Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When Hollywood Gets It Wrong

Part 4 of our 5-part series: “Hollywood Does Politics”

It would be impossible to watch every political movie ever produced and list every mistake Hollywood has ever made. So we decided to look at three films and show you some common errors that can be seen in fictional political movies.

“Swing Vote” (2008)

In this comedy-drama about a non-political working-class New Mexican, Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is given the choice between two presidential candidates when the election comes down to his single vote. While the film explores some incredibly interesting points about modern campaign politics, the producers made some notable - though probably forgivable - mistakes about campaigns.

To begin, incumbent GOP President Andy Boone (Kelsey Grammer) sits in the Oval Office on Election Day, good spirited as he discusses his legacy with his campaign manager, Marty Fox (Stanley Tucci). Fox walks back-and-forth in the office, dictating Election Day strategy over the phone. One experienced in campaigns can’t help but notice that 1) the candidate would not be that calm, and 2) most of the Election Day operations would have been worked out long ahead of time. The entire seen is meant for character development, but lacks a lot of accuracy.

In another early scene, Democratic challenger Don Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) addresses a crowd of supporters in one of the mountain states. One can’t help but notice that the size of the crowd is easily under 200 people - which is fairly laughable considering a presidential campaign rally should have no fewer than several thousand attendees - even up to 100,000 that close to the end of the race. While this could be blamed on the film’s budget, it was probably more due to a lack of attention to detail.

Later on, Bud meets President Boone on Air Force One, where Fox frequently reminds Bud to address him as “Mr. President” - something Boone apologizes for when they speak alone. If anything, Fox would be much more sensitive to the negatives of formalities than the president. As campaign manager, he would know better. Then Bud attends a dinner held by the Democratic Party where Greenleaf courts the vote. Again, the event is overly formal, which is highly unlikely given how informal of a guy Bud is.

A minor detail that we picked out is how Greenleaf’s campaign manager - Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) - discusses production of a campaign commercial. He instructs his staff to stay away from Madison Avenue outlets and other advertisers. In reality, these ad men probably wouldn’t be getting that work in the first place - most campaign spots are produced by political consultants and not ordinary advertising agencies.

Finally, in order to win his vote, both sides flip-flop on some of their core values. It raises an interesting point about micro-targeting and already winning base support, but it is still unlikely that the Republican would do an ad endorsing gay marriage and the Democrat would blast abortion like they do in the movie. More likely, they would focus on points in which their campaign agrees with Bud, and stress those points as much as possible. Every good campaign worker knows that contradiction is the first mistake in messaging.

We have to believe that the writers for this film had some idea of how campaigns operate when they wrote the script. It seems that inevitably, some producers without any background or knowledge of campaign politics probably made some bad choices in the filming of this movie.

“Power” (1986)

An overall impressive movie about the world of political campaign consulting, “Power” follows Democratic strategist Pete St. John (Richard Gere) and several of his campaigns, including gubernatorial races in New Mexico and Washington, a senatorial race in Ohio, and a presidential race somewhere in South America.

As the film picks up, those who actually work in campaign consulting - like ourselves - can’t help but notice how nice St. John’s office is. It’s a world-class working space, with a bed and shower in one room for when St. John returns from traveling. He also flies across the country - and rather frequently - in a private jet.

Where does he get all this money? Well, it is later explained that his retainer rate for clients is $25,000 per month with a 15% commission on all ad-buys, plus a fee for production. It is mentioned that he has about eight clients. That means his firm is probably making a good $3 million a year, if not more. That’s quite a lot more than what’s realistic, even for the best consultants. Oh, and he has no partners to share it with, something that is pretty uncommon at top-tier consulting firms.

But he does his job well. He gets involved in every detail of all the campaigns that hire him - even directing the campaign ads he is producing. In one scene, he directs an ad in New Mexico where he puts a camera in a helicopter that flies in for a shot. To say the least, it’s excessive.

And then there’s the campaign office for his Senate candidate in Ohio. Not only is it bigger than any campaign office we’ve ever seen, but it’s well organized, classy looking, and every desk has a computer - pretty high-tech for 1986. So much so that it can’t be taken seriously.

In the end, it’s pretty obvious what the filmmakers were going for. The St. John character was supposed to be jaded about politics and more concerned about money than principles. Making the work, life, and environment of this consultant look classier was necessary (perhaps) for the story - but it also made for a widely inaccurate account of campaign consulting.

“State of Play” (2009)

While it’s not a movie about campaigns, “State of Play” is worth mentioning in this post because of some details that political-junkies like ourselves can’t help but shake our heads at.

The film follows journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) as he investigates the death of an aide to his old friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins is the chairman of a committee that oversees defense contracts. He uses the position to attack a company called PointCorp, which highly resembles the real-life contractor Blackwater.

Ben Affleck is not exactly an old man, and the idea that his character was given a chairmanship of a powerful committee is pretty laughable - especially when you see all the older Congressmen sitting around him during committee hearings. Both houses of Congress work on a seniority system that would not pass over more experienced members for the position.

It soon comes to light that Collins was having an affair with the aide who was killed. He is called to discuss the scandal with the party leadership. Yet the only House leader present at the meeting is the Majority Whip. To say the least, it’s extremely unlikely that the Speaker and Majority Leader would be absent from that meeting, especially considering the fact that Collins was a committee chair.

But one of the worst slip-ups in the production was Collins’s facial hair. The congressman frequently sports a five o’clock shadow, even during committee meetings. Anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill will tell you that five o’clock shadows do not happen with members of Congress - in fact, the male members usually shave twice a day to avoid such an informal look.

The fact that this movie overlooks these details demonstrates a clear lack of experience in Congressional politics on the part of the producers, director, and casting director.

It should be pointed out that none of the films mentioned today were bad movies. In fact, they all bring up some good points and ideas about politics. The mistakes they make are part lack of research, part budget constraints, and part entertainment considerations - for example, sometimes the movies err specifically for the sake of plot development.

In the end, Hollywood can’t produce a perfectly accurate movie involving politics. They need to take pragmatic approaches to these productions, even at the risk of annoying the small portion of the audience who happen to be politicos. And we can live with that.

Coming Friday: The Top 5 Political Campaign Movies! Don’t forget to send us your Top 5 - email the list to Dave@HogensenStrategies.com, and we’ll mention them in our post!

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