At MPRM Communications, we are privileged to work with some amazing storytellers, from independent filmmakers to entrepreneurs who set out to change the world. But just like the proverbial shoemaker’s children who go without shoes, they often need help in crafting their own stories. Because it is our business, we are also keen observers of other practitioners of the art of storytelling, whether in service of an issue, business, promotion or simply to entertain. What we plan to undertake here is a weekly look at the different ways storytelling can be used from transporting audiences to motivating change to building a business or creating awareness.
After a very stressful election week, with an ending that has yet to be accepted universally, this week’s focus is on stories about American politics that enjoy broad appeal, primarily because they are works of fiction. It’s also because film and television are so much a part of what we do at MPRM.
Best of American political movie lists may diverge in the breadth of movies they include — history, satire, romance and action adventure — the one film that tops every list is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. About a newly appointed Senator who fights against political corruption, the 1939 Frank Capra film remains relevant, with its focus on the subversion of truth by powerful forces who seek to demonize Smith by producing fraudulent evidence. It was one of the first 25 films selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress and it made Jimmy Stewart a star.
Speaking truth to power is a recurrent theme. In addition to Mr Smith Goes to Washington, The Candidate and Bulworth also address the risks inherent in speaking one’s mind and the potential for falling victim to the establishment. All the King’s Men could potentially be included in this group as well.
Taking heroic action in the face of unbelievable odds, from terrorists to space invaders and asteroids is another popular theme. Embodied by Harrison Ford, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman and Bill Pullman, among others, these “presidents” have comforted a nation confronted with literally unbelievable crisis and have exhibited personal bravery in order to save not only themselves but the government from being overtaken by its worst adversaries in films including Air Force One, Independence Day, White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen and Angel Has Fallen.
Our real presidents have also been the subject of countless movies, with Abraham Lincoln the leader, followed by George Washington and surprisingly Ulysses S. Grant in third place. Twentieth century presidents receiving the most cinematic attention include both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
Not every film places the president on a pedestal, especially when it comes to sex. Wag The Dog and Primary Colors are great examples, the first about a Hollywood producer engaged to fabricate a fake war to distract from a presidential sex scandal and the other about the potential for a candidate’s wandering eye to be his downfall. Beginning with the use of a presidential look alike to cover for a sitting President’s affair, Dave takes it further when the President is sidelined with a debilitating stroke and uses the impersonator to maintain his presence in office.
Romance, on the other hand, appeals to everyone, which is probably why The American President is almost as popular as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the best of lists.
Aaron Sorkin’s first foray into political storytelling was The American President, but he is probably better known for The West Wing, which along with VEEP, is among television’s most acclaimed series. And while most actors have little in common with their characters in real life, the casts of both The West Wing and VEEP were actively engaged in presidential politics this year, with Julia Louis Dreyfus hosting the final night of the Democratic Convention and the others participating in multiple Biden fundraisers.
It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction and this past year is a good example. The documentarians have already begun tackling issues ranging from COVID to voter suppression. It will be interesting to see how this rollercoaster of a year is translated into fiction.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story
I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you” — Hamilton