Political Satires That Came Uncomfortably Close to the Truth

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Everyone sleep easy. Earlier this week, the New Yorker let us know that the outrageous events in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove aren’t terribly far from the truth, and the “risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.” Decades after its release, Roger Ebert noted that the black comedy is still “clear-eyed, irreverent, dangerous satire” — and it’s not alone. We’ve highlighted ten other political spoofs that came uncomfortably close to the truth. Many remain relevant today.

Hi, Mom!

As strange as its title, Brian De Palma’s anarchic 1970 film, Hi, Mom!, is a semi-sequel to the director’s X-rated Greetings. Robert De Niro reprises his role as Vietnam vet Rubin — this time pursing a career as a “peep artist,” spying on his neighbors in a nearby apartment. The premise is full of De Palma’s familiar Hitchcockian fascination with voyeurism, the personal and sociopolitical kind. The director takes things a step further when he spoofs liberal naiveté, white middle-class disconnect, and extremism in the movie’s most lunatic, brilliant set piece, known as the “Be Black, Baby” segment. A guerrilla theater troupe of black actors (in whiteface) shows a white audience what it’s like to “be black.” The vérité scene is disturbing, but the closing gag reveals the audience loved it — and the moment is just as startling. “It was a great show,” one man smeared in blackface says.

Brazil

Government surveillance, technological obsession, gross consumer consumption, and bureaucratic dysfunction – Terry Gilliam’s satirical take on an Orwellian world in Brazil mirrors our own in 2014. “To me, the heart of Brazil is responsibility, is involvement — you can’t just let the world go on doing what it’s doing without getting involved,” the filmmaker said in 2003 interview with The Believer. He goes on to detail the real-life turmoil happening during the making of the movie, which inspired him to create “a world that isn’t true to a realistic naturalistic world, but is truthful.”

At the time Brazil was gestating, governments were getting really interesting, especially in Germany where the left-wing urban terrorists like the Baader Meinhof were in action. The academics had to sign loyalty oaths and it was a very repressive time there. It was happening everywhere. In South America I was reading of cases where people would have to pay for their incarceration in jail. They paid. You know, why should the state pay for putting these people up in these nice places?

Citizen Ruth

A woman’s reproductive rights at the center of a politically motivated debate? We’ve never heard of such a thing. Alexander Payne’s bitingly satirical look at both sides of the abortion issue stars Laura Dern as a troubled addict who is offered a get-out-of-jail-free card if she chooses to terminate her pregnancy. The film doesn’t wrap the issue up in a neat, little package as Hollywood tends to do. Roger Ebert wrote of the movie that hits close to home

We are surprised when it develops that there will be no “good side” and “bad side” in the struggle over Ruth, and incredulous when it appears that the movie will not arrive safely in port with a solution to please everyone. Some situations, Payne seems to be arguing, simply can not be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Maybe, for some viewers, that will make this a horror film.

Thank You for Smoking

Always adept at playing a real jerk (to put it mildly), Aaron Eckhart stars as a fast-talking tobacco lobbyist in Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. “The beauty of argument,” his character tells us, “is that if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” We quickly realize that Reitman’s film could be tackling any issue where political agenda supersedes reality, as it often does — but that doesn’t lessen its impact.

Bob Roberts

Watching Tim Robbins in his 1992 directorial debut as a conservative Republican United States Senate candidate is like watching a young, hopeful Rick Santorum. Robbins’ character has more charisma than the 2012 presidential nominee, but the extreme rhetoric and aw-shucks facade masking a dangerous message is the same.

Duck! The Carbine High Massacre

One of the earliest films to comment on the Columbine High School massacre, Duck! isn’t noteworthy here for its stunning satire, but for its parallels to the real-life tragedy. The amateur production’s directors were arrested after the film for possession of weapons on school property.

Fritz the Cat

Hollywood’s first X-rated animated feature film, about a hell-raising feline college student during the 1960s, takes a bite out of the era’s sociopolitical landscape. Fritz remains controversial to this day, which is helped by the naysaying of its original author, R. Crumb, who hated the film. At the time, critics argued that it was a “mindless, pro-youth saga,” which pretty much says it all.

The Great Dictator

Tramp icon Charlie Chaplin became a progressive filmmaking figure in his time, in part due to his unique performance style, but also thanks to the brazen social realist message behind his movies. In Modern Times, the actor-director “started from an abstract idea, an impulse to say something about the way life is being standardized and channelized, men turned into machines — and the way [he] felt about it.” With The Great Dictator, Chaplin channeled Adolf Hitler’s oppressive regime to satirize the German leader. Audiences (then and now) appreciated the work, and it became Chaplin’s most commercially successful film, but its creator later felt pangs of regret. Upon discovering the full extent of the Nazi atrocities, Chaplin remarked: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

Wild in the Streets

Wild in the Streets touched a nerve during a turbulent time of riots, assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement. It was also a hopeful time, full of hippie idealism — much to the chagrin of the establishment, fearful of the far-out unknowns. Made all the more real by the addition of true-life personalities (Bobby Sherman, Ed Begley, Dick Clark amongst them), Wild in the Streets irreverently imagines what would happen if a teen music idol took over the country (the Washington water supply gets spiked with LSD for starters). Mass media hysteria, pop idol worship, and the anxiety surrounding youth culture never go out of style.

Hillary 1984

Planet Hillary isn’t the first time the former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and First Lady was spoofed. Head back to 2007 when Phillip de Vellis — who worked for a company that provided technology to the 2008 Obama campaign — transformed Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl spot into an (unauthorized) scathing critique against Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. It became a viral sensation — but it was also a wake-up call to politicians. “Today, political activists with the Internet as their ammunition have gone from being ‘just donors to the cause, to being partners in the fight. And they don’t have to wait for permission,” Simon Rosenberg, president of the Washington-based New Democrat Network said of the video. “The underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power,” De Vellis said of his creation. “This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last. The game has changed.”