The Ugly Politics of the Silver Screen

I always find it amusing to imagine that when Ed Miliband returns from a hard day of electoral campaigning, he is greeted by a Malcolm Tucker-esque figure who gives him one hell of a bollocking. “Fuck me! You were like a clown running across a minefield”, or something along those lines – preferably in Peter Capaldi’s Glasgow grizzle. Tucker was reportedly based on real life spin-doctors – most notably Alastair Campbell – who liberally oozed profanity in the workplace, and his overwhelming popularity with audiences proves that there’s something hilariously tragic about a politician coming back to HQ with their tail between their legs, ready for a spanking.

Politicians and their ilk get a pretty bad rap on screen. Why is it that we find Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian Frank Underwood ten thousand times more appealing – and more believable – than Ryan Gosling’s handsome campaign manager with a gooey moral centre in The Ides of March? Despite polls claiming practically every week that people want to see more “down-to-earth” and “normal” politicians, film and television is repeatedly suggesting precisely the opposite. The realm of politics on screen is populated by either bumbling idiots or ruthless schemers. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Audiences seem to get a kick out of watching elected officials crash and burn – that’s certainly what made Spitting Image so popular.

There’s just nothing interesting about a “good” politician – that is to say, a politician who lacks significant controversy. How many films have there been about Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Prime Minister from 1899 to 1905? Conversely, how many times have biopics of Richard Nixon graced our screens? He’s been played by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Frank Langella, and John Cusack. Why? Because he’s a President that made a big mistake. The Watergate Scandal was immediately capitalised upon in All The President’s Men (1976) and screen executives haven’t been able to keep their hands off it since. Even Winston Churchill – one of Britain’s most iconic and arguably beloved figures – is hounded by cinema because he served as PM during one of the most tumultuous and testing times in world history (plus he was a pretty interesting guy). And Michael Sheen seems to have made a career for himself playing the not-so-smooth and far from uncontroversial Tony Blair in a string of political flicks (The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship).

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Slipping up seems to have become synonymous with the job description of an elected official. With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes the inevitable likelihood of big mistakes. In spite of the intensive personal vigor and astuteness undoubtedly required to work one’s way up the political ladder, officials are so often viewed and portrayed as stupid. As soon as Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected President in The Simpsons Movie, he becomes simultaneously illiterate. Poor Margaret Thatcher couldn’t even escape the cutting knife of the silver screen when it suggested her post-politics decrepitude in The Iron Lady. Out of the 55 Prime Minsters Britain has held, 41 of them attended Oxbridge – isn’t it time we stopped pretending that they’re unintelligent beings?

As Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election demonstrates, a lot of work goes into a political campaign, but when the tide of a whole country is mounting upon you, it just isn’t possible to please everyone. The simple fact of the matter is that film and TV love to see politicians embroiled in a good scandal – a good failure. It makes for a great story. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a miniseries about that time Gordon Brown called a voter a “bigoted woman”, or when David Cameron claimed that the Queen “purred down the line” upon hearing the result of the Scottish referendum. But with the success of hit series VEEP, House of Cards, and even ITV’s Newzoids, it doesn’t seem like screen executives are anywhere near finished giving politicians the Tucker-treatment.