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Political entertainment persists despite closed-door politics

Just as election season was starting to kick into high gear this summer, Warner Bros. released “The Campaign,” a political comedy starring two of today’s biggest stars of the genre. On the surface, it seemed like a reasonably broad R-rated comedy about two congressional candidates (Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis) in the midst of a particularly nasty election. It was all those things, but below the surface it was also an incredibly bleak portrait of the American political system. It did not treat its central election as a celebration of American democracy. If anything, the film is a scathing critique of what American democracy has become.
Increasingly, this is becoming more of the rule than the exception in popular culture. There were once tons of political movies that sang the praises of American democracy, but now the opposite seems to be the case. As our elections seem to grow nastier and nastier, pop culture’s depictions of elections have followed suit.
Take, for instance, George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” from 2011. That film might not have had much to say about the system as a whole, but there’s no denying that most of its characters were deceitful to say the least. Without going into too much detail and ruining one of the film’s twists, the entire plot consisted of characters covering up secrets in order to get their candidate elected. Much like “The Campaign,” it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in those who see it.
Still, both of these films seem to present extreme cases of political corruption and immorality. For those who like their political satire subtler but still scathing, the works of Armando Iannucci are probably much more fulfilling. He has spent the better part of the last decade brilliantly skewering both British and American politics with series like BBC’s “The Thick of It” and HBO’s “Veep,” as well as his first feature film “In the Loop.” In his world, politics really happen in the back rooms and offices, and whatever winds up on television is barely half of the truth.
As more and more of these negative political films come out, those seeking positivity from their postelection viewing will have to dig further. An obvious choice would be “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin’s romantic ode to what can be accomplished when you actually put a group of idealists in the White House. For the series’ main characters, governing isn’t always an easy job, but it’s one they attempt to do nobly each and every day. It creates quite a contrast with Iannucci’s work, and if he got his hands on “The West Wing,” it’d probably be all of five minutes before he introduced a character who did nothing but yell obscenities at everybody.
Then there are the cartoonishly righteous presidents, most of which can be found in films from the ’80s and ’90s. The perfect example of this is Bill Pullman in “Independence Day.” Not only is he a noble leader, but he is a war veteran and the kind of guy who will get on a speaker system to deliver a rousing speech before giving some evil aliens a good old-fashioned American beat down.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between the unbearable bleakness of recent entertainment and the rousing patriotism of “The West Wing” and “Independence Day.” In the days after the election, there will probably be people looking to both kinds for comfort. If your candidate wins, everything is right with the world and American democracy. If your candidate loses, the system is broken. No matter what, there’s entertainment available for all opinions.

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