PoliWood is director Barry Levinson’s portmanteau of “politics” and “Hollywood,” and serves as the title of his documentary on how television and celebrities have altered politics.
The film begins and ends with the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, but the bulk of it takes place during the campaign of 2008, as Levinson and numerous other movie people—from both sides of the camera—of the Creative Coalition travel the country, including visiting both major parties’ political conventions. There are also a few interviews with folks other than from the Creative Coalition, including television commentators such as Lawrence O’Donnell and Tucker Carlson; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young responding to criticism of their including political messages in their concerts; and ordinary people expressing their feelings about celebrities getting involved in politics.
The Creative Coalition is a nonpartisan group, and from what I gather is really not very close to what most people like or more often hate about celebrities in politics. The main issues they tout—at least in what we’re shown—is increased funding for the arts and the inclusion of more art education in public schools. One of the members also addresses the need for more education and funding for mental health. So I suppose they’re more liberal than not in the sense that they’re advocating for government social programs, but this isn’t a group vociferously pushing a left wing agenda about hot button issues like war and race.
Some of the members as individuals I’m sure are more left wing like that, and the film occasionally interviews or mentions other celebrities from outside the group who are, but the Creative Coalition seems like a particularly mild, inoffensive version of celebrity activism.
Levinson is not shy about including himself in his own film; he gets as much camera time as any other member of the Creative Coalition.
If there is a single main point he’s trying to get across in this documentary, it is probably that modern forms of communication and celebrityhood, especially television specifically, have fundamentally changed politics in favoring image over substance, and blurring the lines between reality and make-believe.
In some respects surely Trump fits this theme—a person who used the media and reality TV to create a false image of a successful and fabulously rich businessman, and then parlayed that into the political success of being one of the two major political parties’ presidential nominee.
Levinson notes that nowadays being telegenic is crucial to winning the presidency, that this trumps substantive qualifications and abilities. He cites Kennedy’s losing his debate with Nixon in 1960 according to radio audiences who could hear the substance but not see the candidates, while more importantly winning it on the visuals to those watching on TV, as well as Reagan’s show business background. He laments that someone like Lincoln (too homely), Taft (too fat), Franklin Roosevelt (unable to hide his being crippled by polio), or various other presidents wouldn’t have ever risen to that office if TV had been a part of their world.
I’m actually a little skeptical of this. My assessment of the evidence is that being telegenic like that surely is more of a factor now than before the television era, but that it’s probably still a pretty small factor. I mean, common sense would incline me to agree with him, but then when I look at the people who in fact have been successful and unsuccessful in politics in recent decades I just don’t see much support for it.
Just like on common sense alone, you’d think that prostitutes would be unusually sexually attractive, since that trait would seemingly be so well correlated with success in the field, but then you look around and see that there are a huge, huge number of butt ugly prostitutes in the world.
If you cherry pick, you can find telegenic presidents. In addition to the aforementioned Kennedy and Reagan, Obama and Bill Clinton are at least fairly smooth characters who know how to handle themselves in front of a camera. But would you really rate such folks as Nixon or Bush (Senior or W.) as being unusually charismatic, unusually visually impressive, unusually able to project an image of strength, intellect, character, and leadership to inspire people to rally to them?
Or look even at 2016, at the candidates who advanced the farthest. On the Democratic side you have Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; on the Republican side you have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Are these the most telegenic of the people who ran, or could have run, for president? I mean, I suppose Trump has some creepy Mussolini-like charisma in his ability to whip a certain kind of person into a frenzy, and he does have plenty of experience as an entertainer, but on the whole I wouldn’t say these four stand out in terms of how visually appealing they are and how skilled they are in superficial, television-mediated communication.
If presidential politics is so dominated by image over substance, why isn’t Scott Brown president?
When I look at successful politicians—whether it be at the presidential level or if you include senators, members of Congress, vice presidents, governors, etc.—I’m struck by just how many of them come across as blithering idiots, are physically unattractive, are decidedly uncool and uncharismatic, etc.
So, yeah, a part of me expects things to be like Levinson describes, but when I look at the actual evidence I’m not convinced. I don’t know that it’s so far-fetched that a modern day Lincoln, Taft, FDR, etc. could get elected president.
Pretty much all the Creative Coalition folks in PoliWood come across as thoughtful, intelligent, reasonable people (I especially liked Matthew Modine), as do most or all of the other celebrities, media people, etc. interviewed in the film, like O’Donnell and Carlson. (Though I do think O’Donnell overstates how television news is one hundred percent based on ratings. I certainly believe the media deviate significantly from ideal journalistic behavior due to the influence of chasing ratings and profit, but that’s a far cry from saying that such capitalist motivation is the only factor determining what they do. I don’t know if it’s 80% or 50% or 30% or what, but I’m confident it’s not 100%. There are plenty of people in the media who—to some nonzero degree—are genuinely motivated to fairly and accurately report the most relevant facts.)
Of course that’s largely a function of how the film is edited. If someone wanted to make a film about how celebrities who get involved in politics are arrogant, ill-informed left wingers, it wouldn’t be hard to edit together appropriate clips to convey that message.
The most striking scene in PoliWood is when Frank Luntz brings together a focus group of “regular” people and some members of the Creative Coalition to discuss how celebrities in politics are perceived. And the most striking part of that scene is when a woman denounces with startling venom celebrities who use their celebrityhood to further their leftist political agenda, ranting about how they’re “forcing” their views on the public, how with their glamorous Hollywood lifestyles they’re out of touch with real people, how they try to pass themselves off as experts on issues they know nothing about, how they look down on non-celebrities as stupid, ignorant, backward people, etc.
That woman’s fury is what I find myself thinking the most about after watching PoliWood, and what I most want to comment on, kind of in the form of how might one respond to her in defense of the celebrities she hates.
One, let’s start by acknowledging that there’s some truth to her assertion that people like her are sometimes disparaged and mocked publicly. That’s just what partisans on both sides do (see virtually any posting forum online where people comment on politics and such), but if anything I’d guess celebrities—precisely because their comments aren’t anonymous the way most people’s are—do it a lot less than average.
So, yeah, there are a lot of smug insults shared when conservatives talk to each other about liberals or when liberals talk to each other about conservatives, but I don’t see celebrities as being especially prone to that.
Two, as Eric Alterman, columnist for The Nation, comments in the film, of all the people who have the financial resources and/or the access to the media to significantly further their political causes, celebrities on average have considerably less reason to be biased than almost anyone else. Corporations spending massive amounts of money to influence public opinion and the political process are maximally biased—they are basically amoral, indeed sociopathic, machines pursuing short term financial self-interest. If they ever did anything to foster truth, justice, human well-being, etc. it would be utterly incidental. Celebrities, the majority of the time, sincerely believe what they’re saying when they speak out politically. They can obviously still be wrong, but compared to people trying to make money from what they’re saying, people trying to get votes, etc., I’m a lot less suspicious of their motives.
Three, as a rule of thumb we shouldn’t be judging what people say on the basis of who they are (which is to argue via appeals to authority or ad hominem) anyway, but on its merits. If a TV star speaks out about climate change, don’t agree with them because you’re awed by their fame, or disagree with them because you think it’s arrogant and insulting for them to sound off like they’re doing; look at the actual evidence about climate change, including whatever they’re citing, and make a judgment based on that.
Four, celebrities may not be experts on all the things they comment on, but they typically know more than the average person does. Think about it: if you were going to give a public statement on gun control or the war in Iraq or marijuana legalization or whatever, and you knew a lot of people with cameras were going to show up and enable millions of people to watch you express yourself on this subject, wouldn’t you feel some urgency about researching it and thinking it through so that you didn’t come across like a total moron? Wouldn’t the fact that the stakes were so much higher than if this were just something you were spouting off about to your spouse or your friends down at the bar give you an incentive to educate yourself ahead of time?
Multiple of the celebrities in the movie—though again this can be a product of selective editing—even comment on the responsibility they feel to make sure their opinion is an informed one before they express it. If anything they make an extra effort because they’re self-conscious about the very fact that whatever they say will get disproportionate attention.
Five, related to this, I saw an interview some years ago with Janeane Garafalo (a highly politically engaged celebrity) wherein she remarked that far from seeking the cameras, seeking publicity for herself, when she speaks with the media she always tries to direct them instead to academics and people who truly are experts in a given area. But the media are uninterested in what Professor So-and-So thinks about nuclear proliferation or peak oil because putting Professor So-and-So on the air will draw no viewers. Whereas if they bring a celebrity on to talk about some issue of public importance, that always gets plenty of attention, even if much of that attention is from people watching so they’ll have an excuse to get enraged and satisfy their need to hate these un-American Hollywood Left types.
Indeed, what’s particularly absurd is that the host of a show like that that has invited such a celebrity (instead of a genuine expert) on will not uncommonly attack the celebrity for daring to speak out publicly about some political issue when, after all, they’re just an actress (or whatever).
Six, one might say that even if it’s the media’s fault when the views of celebrities get more publicity than the views of those with more expertise in a given area, a celebrity need not go along with that. They could simply keep their mouth shut about political matters and not take advantage of the fact that the media is willing to give their views a wide airing.
But why would they be obligated to do that? Why should a person who has an opinion about something refrain from expressing it just because someone is holding a bigger megaphone in front of their mouth than most other people have access to? Do celebrities have fewer rights than teachers, small business owners, or cab drivers to speak and work for the causes they believe in, just because what they do has the potential to be more effective because of who they are?
Seven, as at least two of the celebrities in the film note, it’s not like everyone who is famous grew up with a silver spoon in their mouth and has always been fabulously wealthy without ever having to work hard at all, so this notion that they are all out of touch and have no idea about the concerns of “real people” is just false. Almost every famous person in show business has worked very hard in their life, and many come from a middle class or below background and so are very familiar with the issues that face non-rich people.
Not to mention, even a lot of recognizable people that could loosely be categorized as stars are not rich at all. I think people would be surprised to find out that some of these people they think of as famous because they saw them in two or three movies or because they’re aware of at least one hit record they had are scraping to get by.
Eight, I strongly suspect that celebrities are only resented for their political activities and for “forcing” their views on people when they say things that the angered person happens to disagree with. So, yes, if some rock star or movie star speaks out against U.S. drone strikes, or marches with a Black Lives Matter group, then a conservative in Alabama is going to be furious that this arrogant commie is pushing a political agenda when they should stick to their singing or acting or whatever. But if someone famous like that were instead to denounce those who are attempting to oppress Christians and give special rights to homosexuals, or give an impassioned plea to “support the troops,” not only would that conservative in Alabama not hate them for arrogantly pushing their ill-informed political agenda, they probably wouldn’t perceive what they’re saying as political at all, but just as a common sense affirmation of things that all Americans should be united in believing.
Nine, finally, I would ask someone like that woman in the movie who so vehemently denounced celebrities who take public political stands to think about who benefits from her having that attitude. Because it’s not an attitude that people typically come to have because they’ve thought these issues through and applied their values to the situation and arrived at a conclusion. There’s a reason they have a very viscerally negative reaction to some show business person expressing a liberal view on climate change, and have no such reaction when a TV pundit or guest that is directly or indirectly paid by fossil fuel corporations expresses a conservative view on climate change. And that reason is that Fox “News” and Rush Limbaugh and their ilk have hammered into their heads over and over and over for years that the “Hollywood Left” is a bunch of biased, ignorant, arrogant folks who hate them and are trying to force an anti-American agenda on them, and they’ve never given them a similar negative message about oil company lobbyists and people from conservative think tanks supported by oil money and such.
It isn’t Tim Robbins who is propagandizing to this woman and people like her and trying to trick them into believing things that are false and that are contrary to their self-interest; it’s the Koch Brothers and their ilk. And successfully.
In the end, PoliWood is only modestly interesting or entertaining. It’s not a documentary I would urge people to go out of their way to see. But there are some worthwhile elements to it, and certainly it raises issues that provoked some thought in me.