TORONTO: In our fiercely divisive times, political movies are a tough gambit for major studios. Try remembering the last major box-office hit to be set in a political milieu; maybe Fahrenheit 9/11 comes to mind, but that was 11 years ago, and none of Michael Moore’s subsequent films have grossed even a fifth of its impressive $124 million haul. George Clooney cast himself and Ryan Gosling in 2011’s The Ides of March, and it was only a minor hit at $40 million. To be fair, these films don’t necessarily aim to break the box office — they’re out to change hearts and minds, push political buttons, and shape the national debate.
During an election year, there are more of these films than usual; think back to 2012, when Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were all competing for late-season box office and awards glory. The calculus is simple: during a campaign, our political antennae are raised, and we may be more likely to go see films with political content. Even though we’re over a year away from the next national election, political content is dominating the news these days, so it’s no surprise that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is loaded with political films. Each has a different purpose and role to play in our national debate; the rub is that the films have to be commercial enough that people will pay to see them, if they want to make an impact.
Unsurprisingly, Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next is the most upfront about its politics. The title is a bait-and-switch; it suggests an angry cinematic tirade against the military-industrial complex, but instead the film features a warmer, cuddlier version of his anti-corporate sensibilities. In the film, Moore travels to European countries (and one in North Africa) to “colonize” them and “steal” their best ideas (like we stole oil in Iraq, get it?), such as a humane prison system, nutritious school lunches, and female heads of state.
His goal is clearly to shift the national debate on these issues and debunk the notion of American exceptionalism, but it’s unlikely to move the needle. Right-wing opponents who have long painted Moore as a European-style socialist will obviously have a field day, while Moore admitted at his TIFF press conference that he cherry-picked his stats — ignoring, for example, the high unemployment rate that accompanies Italy’s strong worker protections. But the film’s major obstacle to making change is that it’s just not that compelling, lacking the narrative thrust and the confrontational style of his most popular works. Eventually, Where to Invade Next starts to feel more like a BuzzFeed list (14 Awesome Ideas America Should Implement Right Now!) than a film.
A similar problem afflicts Our Brand Is Crisis, a shallow and generic political comedy produced by George Clooney. Loosely based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, the studio film depicts a Bolivian presidential election in which two American strategists are brought in to run rival campaigns. Intended as a comical exposé of political “dirty tricks” and a redemptive tale of a hack who learns to choose a side, it’s easy to see how Crisis could have resonated in this campaign season, which has somehow turned into an even bigger sideshow than usual. But the message hardly sticks when it comes in such vanilla packaging. Once-great director David Gordon Green hits a new low, shooting the film like an episode of Modern Family, and Sandra Bullock fails to access any of the ruptured inner life of the protagonist. It’s a perfect example of how hard it is to make a commercial political film: when you try to please a divided electorate, you end up saying nothing of interest.
Eye in the Sky has plenty to say, even if it’s on a subject that has fallen off the radar a bit. The film, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, is a military procedural about a potential drone strike, and a chamber drama for the Internet age. When British intelligence discovers two of their top terrorism suspects in a single house preparing a suicide bombing, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) asks her superiors to authorize a missile strike from the surveillance drone, but nobody wants to make the decision and suffer the potential political blowback, so the buck gets passed between leaders, agencies, and even countries. With video conferencing, it feels as if everyone is in the same room, and the gallows humor in Eye’s depiction of the absurdity of government bureaucracy recalls Dr. Strangelove. Best of all, the film takes a politically evenhanded approach, using a small, simple story to portray both an honest policy discussion and the human element. It’s hard to say what impact, if any, Eye will have on the drone debate, but it’s noteworthy that it evokes the view held by a wide majority of Americans: wary of the potential abuses of drone warfare, but ultimately accepting of it as a necessary evil.
If true balance is what you want, however, Sicario is the TIFF film most likely to challenge your political beliefs and produce the right debate. The beautiful and bloody thriller by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve revolves around an inter-agency US government mission to capture a cartel kingpin in Mexico. Emily Blunt is an FBI agent who joins up with two mysterious government contractors (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro), and she’s also a useful audience surrogate — like most viewers, she knows little of life under the cartels in Mexico. She sees the awful realities on the ground (there is an image or two in the film you’ll want to un-see) but also the unethical methods that her colleagues use to achieve victory. Illegal, preemptive attacks on foreign soil and “enhanced interrogation techniques” factor heavily into the proceedings. If those debates sounds familiar, well, that’s the point. The film transfers the ethical concerns voiced about the War on Terror to a new arena, the War on Drugs. It’s a masterstroke that suggests a unified critique of American foreign policy.
But Sicario is not a partisan affair. Villeneuve eschews ideology, and the film’s climax offers neither catharsis nor repudiation. Through Blunt’s character, he proffers a slow, systematic erosion of the American soul, but he also bravely refuses to offer a clear alternative. And that’s why Sicario could have a big impact. A purpose-driven narrative like Where to Invade Next is easy for naysayers to dismiss, but the open-ended questions of Sicario crawl into the viewer’s head and fester. It’s a film that could inspire real discussion, especially during a political campaign season in which a certain Republican frontrunner has made our relationship with Mexico a key issue. Whether our divided electorate can handle a film as determinedly ambiguous as this one is an open question, but it’s got as good a chance of any upcoming political film to shift the debate.