Split Decision: To Look for America
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
We’re halfway! What is your favorite movie about American democracy?
I'm guessing Our Brand Is Crisis, which deals with South American democracy, isn't an option so I'll go with Milk, Gus Van Sant's rousing biopic of Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk shows how political organizing can be effective and has the power to change lives (and minds) through activism and inspiring speeches. When Milk leads an angry mob of protesters, starts a boycott, or silences his detractors in a political debate, it's enough to make you stand up and cheer. And the excellent documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk is also outstanding.
Election is a great movie about American democracy in a microcosm and is as brutal as more explicit "This is how things really work" movies, in its own way. Matthew Broderick doesn't gun any drug dealers down, but maybe his social studies teacher is the 90s comedy equivalent of Josh Brolin's character in Sicario. His attempt to make Chris Klein's sweetly stupid jock a spoiler in the race against Tracy Flick? That's as cold an attempt to protect a character's self-interests as Brolin's war to install his own agent at the top of a cartel.
I'll go with Lincoln for this one. As a passion project over the years for Spielberg, he put everything he had into this film to make sure he portrayed this particular piece of history the right way. It really is a fascinating character study and a great history lesson on what Lincoln actually went through to ensure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
I'm going to name an underrated and semi-forgotten epic of the 90's–Oliver Stone's biopic biopic of Tricky Dick himself, Nixon. Stone approaches the material in his typical agitated boomer bias, and Anthony Hopkins gives a very huge performance. It's an ironic choice for being a movie about democracy, because clearly, Nixon trampled all over it. Hopkins plays him as the weak, insecure, paranoid man he was, given to all night whiskey binges as his house of cards crumbled all around him.
Democracy should ideally be a kingless enterprise, and Nixon's tragic flaw was in thinking that he would get to be king. Sadly what we are seeing today is the answer to this question: how would Nixon have fared with a fully functioning propaganda wing at his disposal?
At three hours, it's an enormous movie, but also a typically wild feat of editing and pacing that comes off only slightly behind Stone's masterpiece, JFK.
I'm taking this in a slightly different direction because I think we should talk about war films and democracy. Really, any war film can be inserted here, I'm picking Saving Private Ryan because it's a favorite of mine, and obviously the legacy of "The Good War" in America as a capitalist democracy defeating fascism (haha, if only) and restoring liberty to those who had it stolen from them (haha, if only).
Anyway, the war film is an interesting genre because it can restore people's resolve in going to war in the first place. Doubly so when it is for the sake of defending democracy and liberty, which, for most, is about as abstract of a concept as you can get. However, these films can also shed light on the futility of war to accomplish much of anything in terms of defending democracy, especially overseas. Saving Private Ryan tells one of those iconic stories of a rag-tag group of soldiers whose mission is to no longer throw their bodies at machine guns to directly stop the rise of fascism, but to bring a single solider–lost in a continents-spanning war–back home to his grieving mother. It is within this mission that the ideals of America are personified in Private Ryan, that his survival, and the rest of the unit's sacrifice, means that what Americans hold most dear (family, god, and country), will also survive. I'm of course simplifying things a little, but it's an interesting starting point to a question you can argue forever: the role of war in a democratic society.
There are any number of late-period Spielberg films to choose from, including the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, but also Bridge of Spies, The Post, and even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ditto also documentaries like The War Room and Weiner.
But I wanted to pick something more mundane, so I am going with Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. The criminal justice system and specifically, the right to a fair trial, is a cornerstone of the values enshrined in our founding. The jury trial is an ultimate expression of participation in government, as important as voting. What I love about 12 Angry Men is that in this sweatbox of a movie, Lumet shows the difference a single person can make when it comes to the freedom of another perfect stranger. It’s a powerful reminder, not only of our duty as citizens, but how easily entropy (and worse) can seep into the system.