Criterion Files

As America anticipates the first general election Presidential debate of 2012 tonight, it’s clear that there’s one thing on everyone’s mind: what does The Criterion Collection have to say about American politics at the executive level?

The Collection certainly has a multitude of world leader’s represented, from Idi Amin in Barbet Schroder’s General Idi Amin Dada (1974) to Ivan the Terrible in Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part masterpiece of the same name. But Criterion also has three of the best movies made about real and fictional 20th century American Presidents and Presidential candidates…

#602: The War Room (1993)

The cinema verite documentary more or less began in the field of Presidential politics with Robert Drew’s Primary (1960), a film that chronicled the Wisconsin Democratic primary battle between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. It was a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye-view of presidential politics, and revealed the exhausting process of campaigning between hands shaken and speeches given. More than thirty years later, renowned verite documentarians D.A. Pennebaker (who was a crew member on Primary) and Chris Hegedus teamed up to capture Bill Clinton’s roller coaster of a general election campaign.

Unlike Primary, however, the Presidential candidate (even with his cinematic charisma) isn’t the star of The War Room. Instead, Pennebaker and Hegedus focus on the sleepless trials, arguments, and successes of Clinton’s campaign staff, headed by Communications Director George Stephanopoulos and Lead Strategist James Carville. Both Stephanopoulos and Carville have remained distinct and lasting media personalities for the past twenty years, so while these two sit as comfortably with a documentary camera in their face as they do with a news camera, it’s fascinating to see these two bigwigs in the political sphere in unscripted mode. Carville is as cleverly profane as one would imagine, and Stephanopoulos is a cunning, quietly brilliant campaigner.

Like Primary, The War Room captures on (albeit on a grander scale) the exhausting process that campaigning an individual for President can be, a toll that is taken just as equally if not more so with the campaign staff as with the candidate himself.

Could The War Room be made today? With the polarization of political media on television and in current documentary cinema, and with the constant paranoia that in a media-saturated era, any comment can be exploited out of context, I think the political sphere has probably lost faith in the virtue of verite-style filmmaking. It will be some time until we see another campaign film like this, which makes The War Room that much more of a treasure.

#257: Secret Honor (1984)

Of all the components that add up to the “Robert Altman style,” the auteur is probably best known for his ensemble pieces that place a variety of characters together, engaging in overlapping layers of dialogue. It’s all the more striking, then, that of all the colorful characters associated with the Nixon administration, Altman chooses instead to focus his lens wholly and exclusively on one: Tricky Dick himself.

The expansive character and myth that make up Nixon alone is, of course, more than enough fodder for a movie (and that’s why more than a few decent films have been made about him), but it’s still a storytelling challenge to place the man who told the American people “I am not a crook” into a room by himself for ninety minutes. Based on the play of the same name by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, Altman’s for-television adaptation features Philip Baker Hall as a long-retired Nixon searching for meaning and righteousness in reflecting on his decisions as President and throughout all his life, all within the claustrophobic walls of his personal library.

You might think that a one-man show would be an impediment for bringing some Altmanesque overlapping dialogue to the fore, but Hall’s Nixon is a man so flustered and haunted by internal and external conflict that he struggles to finish one coherent complaint before moving onto another. The result is a mesmerizing and frightening examination of a mammoth ego’s fragility when a sitting President goes from the top of world power to no power at all after giving up the office.

The post-Presidency is a strange American institution. Some Presidents, like Jimmy Carter, have gone on to make a greater impact during post-Presidency than during their time in office. Secret Honor imagines Nixon’s reclusive post-Presidency as a period painted with the same rabid paranoia he displayed behind the scenes during his time as Commander in Chief, and Secret Honor is a fascinating essay on the relationship between the office and the person. One could imagine a similar film about the reclusive ex-President George W. Bush being made a decade from now.

#258: Tanner ’88 (1988)

The third film on this list, of course, isn’t a film at all, but it is without competition Robert Altman’s greatest filmmaking achievement of the auteur-unfriendly 1980s. Tanner ’88 remains an underappreciated landmark in television production. Altman teamed up with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to create a fictional Democratic candidate named Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) for an HBO television miniseries. Tanner ’88 follows the candidate’s grassroots nationwide primary campaign that is big on honest rhetoric but short on resources for big league competition or the ability to cogently manage gaffes and media-sensationalized controversies.

Tanner ’88 was audaciously filmed with remarkable expediency. Murphy-as-Tanner would follow real-life Presidential candidates on both sides of the political aisle, and the fictional drama of the show would merge inconspicuously with the real drama of the campaign. A work of verite-fiction, Tanner ’88 playfully blurs categories of documentary and scripted entertainment, and the end result reveals the frustrating, intricate, depressing, childish, and comically absurd process of running and covering (Tanner ’88 is just as much about the press as it is about the politicians) a national election. Trudeau and Altman worked with the cast on the semi-improvisatory script during filming, edited the episodes quickly, and then sent the episodes off the HBO, thus creating an immediacy to this fictional Presidential campaign that mirrored the immediacy of its real-life coverage.

Like Tanner on Tanner, Altman’s entertaining but underwhelming 4-episode 2004 epilogue released alongside that year’s election and in correspondence with the Criterion release of the original, Tanner ’88 is a series about the saturation of media and the repercussions of the always-in-the-present nature of modern politics, and captured a political moment defined by focus-grouping and 24-hour cable news coverage that has only become more prevalent today. Tanner’s message of starkly honest rhetoric at top-level politics is still an inspiring and resonant one even in these most cynical of times, and especially considering that the series takes place during two primary battles that resulted in two of the most boring major party candidates modern politics has seen. Tanner’s John Lennon Speech (see above) can still inspire chills.

While watching the series, I wished time and again that Jack Tanner actually existed. No wonder Altman called Tanner ’88 the most creative thing he’s ever done.

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