Has the idea of a ‘Hero’ in politics gone the way of the Silent Film?

Image: Sam Rockwell as George Bush in 'Vice' Annapurna Pictures
Image: Sam Rockwell as George Bush in ‘Vice’ Annapurna Pictures

A film taking up a lot of headlines at the moment is the Oscar nominated film ‘Vice’; broadly speaking, it’s a biopic of the notorious former Vice-President Dick Cheney, and documents his rise to power through manipulation of the much-ridiculed president George W. Bush.

The film has naturally rallied together the usual band of alt-right radio hosts/ dejected former ‘Star Wars’ fans in a mob of fury towards the film, describing it as yet another example of the alleged left-wing bias in Hollywood. Whilst the debate surrounding ‘Vice’ is likely to be lost amidst the never-ending internet void of head-scratching cultural criticism (currently encompassing everything from creepy takedowns of Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ to fringy left-overs from the Alex-Jones show) it is worth looking into whether the political figures at the heart of the establishment, including the president, have ever garnered favourable portrayals in filmmaking; Has any presidential figure (conservative or liberal) been given the mantle of ‘hero’ by Hollywood?

The one time golden-boy of the presidency in the eyes of Hollywood would seem to have been JFK; filmmakers such as Oliver Stone in his semi-biopic ‘JFK’ painted him as an embodiment of what every president should aspire to, a man whose potential was tragically cut short in horrendous circumstances; this rose –tinted image reached almost laughable proportions with 2000 film about the Cuban missile crisis ‘Thirteen Days’. This film presented the president as a stoic family-man beset by the incompetence of others; an image that has waned somewhat in recent years.

Kennedy would seem to be the exception however, and apart from Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ the job of Hollywood these days would seem to be to peel back the layers of pomp and artifice surrounding the president and their cronies. Armando Ianucci’s brilliant send-up of the Iraq war ‘In the Loop’ pointed the finger at the administrations of the UK and US governments as being populated by liars and spin doctors; the last thing on their mind would seem to be serving the populace. Stanley Kubrick took this idea a step further with the ground-breaking Cold-War satire ‘Doctor Strangelove’; a film where the president and his cabinet quite literally leave the global population to the fate of nuclear annihilation.

In regard to honouring ‘heroes’, modern Hollywood seems to have shifted its gaze as far away from the political class as possible; choosing to focus on those claimed to be brave enough to take on the establishment from the plucky leakers of the Pentagon- Papers in Spielberg’s recent ‘The Post’ to the bold civil rights activism of Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s ‘Selma’.  Even complimentary political biopics such as 2018’s critically lauded ‘Darkest Hour’ presented Churchill as being a PM who was an outsider in his own cabinet, and embellished with enough quirks to be comfortably distanced from any kind of conventional ‘politician’ archetype.

‘Vice’ is only the tip of the iceberg as far as unfavourable portrayals of the political establishment goes and it is not a specific example of the so called ‘Liberal Hollywood’ ( a biopic of the disgraced Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart is on its way for anyone concerned about left-right balance). In an age of a media bashing, twitter-tantrumming president and a disillusioned electorate the true heroes in the media’s modern view of politics are those bold enough to face up to the allegedly incompetent and corrupt figures of power. In the cinema of 1991, a ‘hero’ image could be applied JFK. In the cinema of 2019 it could just as easily be applied to Lee Harvey Oswald.

 

This article can also be seen in The Yorker magazine, “Heroes”.

 

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Michael Maitland-Jones

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