidity was never been easy.  The cautionary Vietnam fable M*A*S*H (1970) was shot by director Robert Altman in a California state park, away from the prying eyes of nervous Fox executives. Even so, the studio demanded that the film must appear to be about the politically safer Korean War.

The most interesting films include plot lines that anticipate our current moment. For example, in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) propagandists from China and the Soviet Union brainwash a veteran in an effort to have him subvert the United States government.  The idea of Communist brainwashing has never been very convincing. But the fact that we have a President seemingly in the thrall of the heirs to the Soviet Union seems like a fantasy that has become uncomfortably real.

Some films are reminders that Americans are easy marks for cynical populists.

There are also a number of films that suggest how easy it can be for an empty vessel of a leader to attract the support of audiences short on reasoning but ready to accept simple-minded bromides.  Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1952) suggests that fame can be easily manufactured and sold to ordinary citizens. It’s emphasis on the susceptibility of media audiences is mirrored in other iconic films like writer Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), or  All the King’s Men (1949), based on a Pulitzer-winning book by Robert Penn Warren.  The latter film is an extended riff on a figure like Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, a populist demagogue we sells a stream of lies to a clueless public.  Depending on the person, films can “mean” many things.  For me,  Warren’s character of Willie Stark and Network’s Howard Beale are reminders that many of us are easy marks for cynical populists.

Of course, the corruption that may come with power was a theme familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences. It also fascinated film legend Orson Welles, who put the abuse of authority front and center in the form of corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958).  And there’s also the ruthless Hearst-like newspaper magnate in Citizen Kane (1941), who had his own seaside Mar-a-lago.

Even Charlie Chaplin gave us reasons to be wary about the abuse of power, consistently using the gentle figure of the Tramp to deflate the police and the pompous. His pattern of mocking leaders is carried on by a handful of late-night television hosts, in sharp contrast to talk radio’s continuing love of reactionary politics.

Viewers of films about the McCarthy era may also see the coming pattern of the current president to scapegoat problems to immigrants, Mexicans, China or even NFL players.  The Wisconsin senator’s bludgeon was anti-communism.  His penchant for making baseless accusations against whole categories of Americans is well-represented in Bryan Cranston’s 2015 portrayal of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  This accustory strain in American politics has its own fascinating lineage of sobering Hollywood jeremiads, ranging from a film version of Arthur’s Miller’s The Crucible (1996) to the Edward R. Murrow biopic, Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

More recently, the best forewarnings on film have come from the British. In the surprising case of the otherwise negligible Love Actually (2003), a  perfect rebuke is directed to a bullying American President. Hugh Grant is the PM, and is none too happy with the high-handedness and arrogance of his American counterpart: words that would work equally well for the embattled Theresa May.

Love Actually Scene – Hugh grant Speech

Britian’s Premier Minister Hugh Grant’s Speech against the American President

In the recent past, BBC Films and the U.K. Film Council win the honors for confronting the problem of governments who have gone of the rails.  In the Loop (2009) is played by Tom Hollander and Peter Capaldi as farce, but seems close to the truth in displaying the twin challenges of bad foreign policy (i.e., the invasion of Iraq) pursued by inept bureaucracies.  James Gandolfini is a cautious  American General who is no match for the spin doctors in Washington and London that are planning a disastrous joint invasion.  In The Loop is a good representation of contemporary suspicions of political discourse, where the energies put into defending policies come prior to determining their basic soundness.  What was British farce in 2009 is now evident in the prevarications of official Washington.

In The Loop – Trailer

From writer/director Armando Iannucci, IN THE LOOP is a crackerjack political satire centered on the Machiavellian art of spin in the 24-hour news cycle — where one’s choice of words can, in a heartbeat, affect international diplomacy and where language isn’t so much a virus, as a veritable weapon of mass destruction.

Top Image: Universal Pictures

PMQs: What Americans are Missing

Dispatch Boxes (Lecturns) in the House of Commons Parliament.UK
Dispatch Boxes (Lecterns) in the House of Commons
Parliament.UK

What many in Britain consider a stale feature of their system would be nothing less than a breath of fresh air in ours.

The beginning of a presidential election season in the United States is now greeted by voters with an understandable amount of dread. To be sure, we want to celebrate the idea of elections. No one should be cynical about a system that insists on the consent of the governed. But it is hard to look at the truly awful media spectacle that has unfolded thus far and still be optimistic about our national political life.

Most Americans know that something is seriously amiss, even if it’s not clear how to redeem the campaign process to become what it currently is not: an opportunity for a great national awakening. We have “debates” that are really just joint press conferences, as well as seriously reduced coverage of any candidate that isn’t a poll leader. The reliable Tyndall Report notes that to this point Donald Trump has gotten nearly half the press coverage among all the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination. Moreover, we are saddled with prime-time stories from cable news outlets that constantly verge into “he said-she said” name-calling, as well as too many reporters spending most of their time interviewing other reporters. With the exception of a few serious news organizations, even larger news outlets seem to be averse to boring their audiences with substantive discussions of candidate responses to pressing national and international crises. It’s become so bad that what many in Britain consider to be a stale tradition within their system would be nothing less than a complete breath of fresh air for ours. We could really use something like Parliament’s weekly round of Prime Minister’s Questions (available for viewing at C-SPAN.org).

Every Wednesday Britain’s Prime Minister is obligated to appear in the House of Commons and face questions from leaders of other opposing parties, with the greatest number of queries coming from the leader of the largest faction out of power, and possibly the next Prime Minister. This is the system in most western parliamentary systems, working reasonably well in Australia, Canada and a number of other countries.  What it allows is a lowering of the Constitution-mandated wall between the legislative and executive functions that exists in the United States. Reducing that wall makes possible the kind of discourse that is needed in times when leaders need to be on the hook to find solutions to serious national problems, such as our chronic lateness in passing a federal budget. Frequent and direct debate between the leader of the government and those in opposition has a way of reminding everyone of significant issues in dispute.

Prime ministers generally have a good idea of what they will be asked about. And those doing the asking are not above framing questions to score some easy points against the party that actually has to govern. But Question Time has two huge advantages over American divided government. One is that questions in the House of Commons are not filtered through journalists scrambling to get screen time while also trying to function as surrogates for the other side. All that exists between the “dispatch box” of the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition is a distance of two sword lengths, a prudent design decision made long ago by British parliamentarians. The second is that name-calling and personal attacks won’t cut it in PMQs. It’s easier to call an opponent a liar to a reporter than to the opponent’s face. Direct debate without intermediaries means that questions will have to deal with affairs of state. Discussing anything less looks like evasion.

It’s a weakness in our system that nearly all of the political “debate” that occurs happens in the circus of campaigns, or sequentially through speeches by Presidents and congressional leaders given to their most ardent supports. Except for the yearly trek to Capitol Hill for the State of the Union Address, we simply have no mechanism for our national leaders to publicly argue the merits of their ideas in the presence of each other. The debates that do occur are usually private, when congressional members or their staffers meet with White House officials to iron out compromises. In the process, robust public discourse in the world’s greatest democracy withers. On most great issues the best we get is yet more sequential press conferences and the empty posturing that comes with them.

The problems hinted at here are myriad and complex.  But its hard to not conclude that our governmental system is broken in part because it depends too much on the press–what optimists used to call the “fourth branch of government”–to report the excruciatingly tough issues that those who govern must address.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu