2011 As Told By Hollywood

I find a strange comfort in watching old films and seeing a bit of our world reflected in them. It gives you a sense of continuity, the knowledge that the world is actually not so unique (or uniquely terrible) as it might seem. Here are some classics that seem to speak to the reality of politics in 2011.

1. Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet) prophetically satirizes the operating methods and influence of Fox News about 30 years before we started worrying about it.

The rise of the “mad prophet of the airwaves” in Network reminds me of how the news media (Fox News in particular) manipulates the fear and anger of a surprisingly large segment of the population for ratings. In Network, a longtime news anchor uses television as a platform from which to rant about the general state of affairs, ecstatically leading viewers in the chorus, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!.”  Network prophesied how this kind of desperation could make popularly resonant, powerful television well before Glenn Beck’s rants ever graced the airwaves.

Watch the trailer here

2. The Best Man (1964, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) dramatizes the never-ending scheming and behind-the-scenes dealing of an election season.

Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson sparring as the two front-runners in a presidential primary makes for riveting viewing that still feels fresh during this aggressive primary season. The real thrill is trying to imagine just how candid the viciousness might be behind the scenes (watch the scene 58 minutes in to see Fonda’s candidate and the sitting president conspire about alleging that the opposing candidate was a “degenerate” in his war years), especially considering how barbed the debates have gotten lately on the public stage.

Watch the trailer here

3. The News of the World phone-tapping scandal draws renewed attention to our era’s Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orsen Welles), Rupert Murdoch.

In Citizen Kane, we watch flashbacks of a newspaper magnate’s personal relationships beginning to crumble as he rises to power, starting as a “creative journalist” and rapidly ascending to a position of more general influence and control. Charles Foster Kane was closely based on history’s great media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, who allegedly forbade mention of the film in any of his (many) newspapers. Murdoch hasn’t been quite so able to control his media image lately, but it seems relatively little has changed in the Murdoch empire. News Corporation’s shareholders have voted against reinstating Murdoch’s sons to the board, but the family owns 40% of the corporation’s shares. 

Watch the trailer here

4. And through it all, the recession continues, as we can see in The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford) and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010, dir. Oliver Stone).

The Grapes of Wrath, released at a height of American enthusiasm and optimism about FDR’s New Deal, presents a beautiful and heartbreaking take on John Steinbeck’s novel about absolute poverty among migrant workers, and their struggle to maintain control and dignity within their own lives. In Wall Street 2, Gordon Gekko re-emerges in 2008 to see where his mantra, “Greed is good,” has left the world. Wall Street 2 is important for a couple of reasons: Its existence admits to the recession as a fundamental (and long-lived) part of American life today, and it makes glaringly obvious how our current recession differs from the Great Depression, by making a flashy, expensive film about corporate intrigue in which incredibly huge sums of money are exchanged carelessly. No one looks impoverished — but no one looks as dignified as Henry Fonda did in The Grapes of Wrath. 

Watch the trailer here

 Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons