Film: Film's body politic

Despite voter apathy, film-makers continue to focus on the political. But who are they playing to? What are they saying? The point, says Richard Combs, is that the political is personal
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The Independent Culture
The fall-out has scarcely settled on Oliver Stone's Nixon - its apocalyptic, mural-sized poster still occupies the hoardings - when another American political movie is about to open. This is City Hall with Al Pacino as an embattled New York mayor and John Cusack as his devoted deputy, who discover that power doesn't corrupt absolutely, but stage by insidious stage, in well-meaning compromises.

Is there room, is there an audience, for two such dramas these days? Nixon's failure at the US box-office might suggest not. But beyond that, can there be a need for movies about politics when opinion polls tell us that politicians everywhere are regarded with contempt, and that the democratic system is threatened more by apathy than evil empires. No one needs to be told that politics breed corruption, or that Tricky Dicky deserved his nickname - and they might even regard the proposition that he supped with evil elements who killed Kennedy as a take-it-or-leave- it conspiracy theory.

If these films aren't playing to our concern for the body politic, or to our interest in history, what are they playing to? Actually, a lot can be learnt from reading the posters. The one for Nixon features Anthony Hopkins, taking up about half the space, looking directly at us, while the other half is occupied by a huge fireball rising over the Capitol building. The whole is topped by a Nixon credo: "The President can bomb anybody he likes." The poster for City Hall shows the three main actors, Pacino, Cusack and Bridget Fonda, who plays an attorney, none of whom is looking at us, all facing in different directions within the poster, which otherwise is completely black except for a faint city skyline etched in a sulphurous glow at the bottom.

One reaching outwards, one reaching inwards. One about politics as spectacle, as show business, as the projection of one man's fantasies and foibles on a global scale. The other about individuals lost in a collective void, three bits of self looking for cohesion, looking for meaning and justice for all. The tensions and impulses the posters display are different, though it may be that they're rooted in the same need for self-actualisation and self-validation. In both films, the public arena is immediately identified with a personal, psychic one - perhaps they switch back and forth as metaphors for one another. Perhaps the continued existence, the continuing grip, of films about politics is due to the fact that the old slogan, "the personal is political", makes as much sense the other way round.

With both Nixon and City Hall, of course, the political issues are specifically American. And it may be that the public arena in the US, the national political consciousness, has the most immediate relevance as a personal, psychic one. "One from the many," as it says on the coins, and as those three lost souls in the City Hall poster try to achieve. It is, at least, interesting that American cinema keeps up a tradition of this kind of political drama, in the face of voter apathy, while Britain, which has a more active electorate, has almost no such tradition.

And the reverse is true: that the personal drama in these films can be immediately linked to national issues. City Hall follows, in a subtly modified form, the drama of Oliver Stone's earlier Wall Street, where personal growth becomes a matter of cutting political ties, of acolyte rejecting master, son rejecting father, and starting afresh. Nor is that revolutionary situation the only dramatic metaphor, the only family context. There's also the civil war metaphor, which says that political and personal change means losing bits of oneself, even turning on one's own. Stone's Nixon is anguished about climbing on the deaths of his two brothers, and then on the deaths of the Kennedy brothers. And what the poster for Nixon tells us is that he didn't just bomb Cambodia, but his own institutions of government.

It is this situation that may help to explain why political cinema is doing more than staying alive. It's positively flowering at the moment. Civil war, the "Balkanisation" of national consciousness, is very good for dramas of psychic conflict. Not least in the Balkans, which has lately added to the three hours-plus Nixon, the almost-three-hours Underground and Ulysses' Gaze. Even France, which is usually as reluctant as Britain to invest national institutions and events with personal significance, has recently produced a lengthy, modernised Les Miserables. This mainly revolves around the "civic" issue in recent history that refuses to settle in French consciousness - their willing participation with the Nazis in exterminating their own Jews. The people can bomb anybody they like?

The fusion of civil war with cinema, of national struggle with the internal dynamics of putting the pieces together, makes a fascinating history. The Civil War was a crucial event in the making of the United States, and the subject of its cinema's founding masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze has Harvey Keitel as an expatriate film- maker wander through the war-torn Balkans in search of some missing, undeveloped film from 1905, the first ever taken in the region. He tracks it down to a kindlyarchivist in Sarajevo, who proudly indicates, among his hole- in-the-wall collection, The Birth of a Nation.

Common movie dreams unite nations, while the individual nations are tearing themselves apart. The cinema is even an active participant within these films, most profoundly in Ulysses' Gaze. Keitel's pursuit of the "innocent gaze" locked inside the missing film stems from the desire to look on his own world before it unmade itself so spectacularly. Movies are less innocent in Emir Kusturica's Underground, where they are used to create a fraudulent political unity. Perhaps it's no accident that the optical "tricksiness" with which Stone has his fictional Nixon clasp a newsreel President Eisenhower is exactly matched by Kusturica's wheeler-dealer hero shaking hands with General Tito.

In England, it seems, we don't have the movie mythology, or the sense of ourselves in cinema, to use its drama in this way. We had a Civil War, but perhaps it was too long ago, and its issues too particular to the ruling classes, to talk about it as a drama of national consciousness. So it's no wonder that our one imminent entry in the field is a modernisation of Richard III with Ian McKellen. Shakespeare's worrying about the nature and reach of kingship has been our main way of thinking about the body politic. Given the current state of the House of Windsor, that metaphor can't have far to run.

It's also no surprise that when an English film-maker wants to do the personal-and-political turmoil epic, he has to go out to do it, to make Revolution. Or else it's left to Hollywood and the Scots: Braveheart. But surely there are English film-makers who could combine contemporary figures and issues with that kind of psychic drama? The Alan Parker who made a film about Dr Kellogg and the politics of gastroenterology - there's a going-inwards drama, if ever there was one - might be able to do something with BSE. And Peter Watkins, the wild boy of Sixties political dramas, The War Game, Culloden, self-exiled to Scandinavia for two decades, might consider the British politician who, like Nixon, was embroiled in military adventure and divisive politics. Come home, Peter Watkins, it's time to make Thatcher.

n `City Hall' is reviewed on page 11