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.

This has been crucial information for any aspiring politician ever since, leading up to the sorry state of today’s mediated politics. With political opponents reduced to antagonists trading accusations, we’re running pretty close to a democratic deficit, leaving grounds for appeal by identification, pure and simple. Well, at least simple: many voters preferred the reassuring “good ole boy” act of George Bush to a candidate with formal competence. It’s always amusing to watch the attempts by republican voters to excuse Sarah Palin’s shortcomings as a politician. The one we meet in Poliwood is a treat. Searching her inner void for anything that could justify Sarah Palin’s candidacy, any redeeming trait, any proof of competence whatsoever, she stutters something about Palin’s organisational skills, her having raised a family and suchlike.

After such a display of denial, it’s hard to shed more than dry tears over the fate of the average American. Experience in organising? Homemaking? Sure, that will put people on the moon. In all fairness, it wouldn’t be hard to find supporters of Obama speaking in a similar manner, and the temptation must be overwhelming for a documentarist of any political conviction, to pluck out the more hilarious proponents of the opposing camp.

The question remains whether the focus on actors’ dabbling in politics is really such a terrific idea. Then again, there’s the general perception that actors are seen as public figures and are thereby expected to know about other things public, and in that sense have an obligation to participate. There’s something lacking when Levinson is having a go at the democratic disaster he claims is the advent of television, and the expert perspectives offered are roughly limited to the segment in focus, i.e. the “local”, televisionary logic of anchormen, media people etc. Not exactly thinking outside the box one’s supposed to be thinking outside of these days, is it?

Barry Levinson

This is not to say that the heads talking in Poliwood aren’t interesting or informative, but there’s nevertheless an air of closed circuit, given the theme. The way this turns out, some of the smartest notions aired in Levinson’s film are voiced by Mr. Levinson himself. Maybe some academics would have done the trick? After all, Poliwood raises important questions on crucial issues. But while Levinson is at it, why not seek some possible remedy for the disease itself? Apart from the increasing accessibility of the new media, the mobilising powers of new gadgets etc, why not check out the resources represented by an increasingly media-savvy young public?

As for the established broadcasters: What are the chances of de-cheesifying the conventionalities of prime time television itself? As can be heard from an anchor-woman barking out of some TV set in Poliwoods opening footage: “Right now we’re more interested in what Michelle Obama is wearing than what Sharon Stone is wearing!” Say what you will about ladiesmag journalism, you can always count on their beefing up their political consciousness, given the right occasion. But seriously: Barack Obama spilled the beans, Bill Clinton did almost not inhale.Who knows, maybe television might re-focus from irrelevant squeaky cleanliness to politicians flaunting – of all things – political competence. Stones clearly worth turning for anyone convinced of the destructive powers of television.

Poliwood is a stimulating experience, but it’s not too hard to envision a version with a slightly more determined narrative, and further elaboration on the media/ politics symbiosis. This might have turned Poliwood from a fairly interesting, but slightly whimsical film, into a must-see for political animals and cinephiles alike. Surely not too much to ask of the man who gave us Bugsy and Wag the Dog?

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