Today once again brings the master of controversial political filmmaking back onto the silver screen as the three time Academy Award winning director and screenwriter Oliver Stone releases his new biopic on the life, thus far, of one of the least popular Presidents in American history, simply entitled W. (pronounced, of course, “dub-ya”).
Stone is not a man who shies from political cinema: his past works have split opinion at every juncture. Take for instance his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Platoon, documenting life in the Vietnam War.
This film’s overt criticism of the nature of this war and the actions of the American troops in Vietnam, written and filmed in response to John Wayne’s patriotic disaster, The Green Berets, courted great criticism and also great admiration for its realistic portrayal of life in war.
Stone did not stop there. His conspiracy-packed thriller JFK (presumably the beginning of his obsession with Presidential initials) presented a widely attacked view on the events surrounding Kennedy’s death in 1963.
From here to Nixon, where Stone, aided by a mesmerising and chameleon-like turn from the great Anthony Hopkins, arguably gave Nixon a more human face than he has often been afforded in popular culture before or since. Stone is not a man to toe the line and once again his foray into murky political waters with his biopic, surely the first of its kind, that of an incumbent President, makes us question whether this brand of highly political film-making has its place in cinema.
Political filmmaking has undoubtedly been at the forefront of cinema since its creation, and some of its greatest and most powerful works have undoubtedly come with serious political points to make. Some of our most political writers have indeed graced the screen with their scripts.
Take for instance Arthur Miller, a man who famously refused to give evidence to the House of Un-American Activities who sought to blacklist “communists” in the world of entertainment. It was he, after all, who scripted Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, a film not just famous for the brooding looks of a young (not yet clinically obese and socially reclusive) Marlon Brando, but also a film that showed the power of one man against the oppression of authority power. Can we possibly see the hint of a political allegory there?
In more recent years the filmmaking world has continued to be swayed by the political situation and represent this in its output. Take the intense political distrust and cynicism that overflowed from the Watergate crisis, creating a set of political thrillers in the mid-1970s portraying a society who had lost faith in the establishment, high amongst these two classic political thrillers All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.
Both films attacked a society where the immorality of highly placed individuals had seen the abuse of power and lost the respect of those whom they had been entrusted to represent. So too in the present day burning political issues make their way into cinema, from Michael Moore to Team America, and now to Oliver Stone’s new biopic which puts the Bush administration in the line of fire.
Cinema is one of our most accessible art forms and beyond its purpose to entertain lies a chance to make a point. In a world caught in the grips of political intrigue over an American election, it is only right that film should have its say about that which influences its viewers so much.
Cinema is not escapism, it is a means of expression such as any other art form. Politics is truly alive in film, not least in Stone’s new project.