right on

Can the Ronald Reagan Biopic Save Liberal Movies?

We were excited to learn last week that a Ronald Reagan biopic is in the works. No, we’ve never been particularly big fans of Ronald Reagan or of presidential biopics in general (Oliver Stone’s Nixon might be the only decent one), so there’s little chance that we’ll actually like this thing if and when it finally does get made. But maybe it will inspire a whole host of other filmmakers — from all political persuasions — to tackle right-wing subjects. We’re about as left as left gets, but we say this without any irony or sarcasm: Hollywood needs more right-wing movies.

Today, politics in mainstream American movies, on the rare occasion when it appears, tends to be insufferably smug and self-congratulatory. Indeed, you can’t even really call it politics. It’s more like an insertion of talking points — from the shrill, finger-pointing finale of Green Zone to the shrill, Daily Show–lite jokes of Man of the Year, to the shrill, unimaginative paranoia of Rendition — when Hollywood filmmakers dare to make political points, they usually wind up mouthing political platitudes and patting themselves on the back instead of really engaging with their subjects.

Some will say that it’s silly to look for any kind of real political engagement from Hollywood movies. They’re right, but only up to a point. Sure, as a mainstream entity making expensive movies for wide audiences, Hollywood isn’t ever going to go too far, but American movies used to take a central role in the country’s great political debates — whether through movies that directly tackled political subjects, like The Candidate, All the President’s Men, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or through movies whose narratives were informed by more generalized sociopolitical concerns, like Easy Rider, Chinatown, or Alice’s Restaurant. But currently, there seems to be no debate, cinematically speaking, even though the country itself is tearing apart at the seams. Without a more formidable opponent, Hollywood just parrots back lefty talking points.

The solution is simple: more (and better) right-wing movies. While it’s probably true that most actors, writers, and directors lean left, we shouldn’t forget that Hollywood also gave us John Wayne, Cecil B. De Mille, the Black List, and Rambo (and, of course, Ronald Reagan). We like to think of the seventies as a golden age of American filmmaking, when youth culture and progressive politics ruled, but it was also the age of Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson and Joe, in which Peter Boyle played a guy who gleefully gunned down a commune full of hippies. Similarly, many remember the eighties through a nostalgic fog of Molly Ringwald movies, but it was also the era of right-wing entertainment — when Sly Stallone, Chuck Norris, and even Gene Hackman were refighting the Vietnam War, while Clint Eastwood stole super-advanced jets from the Soviets, the Wolverines waged teenage guerilla warfare against the invading Russian horde, and Sally Field refused to leave Iran without her daughter. But the eighties also saw some politically confrontational films coming from the left: From Oliver Stone’s powerful counterweights to Reaganite militarism (Salvador, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), to Spike Lee’s candid depictions of inner-city rage.

Both of those filmmakers are good examples of the moribund state of political filmmaking in America today. Stone and Lee are still big name directors, of course, but when it comes to making fictional narratives, they’ve lost their political edge. Lee tried to put in all sorts of anti-Enron, anti-Bush rhetoric in his sperm-donation epic She Hate Me; the results were embarrassing and shallow. Consider also Stone’s W., whose script reads like it was cobbled together from old Huffington Post headlines. These filmmakers’ political edge appears to have been blunted in today’s Hollywood. Perhaps because there’s nothing cinematically to react against. One of the things that made Platoon so remarkable was that it took Vietnam seriously at a time when the war was mostly fodder for the likes of Stallone and Chuck Norris. Would it have had the same urgency if those other gung-ho films hadn’t existed? Who knows.

Folks on the right today — or, at least, those who claim to speak for folks on the right — claim that conservatives aren’t welcome in Hollywood. There are, of course, plenty of conservatives in Hollywood (as there are in any wealthy grouping of people), but it’s true that very few visibly right-wing films get made. The ones that do are often marginalized and awful, like An American Carol. (There are some bright spots, though: Team America World Police did many of the things that An American Carol tried to do, only it was, y’know, funny.)

But, of course, one need not buy into the politics personally to be able to make films about right-wing subjects or conservative icons. Think about it: Steven Soderbergh is most likely not a communist, but he seemed to be perfectly at home making a five-hour biopic of Che Guevara; so theoretically, nothing is really stopping him from making a film about, say, Dwight Eisenhower. Certainly, conservative filmmakers have been able to make liberal movies: Frank Capra is regarded by many as the dramaturg of the New Deal, but he was also an arch-Republican who hated Roosevelt. So, maybe it’s time to mix up the political landscape a bit. Because even left-wing movies deserve better.

Can the Ronald Reagan Biopic Save Liberal Movies?