Well before the days of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ film had addressed the political distortion of reality. Three of the most significant efforts have a surprising number of features in common, in spite of having been made over a span of forty years. All were moderate critical successes in spite of being, to varying degrees, both radical in thought and avant-garde in style.
In chronological order:
A Face in the Crowd
“Nothing’s illegal if they don’t catch you.”
This 1957 drama by Hollywood legend Elia Kazan features the sole outstanding performance in the career of popular television actor Andy Griffith. The story follows the adventures of Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a poor, uneducated, amateur musician from rural Arkansas. As the film begins, Rhodes is discovered in a small-town prison’s drunk tank by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who is looking for human interest stories. He obligingly chats and sings as she records him.
Jeffries finds potential in Rhodes’ folksy, unpolished charm and heartfelt blues music, and offers him a daily spot on her radio station. Rhodes is an enormous success, tapping into an American fondness for the apparently honest, outspoken common man. His naive remarks about politics are responded to so enthusiastically, he is hailed as the new Will Rogers, offered product promotions and television appearances. Rhodes enjoys the attention, and is soon caught up in selling his own image, both he and his agents keeping the darker side of his personality concealed.
As his popularity grows, Rhodes’ widespread appeal is eventually sought out by political candidates, and he is groomed for an unofficial position with the federal government in exchange for his endorsement. Rhodes’ success and influence reach their height just as the contrast between his public image and his real character and opinions becomes clearer and more disturbing.
In an intense, melodramatic final act, Rhodes is foiled on the eve of his greatest success, when his real views and real character are revealed to the public, who reject him, as do his managers. Rhodes undergoes a horrifying breakdown, and we see the position of folk hero calmly passed on to a newcomer.
A Face In The Crowd is one of the earliest feature films to explore the impact of media, in particular television, on both politics and the individual. Although very much a Fifties movie, with the typical Fifties fondness for clear cut resolution, it allows for shades of grey in observing the manipulation of truth in politics. It openly and cynically examines the contrast between public perception and reality, particularly in regard to public figures.
“No predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.” Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter
Sidney Lumet was one of the most successful, and certainly most prolific, of Hollywood directors, having made over forty films and directed a diverse range of respected actors. He loved films in which characters rebel against unjust authority, and directed several in that category; but he was also not above lighter productions, such as a musical version of The Wizard of Oz or his campy take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Network was a pet project of his, one which, he admitted in an interview, caused him great worry over having no final edit control, as he wished to keep the film’s message intact. “Network,” he once said of his 1976 satire, “is a metaphor for America.”
This strange drama, full of dark humour but almost too intense and pessimistic to be called a comedy, concerns an American TV network. Their star news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), has begun to lose popularity, and ratings are declining. The ruthless and ambitious news producer, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, who won the Best Actress Oscar for the role) decides to fire him; but on his final appearance, Beale apparently gives way to madness, and instead of announcing his departure, gives an impassioned speech to the masses. It is from this scene we get the phrase, well-known even to those who have not seen the movie, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
To Christensen’s surprise, Beale’s outburst strikes a chord in his audience, and he becomes an overnight folk hero. The adaptable Christensen is prepared to take advantage of Beale’s unexpected popularity and, instead of firing Beale, makes him the star of a new current events show. Viewers regularly tune in to see Beale rant, with an increasing level of paranoia, about issues of the day; and Christensen exploits this popular trend by introducing a series of experimental quasi-news shows which, while all but useless as news reporting, are designed to attract more viewers.
The fictional news programming, which is broad satire meant to hint at the depths to which journalism could sink if left unchecked, was found funny and ludicrous to 1976 audiences. It is an indication of how prescient Chayefsky’s script really was, that present-day viewers will find the satire here very mild. The ridiculous “news” programmes Christensen dreams up, including anything from celebrity gossip to speculation by psychics, are by now only slight exaggerations of actual TV reporting.
Beale’s massive popularity attracts the attention of the station’s corporate owners, and the story diverges into a slightly surreal but intriguing take on corporate control of the media, ending with Beale’s inevitable destruction.
Network is a dark and pessimistic comedy, which ends in a vision of the corporate dream of absolute control by business interests – control of the public, the media, and ultimately of truth itself. The suggestion is that corruption has gone too far and is too endemic to battle against; the only rebellion we see is the lashing out of a madman. Nevertheless, Lumet’s underlying hope, that we have not yet reached the point imagined in Network, somehow comes through.
Wag the Dog
“War is show business.”
This 1997 political comedy is based on the novel American Hero, by Larry Beinhart, a satire in which President George Bush’s PR people, anxious to improve Bush’s public image, secretly team up with Hollywood to orchestrate a war. Wag the Dog expands on the idea considerably. When its fictional US president is faced with a scandal shortly before an election, his ‘image man’, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), brings in veteran film producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to design a distraction.
Motss agrees that a war is the best possible antidote to a presidential scandal, but rather than instigating a genuine war, he suggests the much simpler route of using his skills to produce the appearance of a war, and presenting it to the public as genuine. Motss throws himself into the bogus war, which he refers to as a “pageant,” putting together a plausible military action as if designing a movie script. Albania is chosen as the ideal site, as little is known about it by most Americans, and a plausible threat to the people of Albania is invented, along with an American military response. Realistic footage of battle scenes and fleeing civilians is filmed on movie sets and fed to the news media, capturing the nation’s attention immediately.
Having established the reality of this bogus war in the minds of the public, Motss orchestrates a series of embellishments to keep the public mood favourable. He has a popular folk singer compose and record a song about the war (“Albania’s hard to rhyme”), arranges footage of dramatic and moving incidents involving soldiers or individual Albanians – played by actors who have signed a non-disclosure agreement – and involves a group of celebrities in the recording of a stirring song supporting the Albanian war effort, in the manner of We Are The World.
As all this is transpiring, and the level of deceit continues to deepen, Motss reminisces about past challenges in the film industry, dealing with actors who are drunk, missing, or in jail – far more challenging, he maintains, than producing an imaginary war. Brean counters with casual references to political complications he has tidied up through subterfuge, slyly hinting that major world events were actually constructs orchestrated by himself and his team. “Is that really true?” Motss asks. Brean shrugs the question off: how would we know if it wasn’t?
The film’s humour comes from many sources at once: from Motts and Brean’s casual dismissal of reality itself; from the tacky familiarity of the campaign’s details; from Motss’ willingness to treat a supposedly real war as a Hollywood production; but also from the overwhelming success of the ‘pageant.’ The American public is swept away by the colourful drama of this mysterious but exciting military campaign, and the moving spectacle of the fighting men’s homecoming. The comedy becomes broader and sillier for a time, when Motss and Brean find themselves transporting a faux-war hero (Woody Harrelson), who turns out to be a violent psychotic, across the country, and must adapt their ‘pageant’ to his rapidly changing situation, leading to a finale worthy of a classic Hollywood war drama. Much of the satire is at the expense of the American public, who not only accept the contrived reality, but enthusiastically support the war effort and involve themselves in public, and highly photogenic, gestures of support, making Motss’ job far easier.
The ease with which a completely fabricated event is foisted on the public, and the fact that its success is almost plausible, is the central point of the film. It was not a completely new idea. As far back as the First World War, silent film director D. W. Griffith used his skills to document the war according to their own ideologies; Russian filmmakers did similar work during the Bolshevik Revolution. Publisher William Randolph Hearst was given credit for packaging the Spanish-American War for public consumption, supplying a narrative that was often unconnected with the real events of the war, but which was designed to please the public. But fiction met with fact in an amusing way when Wag The Dog was released just before the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky broke. The movie bore so many similarities to the real-life scandal, speculation arose that the filmmakers had inside knowledge, and even that the 1998 bombing of Iraq had been staged to distract from the scandal, leading some viewers to conclude that the film itself covertly revealed the truth about these events. With that, the convergence of reality and illusion comes full circle.