Barry Levinson

USA 2009, 90 min.

One of the more endearing qualities of American politics is how their campaigning and TV advertisements give us Europeans a feeling of living in a civilized part of the world – that is until we zap through channels with local politics and our bubble bursts. After all, Europe still contains things like Italy.

Given the current state of US affairs, we’re left in divided sympathy with the victims of an economic disaster for which they are not to blame. Foolhardy realestate speculators aside, there remains just too many virtuous, hardworking Americans who have been put on the street overnight to make for durable entertainment. Then again, when you see who they vote for, and hear their arguments…

Poliwood After Party 2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Most people like the idea of political leaders being as competent as possible. So one would think. Some of us, admittedly a bit naïve, learned only as recently as the election in 2004, that the American voters’ alleged scepticism towards highly educated candidates was not a sarcastic figure of speech, but a naked fact, and one of the reasons John Kerry did not get elected. As for George Bush Jr, the prevailing argument for his taking office seemed to centre round “He’s one of us”.

Welcome the Quasident of the United Fake, season 2. Obviously, it doesn’t pay to overestimate the general public, to paraphrase some legendary Hollywood producer. The event of Sarah Palin four years later did not come as the shock it could have been, but rather as the logical outcome of the symbiotic development of politics and media. One explanation could be that the campaigning is getting nastier.

Another could be the hardened imperative of politicians being “telegenic” first, and competent second. In between the actors and a diversity of congregations, rallies and the like, we meet the occasional representatives of the media, editors and commentators, and we’re being fed a fair share of TV-phobic clichés. They need repetition: “There’s no real political debate”, no ideas born of “ideas meeting other ideas”, it’s rather the TV dynamics of heightened conflict that set the agenda. Political thrill-seeking comes at a price, and the virtues of dialogue would be among the first casualties of the media’s hunger for socalled “wedge issues”.

The editor of Guardian America feared that this polarization would worsen on Obama becoming president. The recent shooting of Gabrielle Giffords – connected to Palin’s Tea Party – unfortunately makes his worries seem understated.
Among Levinson’s illuminating historical excursions we have the pivotal debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960: people listening to the debate on radio were convinced Nixon had the upper hand, whereas television viewers, put off by his sweating and uneasy manners, were not quite so convinced.

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