On-Screen Stumping (2004)
Tearlach Hutcheson doesn't vote. Hasn't in 14 years. Actually, he's not allowed to vote, at least not in this country. You see, the man who runs the Magnolia and Inwood theaters, which are part of the Landmark Theatre chain of art houses, is Australian, and though he's eligible to be a U.S citizen, he simply hasn't filled out the necessary paperwork. "And I like to say there's a little Charlie Chaplin in me," he says, not referring to the filmmaker's penchant for young girls. "Being an Australian is such a large part of my identity I just couldn't give it up."
So it's been with an outsider's bemused perspective that Hutcheson has seen myriad movies with political themes parading in and out of his theaters all year. His favorite? Well, probably Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11--but that opinion doesn't count, since it made the Magnolia a small fortune this summer and since it was the only one of many Hutcheson actually saw. "And like I said, it doesn't matter since I can't vote."
But it has been the Year of the Political Movie, a cinematic season of celluloid campaigning by the likes of Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald, George Butler, John Sayles and other filmmakers raking in moviegoers' spare change by calling for a regime change. Control Room, a vivid peek at the lives (and deaths) of journalists working for the Al-Jazeera network, came early and stayed longer than anyone imagined; documentarian Jehane Noujaim's movie debuted in late May and had pocketed some $2.5 million by late September, when it was still on some screens around the country. Released by Magnolia Pictures, the big sister of the Magnolia Theatre, Control Room proved not even negative reviews from Donald Rumsfeld could keep people out of the theater.
But the proselytizing began in earnest in June, when Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 stormed the cineplex after months of controversy surrounding just who would release it (Disney, which paid for it, or Miramax, which commissioned it) and who would see it (the fence-sitters or the True Believers) and how much impact it would have on the election (we shall see). It opened June 23 and made some $70,000 its opening week at the Magnolia, where $20,000 is considered stellar box office for a first-week gross. Nearly every screening was sold out for weeks, and early on theater employees witnessed a rare sight--audiences standing and applauding at movie's end. So much for reaching the undecided voter. "That doesn't happen at all," Hutcheson says.
Then, in short succession, marching into theaters were Harry Thomason's The Hunting of the President, which documented the right wing's attempts to oust Thomason's best buddy Bill Clinton; Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, which laid out the case that the Fox News Channel is staffed by Republican talking heads pushing the Bush administration's talking points; George Butler's Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, in which the Pumping Iron maker told of Kerry's Vietnam War service and his decision to protest the war upon his return; and Greenwald's Uncovered: The Truth About Iraq, in which former government officials unravel the president's case for invading and occupying that country.
But the agenda pushing wasn't limited to the documentary. Though Jonathan Demme insisted his remake of The Manchurian Candidate was apolitical, its villains supported legislation that sounded like the Patriot Act and worked for companies that looked a lot like Halliburton. And John Sayles' Silver City starred Chris Cooper as a Colorado gubernatorial candidate whose failure to speak in complete and coherent sentences made him look like an indie-film version of Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live Dubya double.
"The simple reason so many of these films came out this year is because this war had divided so many people, and most of these movies go after the person responsible for it, Bush," Hutcheson says. "And when you have a film that goes after Bush overtly, like Fahrenheit 9/11, the movie becomes their rallying cry, and they circle up the troops. What I find interesting is there have been a lot of films that have come out that are pro-Democrat--or, actually, anti-Bush or anti-Republican--so where are the films that come from the other side and give us a balanced viewpoint?"
There have been a few of those as well: In September, Dallas was host to the first conservative film festival ever held in the country, where such movies as George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, Michael Moore Hates America and Confronting Iraq were screened. And In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed opened here two weeks ago, trying to make the case that the Gipper was a commander in chief elected by a much higher power than the people.
But only Fahrenheit 9/11, which pocketed more than $100 million on its way to video-store shelves last week, could be considered a success among all these releases--and even then, its rep as the Magnolia's highest-grossing film in the theater's short history was eclipsed by the surprise success of geek comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Most of these movies ran in the Magnolia and other art houses only a few weeks; Silver City and Going Upriver were gone within 14 days of opening. If viewers were undecided about whom to vote for, they made up their minds about one thing: Enough's enough.
"These movies aren't going to bring in the undecided voter," Hutcheson says. "They're for people who want their viewpoints reinforced. I mean, Going Upriver to me is like the Democratic National Convention being shown in our theater. Ultimately, what makes a good film is a good story. You go back to Fahrenheit, and it's a good story. These other ones aren't entertaining people. But every single year we play big films and small films, and the political film has the flavor of this year. Next year it might be Italian films. But let me say this: People should get out and vote regardless of who they're voting for. You know, in my country if you don't vote, you get fined. To live in a democracy you have a responsibility, even if you don't see the movies. " --Robert Wilonsky