The perils of playing politics on the big screen
Vice and The Font Runner are both films with an important message about politics.
‘In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve.’ So said the often overlooked philosopher Joseph de Maistre in 1811. Two centuries later, would he have been so assured that, in Awards Season, politicians get the cinematic portrayals they deserve, or more pointedly, do those hardworking filmmakers get fairly treated when it comes to handing out the gongs?
This week’s case in point is the very differing receptions being granted to two political biopics currently in the mix, the almost ignored The Front Runner and the much-garlanded Vice.
The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine, The Greatest Showman) and directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Tully), charts the downfall of Senator Gary Hart, leading candidate for the 1988 presidential nomination. Hart was the Democrat Party’s rising star and progressive big hope before his campaign was abruptly sidelined by a tabloid story of his affair with aspiring campaign worker Donna Rice.
Not two decades after the press had turned a blind eye to the antics of Kennedy, Johnson et al, Hart faced a double challenge of a new post-Watergate irreverence by the media, and the demands of a 24/7 news cycle. Throw in the fact that the personable senator was snapped with Rice on a boat called Monkey Business, and well… those headlines basically wrote themselves. The married candidate was forced to drop out of the race, and some see this as the day a new line in the sand was drawn about what politicians could and could not get away with.
‘Vice’ brings the quirky storytelling talents of Adam McKay (Oscar winner for The Big Short) to the deceptively calm rise to power of Dick Cheney, a man billed from the start as ‘one of the most secretive leaders in history’. Gifted with a double-edged title (not sure ‘Deputy’ would have quite the same edge in any British version of this story) and a tireless Christian Bale in the lead role, McKay uses all his powers of mischief, mimicry, even a mock-ending halfway through the film, to show how stealthily but definitively the power behind George W Bush’s desk secured his grip on executive powers and hence changed America’s standing in the world. With his biopic rolling through fifty years and multiple administrations, it’s an epic effort.
Regarding effort, neither of these film’s leading men are caught napping. Jackman was spotted walking around set with an overflowing binder of info on Gary Hart. It turned out to be one of five he’d compiled. Later, during filming, the actor was able to dazzle the crew, reciting speeches by the Senator that weren’t actually in the script.
This all pales in comparison with the efforts of Bale, who spent six months experimenting with different looks for Dick Cheney before he even sat down in the makeup artist’s chair. During filming, he endured earlobes, eye bags, nose pieces, studio calls for 2am, up to five hours a day in a makeup. Bale won’t confirm how many pounds he put on for the film, but his rolling neck even under the pads testifies to another significant lifestyle change for the Oscar winner.
Jackman himself called his research a ‘six-month political science project’ and says of his efforts, ‘I took his life and legacy very seriously, that we were doing it for hopefully a noble purpose, not just [rehashing] sensational stories.’
It’s clear that becoming friends with Hart and his wife and learning of the politician’s standing prior to his public fall has left Jackman sympathetic to Hart’s predicament. He told Deadline: ‘Part of Gary’s desire to not talk about it was trying to preserve the sanctity of the process that he could see was being eroded.’ And Jackman makes no bones about the price we all paid: ‘Even if he wasn’t president, to lose his voice to public life has been, for the world’s sake, a great loss.’
Jackman rejects the notion the film is whether, ‘Did he or didn’t he?’ He says, ‘It’s more, “Why do we care so much?” The film itself shows Hart admonishing the reporters prying into his private life, ‘I deny you the right to ask me.’ He tells another, ‘This is beneath you.’ When it all crashes down around him, he says only, ‘They will not have the dignity of my response.’
The actor says of Hart’s refusal to bow to the media’s demands for an apology, an explanation: ‘As an actor, you’re a brand; your film is a brand. We understand that in show business. Gary rejected that idea. At that moment in 1987, politics changed forever.’
For Bale, the motivation in playing Cheney was to ‘hold up a mirror to each and every one of us on what we might do if we had such power’. He says the story of one man’s ascent to the (almost) highest office ‘forces us to look at who we are as a person.’
Before the film was released, Bale revealed: ‘I needed to come at the character from a positive point of view because the story can never be predictable. That required embracing Cheney with sincerity.’
Picking up his Golden Globe in January, he was more succinct, thanking Satan for inspiration.
Both dramas claim topical relevance, even if Trump’s name appears in neither film. The Front Runner pitches the moment of Hart’s downfall as a pivotal moment for America, the point at which the best man for the job – Hart presented as someone with Barak Obama’s vision, Bobby Kennedy’s charisma, Jimmy Carter’s compassion – was brought down by new rules about privacy and publicity, politics and celebrity, news and gossip, what human flaws we’re prepared to accept of our political leaders, how much we all have a right to know about our leaders.
Director Jason Reitman says, “I didn’t even really know who Gary Hart was, but when I heard this story, I instantly saw in it the seeds of how we got to where we are now.”
“It’s extraordinarily relevant,” says Matt Bai, who wrote the book All the Truth is Out on which the film is based. “We have an environment now in which candidates need to be entertainers, they need certain skills to evade scandals, they need to be outright dishonest to navigate the currents of the coverage. It’s time right now to stop and ask what the distortion of the process is doing to our world.”
At a screening of the film, Bai mentioned no specific names when he added: “If you create a process that treats politicians like celebrities and entertainers, you inevitably get celebrities and entertainers as your candidates.”
Vice’s thesis is that Cheney’s success has altered the American political landscape from within for decades to come, as well as the country’s position on the world stage. McKay wants his film to explore ‘how we arrived at this moment in time where political consensus is achieved through advertising, manipulation and misinformation. And Dick Cheney was at the centre of it’. He adds: ‘Whatever your political affiliation, you must be wondering how did we end up where we are today? The reason our government is built with checks and balances, is because power is addictive. Vice is a tale of the selfishness of power and how we’ve lost our larger community and country.’
Tyler Perry, who plays General Colin Powell in Vice, reflects, ‘The timing of this movie is impeccable. The world will get a chance to say, wait a minute, we’ll be going down the same path if we’re not careful.’
Amy Adams, who plays Lynne Cheney asks, ‘We just keep repeating ourselves, don’t we?’
Both films then boast reflective scripts, A-listers at their centre and an important message about politics then and now. Why, then, has Vice fared so much better with both critics and audiences? It’s scored a clutch of awards, including Critics Choice and Golden Globe gongs for Bale, while The Front Runner has seemingly come and gone unheeded.
It could be there’s only room for one drama of a kind every Awards Season. The poor producers of Mary Queen of Scots must rue the day they scheduled themselves in the same awards season as The Favourite. Perhaps two decidedly script-heavy political dramas was a bit more than anyone can cope with, particularly during the current upheavals on both sides of the Atlantic.
If that’s true, Vice undoubtedly serves up the richer fruits, but the real problem is the presentation of Gary Hart’s story for post #MeToo, post-Clinton, during-Trump viewers. He’s just on the wrong side of history.
The film sees Hart’s challenge to the press men, ‘Follow me around – you’ll be very bored.’ This would have had a bit more moral weight, and led to more interesting conversations about what constitutes news, had he not been monkeying around on Monkey Business at the time.
Hart appears to be genuinely affronted that he isn’t afforded the same media blind eye as his libidinous predecessors, and while the filmmakers claim to be neutrally asking the questions, coming down on Hart’s side recounting the days when politicians were allowed to keep their dignity, never mind their derrings-do (Hart was 50, Rice 29)… well, this all seems a bit quaint in 2019.
Even Hugh Jackman’s likeability and charisma, can’t save this one. In fact, they may well contribute to the central problem with the film. As Australian film critic Wenlei Ma complains of The Front Runner’s sympathy, ‘It sort of gives up and just backs Hart as the hero. The more it swings behind Hart, the more off-putting the film becomes.’
Meanwhile, while Vice is all about power, rather than values – when Cheney asks his mentor Donald Rumsfield, “What do we believe?” Rumsfield laughs in his face – the film preserves the former’s own ideological justification. We see through the decades that he remains a committed conservative, pure in the way Trump isn’t.
Hence, his methods were the means to an end still being debated, which leaves this film with much more for cinema-goers to chew on than the dismissive Hart. Film critic Terry Staunton sums it up: ‘Vice is an undeniably divisive film; take your pick between bold and important exposé, or smug liberal propaganda.’
It’s probably more helpful to see this political double-bill as a pair of cinematic bookends, one waving off an out-dated era of the unchecked personal life of a politician, the other bringing us a topical reminder of the perils of unchecked political power.
Gary Hart’s reaction to his story being told is a diplomatic one. ‘Hugh Jackman’s a good actor, isn’t he?’ was his reported first comment. As for Dick Cheney’s thoughts on his story being brought to screen, well, pretty typically, he hasn’t thought to let us know.
Vice is currently in cinemas. The Front Runner is on at selected cinemas.