There is, perhaps, no such thing as an apolitical film. But when a movie takes an inherently political subject — say, Margaret Thatcher, global warming, or Hillary Rodham Clinton — it is no doubt even more saturated in its politics. It’s not unusual for films to generate political discussion about current events; what’s more remarkable is when they directly impact or even change them. Following the news of an upcoming film that dares to attempt just that — a biopic about the early life and career of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expected to be released ahead of the 2016 primaries, when the former first lady is likely to make a second run for president — we’re left to wonder whether the movie will help or hinder a possible campaign. Of course, we won’t know until we’ve seen Rodham. In the mean time, we’ve looked at other films that had a particular political influence at the time of their release.
The Iron Lady (2011)
Another film about a lady politician, the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady surely had a hand in shaping the public reaction to Thatcher’s death two years after its release. Though it certainly didn’t shy away from depicting her shortcomings as prime minister, The Iron Lady portrayed its divisive character in a somewhat even-handed way. As the film charted Thatcher’s development and demise both as a political figure and as a human being, the public responded to her death in a similarly divided way. On antipodal ends of the spectrum, there were those sounding the “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” death knell as well as those hagiographic voices singing Thatcher’s praises (and plenty more tempered responses in between).
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
In the Guardian‘s report on the Clinton biopic, much mention was made to Zero Dark Thirty, a film that had its release date pushed back until after the 2012 presidential election amid fears that it would cast a bad light on the Republican party or prompt voters to opt for Obama on election day. As it turned out, the film, which didn’t endeavor to celebrate the president or offer up any significant Republican critique, wound up garnering more debate about its depiction of torture, spurring a broader conversation about the deployment of interrogation methods in bringing about Osama Bin Laden’s capture.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
A more successful film about terrorism, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers centered on the Algerian struggle for independence. Curiously, though it was released after the nation won independence from the French in 1962, it neglected to end with an independent Algeria. The film was highly controversial upon its release, sparking furor in France, where it was banned for several years before a heavily cut version was finally released in 1974. Shot in the style of the newsreel footage screened before movies at the time, the film even issued a disclaimer at the start to remind viewers that they were indeed watching a fictional film, albeit one based on very real events. The film’s political content still resonates today. In a recent article at The A.V. Club, which declared The Battle of Algiers “the standard by which all movies about terrorism are judged,” Scott Tobias observes that the film’s been used as an indispensable “textbook on insurgent tactics… for organizations like the Black Panthers and for Pentagon officials looking to better understand how terrorist networks like al-Qaeda function.” And as Tobias astutely notes, like that in Zero Dark Thirty, “the torture in The Battle Of Algiers rattled a nation that didn’t care to grapple with the atrocities committed in its name.”
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Leni Riefenstahl’s 110-minute propaganda documentary is kind of the equivalent of MTV following Hitler around, except in the 1930s. Well, not really, but of all filmmakers at the time, Riefenstahl was granted the closest access to the dictator, traipsing along for the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. With its indulgent, vainglorious images of laughing Nazi Youth and hordes of crowds ecstatic to see the Fuhrer, Triumph of the Will delivers its pro-Nazi message loud and clear, and was instrumental in proliferating Nazi support.
Primary Colors (1998)
Adapted from the novel written anonymously by Joe Klein, the Newsweek journalist who had covered Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Primary Colors follows a politician named Jack Stanton on the campaign trail. Of course, its audience knew the film was really a thinly veiled “fictional” take on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. While John Travolta’s portrayal of the fictional Clinton wasn’t too crazy, it did hit theaters amid the early months of the Lewinsky scandal, and President Stanton couldn’t have helped the public opinion of the Clinton presidency.
Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic, with Josh Brolin as Bush, received mixed reactions on its release. Bush’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, criticized the relationship between himself and his brother as it was depicted on screen, calling it “high-grade, unadulterated hooey.” Some criticized W. on the grounds that it neglected to touch on certain events, most notably Bush’s supposed mocking of Karla Faye Tucker, who was murdered during Bush’s time as governor of Texas. According to Josh Brolin, Bush himself watched the movie (Bill Clinton supposedly lent him his copy), and though “there were sad moments,” said that he “liked it very much.”
Game Change (2012)
HBO’s Game Change, which centered on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, including the emergence of his running mate, Sarah Palin, and their ultimate loss, showed Palin as a political puppet, being fed lines by her aides and on the verge of nervous breakdown. Following the film’s success at the Golden Globes, as CNN was quick to note, Palin’s real-life advisor Jason Recher knocked the movie, painting it as a fiction. “It comes as no surprise that the Hollywood Foreign Press recognized another Hollywood group, HBO, for their work of fiction and awarded a prize for best fictional filmmaking,” he said. “The reality was an original American story, not a screenplay by people who only imagined events to fit their fiction.” Recher also launched a critique on the media’s treatment of the film, arguing, “Women who don’t conform to… liberal values are torn down in terribly harsh ways,” throwing a ring in the discussion of women in politics.