Cinema as Political Advertising

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

At what point does a biographical film turn into political advertising? For a variety of reasons, fictional politicians often seem more appealing than the ones inhabiting Washington. They’re played by charismatic actors, shot from cinematic angles, and able to passionately deliver compelling diatribes — often with a majestic score in the background. It’s an impossible bar for any actual elected official to live up to, especially when arguing over corn subsidies on C-SPAN. But what about Hollywood depictions of real-life politicians — do biopics lend them a certain cachet with the public?

This was recently the concern of the Republican National Committee after hearing about a proposed NBC mini-series on former Democratic Senator (and possible 2016 presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton. The RNC feared that the series, which was to star Diane Lane, would equate to an “extended commercial for Secretary Clinton’s nascent campaign,” and threatened to bar NBC from broadcasting future primary debates. The series was ultimately shelved, as was a CNN documentary on Ms. Clinton, though CBS in 2014 debuted Madam Secretary, a fictional series about a female Secretary of State — which may or may not be loosely based on Clinton.

The Clinton family was also the basis for 1998’s Primary Colors (adapted from the book by Washington insider Joe Klein), with the presidential campaign of “Jack Stanton” serving as a thinly-veiled model of the actual Clinton candidacy, replete with insinuations of sexual dalliances. While Klein’s book made waves throughout DC — partly because of his decision to credit the novel to “Anonymous” — the film generated little buzz, save an Academy nomination for supporting actress Kathy Bates. Interestingly, in the case of two recent Hollywood films about modern political leaders, W (George W. Bush) and The Iron Lady (Britain’s Margaret Thatcher), filmmakers seemingly made a point of avoiding partisan attacks. About W, the first American film about a sitting U.S. President, director Oliver Stone (whom many had expected to pillory Bush) commented, “I’m a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being.”

It’s one thing for studios to produce a film or TV show about a sitting official… but it’s quite another for a government to have a hand in lionizing its sitting chief executive on the big screen. Such was the case with Lula, Son of Brazil, a 2009 rags-to-riches film about the life of departing Brazilian president Lula da Silva. The cost of the critically-panned picture was largely financed by contractors who did direct business with the Brazilian government, while union workers were offered tickets at steep discounts. The film, which painted da Silva as something of a folk hero and was largely seen as propaganda, aimed to not only repair his tarnished image (he was under investigation for corruption) but also to propel his chosen successor, Dilma Rouseff, into office in 2010.

While it’s doubtful that Lula changed the ballot leanings of many moviegoers, films like these might have an impact on the level of enthusiasm of a candidate’s supporters. Brazilians who opposed da Silva weren’t likely to watch, but those who did support the incumbent might have felt more motivated to participate in campaign activities and/or make donations. In this sense, they’re largely akin to the celebrity music tours that often accompany today’s American campaigns… rallies as opposed to ideological arguments.


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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.
In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.
Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.