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Uncommon Bedfellows: Hollywood and Politics

Politics is film's trickiest but richest genre

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Where are you, Jimmy Smits, when we need you most? In the final two seasons of the West Wing--television's most endearing realization of the American presidency--Smits starred in a storyline asking viewers to believe that a little-known minority candidate could survive the farce that comprises the presidential primary season and emerge victorious against a moderate Republican in a grueling race for the White House.

Lest we forget, the improbable story of minority Congressman Matt Santos (Smits) was introduced in 2005. Watching it today provides clarvoyant insight. In fact, West Wing scribe Eli Attie reportedly modeled some of the Santos character on a little-known senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

Smits was only one of a long line of American actors who have excelled in Hollywood's trickiest but richest genre: politics. Smits' West Wing co-star Martin Sheen, playing Santos' fictional predecessor President Jed Bartlett, set the 21st century standard as a liberal pragmatist who bullied and/or compromised Congressional foes each week, saving America from the brink of disaster within a neat 60 minutes.

West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin spun the Bartlett character as a variation of his own big-screen creation, President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas in The American President (Sheen played Shepherd's Chief of Staff).

Most political movies fall under one of two themes: a) wouldn't it be nice if this guy were our leader? Or b) how in God's name do we survive this shitstorm of corruption? Not unexpectedly, the latter almost always makes better drama.

The 1930s were defined by nice guys like Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith, who went to Washington to save the day from demagoguery.

1949's All the King's Men is the fictionalized version of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, which, at its heart, warns of American fascism.

The early 1960s gave us The Best Man and Advise and Consent--both starring Henry Fonda--revealing politics as an ugly blood sport requiring its combatants to traverse gauntlets of innuendo and scandal.

1970s political films were defined, in large part, by Robert Redford starring as a naive U.S. Senate hopeful in 1972's The Candidate, and as Bob Woodward in 1976's All The President's Men, which deconstructed the fall of Richard Nixon.

Joan Allen starred as 2000's The Contender, a vice presidential nominee who chooses not to defend herself against false sex scandal allegations. The expert script considers the value of holding on to integrity while clinging to political aspirations.

But if you're truly depressed by this year's political silly season, please vote for 1993's Dave (also one of my favorite all-time comedies), which reminds us how much the simplest of values are somehow absent from the West Wing. By the film's conclusion, Dave restores harmony to Washington's political balance.

If it were only that simple.

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