Barry Levinson’s Latest Shot to the System, PoliWood


Statesmen of note, like celebrities, elicit heartfelt responses — after all, both happen to be chosen representatives of the common folk, endorsed through ballot and ticket. So it came as no surprise that Rudy Giuliani’s brief appearance in Barry Levinson‘s epistemological film essay, PoliWood, drew an auditorium’s worth of gusty whistling and hissing, as if his actual person was present. Indeed, the tony world premiere at Tribeca of Levinson’s wry labor of love proved to be a festive and surprisingly participatory occasion, especially when the satiric director joined cast members Ellen Burstyn, Josh Lucas, Matthew Modine, Tim Daly, Wendie Malick, and Frank Luntz for a post-screening panel that produced a dicey comment: “Opinions are like belly buttons, everybody’s got one. Except Rush Limbaugh.”

As the simple portmanteau title would indicate, PoliWood casually probes the broadening, brow-furrowing intersection (or cross-pollination) of politics and Hollywood through the prism of our recent, uber-theatrical presidential campaign — remember Obama the megawatt celebrity? Levinson addresses the cause célèbre by tracking the nonpartisan, arts-advocating Creative Coalition — membered by Anne Hathaway, Spike Lee, Susan Sarandon, and the aforementioned panelists, among others — as they maneuver through the media circuses of the DNC and the RNC, an in-their-face journey that culminates at the Inauguration (a scene which still quickens the pulse).

After the film, Burstyn expressed the euphoria she felt while on the trail: “at the Democratic Convention in 1968, where Mayor Daly was sending the mounted police out into the street to beat [Vietnam War] protesters, there was a feeling of being at a historic event that was terrifying, like what I read about Nazi Germany. This time, I had the feeling that I was in the midst of a historic event that was a transformation of the national psyche. We were witnessing and taking part of something that none of us had really expected to happen in our lifetime — it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.”

As the group zigs to Denver and zags to Minneapolis, Levinson sits down with the pull-quote celebs and discovers various degrees of political expertise, including Hathaway’s commendable admission that she only feels comfortable answering issues she’s studied. Other in-the-know figures are also queried and conservative news correspondent Tucker Carlson comes off as the most amusing — if also bluntly honest — interview, in which he cracks that “most people should not be involved” in the political process and that it should be a “government of the informed by the informed.” Even Joe the Plumber receives the Levinson treatment: adroitly comparing him to Gary Cooper’s fish-out-of-water nobody in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, the director ponders — for perhaps fifteen seconds — the utter ridiculousness of a deluded-by-attention Joe masquerading as a war correspondent in Israel.

The raison d’etre for this absurdist shift, according to Levinson? Television. Starting with a pre-credit overture that reenacts the arrival of his first television, he dissects the monolithic effect of the boob tube, which has blotted and manipulated the lines between “truth, reality, and mythology” to such a degree that news dragnets like CNN and MSNBC no longer present “just the facts,” but spotlight whatever sells. And in this big business, politicians have become celebrities and, in turn, celebrities have become politicized — if not actual politicians (Al Gore remains Al Gore).

Not exactly breaking news, yes, but Levinson (who intermittently splices in fascinating, face-the-camera musings) keeps you rapt by hopscotching between thoughts and collating talking points: the dwindling efficacy of talk (i.e. infrastructure) when there’s visual shorthand (bridges falling down); news shows populated by as many celebrities as politicians and the unspoken rule that no one crosses party lines on air (they ironically agree to disagree); and, of course, how a politician’s public image has been boss since the advent of TV and how such intense scrutiny would spit out past presidents like Lincoln (too melancholic), Taft (too big for his britches), and even FDR (his polio an obvious bulls-eye). The film reflects a curious and omnivorous mind.

As a whole, the film aims to be, like the Creative Coalition, nonpartisan. Malick thought it tilted: “I still question whether this was slightly biased to the left. There were times at the Republican Convention where I thought a couple of people were portrayed in a very bad light.” Indeed, the descriptions of RNC attendees “clap[ping] like seals” for Sarah Palin (left-toned boos cascaded upon her too) and other remarks prove to be, well, the elephant in the room. But the rich and famous don’t get away scot-free either, disparaged as “limousine liberals” who “exist in a 2-D world” in a tense independent-study session at the RNC.

Levinson summed up PoliWood‘s mishmash focus best: “These are the times we’re in, this is the world we live in in terms of media, politics and celebrity and the crashing together of all three…It’s really just a posing of questions.” His early reference to John Kennedy’s prescient 1959 essay on television then becomes especially savvy, as the soon-to-be President opines that “whether TV improves or worsens our political system, whether it serves the purpose of political education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns — the answers to all this are up to you, the viewing public.”