Should celebrities shut up when it comes to politics? That question lies at the heart of Barry Levinson’s documentary, which is actually about how television is the most evil thing in the history of the world.
It’s a bit hard to tell because there’s two separate ruminations at play in POLIWOOD – the first one is how television has blurred the lines between celebrities and politicians, leaving us in a Very Bad Place politically where politicians need to be telegenic and elections are run as stories sold to an expectant audience, and the second deals with the role of celebrities in politics, following The Creative Coalition (a non-partisan political group made up of entertainment types) around the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to watch celebrities talking politics.
Levinson tries to tie it all together at the end by equating politicians and celebrities, but it’s not a new argument and it’s one that’s largely unsupported by the film. He scares Rachel Leigh Cook half to death in a hotel lobby by dissolving into a depressive rant which ends with him telling her that he isn’t sure television isn’t the worst thing ever, but it puts the wrong capstone on the film that precedes it.
Levinson spends most of the film interviewing celebrities, and then every so often he makes a point about how television is ruining the electoral process. The thing is, the celebrity sequences are actually interesting, and there’s actual arguments to be made about them and their involvement in the political process but Levinson shies away from making any definitive statements about their involvement and instead gives us the warmed over arguments about television being bad.
I mean, fuck, you’re Barry Levinson. You can’t come up with something a bit more?
I have no idea why he does this, but it just emphasizes what an odd combination of subjects he’s playing with in the film. POLIWOOD really feels like it should be two films – one for celebrities and one for television – because the two halves don’t effectively intertwine.
None of which should dissuade you from watching POLIWOOD. It’s an interesting, if never fully engaging documentary, that is at its best when it’s allowing celebrities to break down the all-encompassing “celebrity” label. It does this simply and effectively, and Levinson allows the celebrities to sink or swim by their actions. Some come across as actually being interested in the process and learning about how the system works so the Creative Coalition can get better at delivering their message (Tim Daly, Lynn Whitfield) while others come across as thin-skinned and bitter (Josh Lucas, Gloria Reuben). There are a couple of old political vets (Spike Lee, Susan Sarandon) who ask pointed questions, and a couple of new arrivals (Anne Hathaway, Cook) who are trying to take it all in and absorb whatever they can because they want to do the Right Thing.
And this is beautiful because we see that celebrities are just like any other bloc of voters and it’s ignorant to lump them all together – some are smart, some are stupid, some are True Believers and some just want to be one of the cool kids.
In other words, some are worth listening to and some don’t respect you enough to actually know what they’re talking about.
It’s Hathaway and Cook that are the most engaging – both of them are trying to figure out how to conduct themselves as politically-interested celebrities, and their questions (Hathaway’s pondering if she should separate her politics from her work) and revelations (Cook’s realization that the “real” people in the film actually do resent politically active celebrities) sit at the heart of the question of politics and celebrity and I wish Levinson had pushed harder in their direction.
The two actresses contrast nicely with one another – for all of their shared doubts, Hathaway is portrayed as much more willing to get up on stage and speak, while Cook comes off much more reticent to talk and willing to listen.
The two most interesting sequences in the film revolve around the question of how the voter reacts to politically-active celebrities, and we see the best and worst of celebrities in them. (Which is far more interesting than rehashed bits about how Presidents Lincoln (ugly), Taft (fat), FDR (weak), and Adams (pudgy and a lisp) wouldn’t work in today’s television age.)
In the first sequence, the Creative Coalition meets with pollster Frank Luntz, who tries to tell them that how they get their message across is important and that sometimes, through the language they choose, they’re actually hurting their cause instead of helping it. Sarandon completely gets what he’s saying, making the point that she will always say “accountability” instead of “impeachment,” because of how those words play with voters, but Lucas and Reuben don’t want to hear anything Luntz is saying. Lucas throws a bit of a hissy fit about how “I’m not here to be lectured” and Reuben is defensive about how she feels “like you’re telling me not to talk,” (I think that quote is hers) which is sort of what Luntz is doing, but they’re missing the reason behind it. It’s understandable one would be upset about being told maybe it’s best if you don’t talk, but Luntz isn’t telling them this to be a prick (though with Luntz that sometimes comes naturally) or to silence their voice, but to try to educate them about the importance of how a message is delivered.
And yeah, that means sometimes they shouldn’t talk because voters (as we’ve seen in an earlier clip of a focus group) do have such a poor opinion of celebrities. What Luntz is doing is challenging them on what’s really important – getting heard or getting things accomplished because those two things won’t always work together.
The second scene puts celebrities and voters together and lets the voters tell the celebrities how they feel. To their credit, the voters let the celebrities have it, and to their credit, the celebrities listen and reflect and engage the voters in a dialogue.
Which the voters appreciate.
Which is what’s wrong with modern politics, that too many people are talking at each other instead of with each other.
Which is, according to Levinson, probably TV’s fault.
Which is, according to me, so much more bullshit than truth. I wouldn’t argue that TV doesn’t play a role, but blaming TV for the dissolution of political discourse is blaming the gun instead of the person pulling the trigger. Yeah, you can’t shoot someone without a gun, but the gun can’t go off without you, and the gun has no agency. The idea that TV is to blame robs us, as an audience and a nation, of our accountability in letting politicians dumb down and slick up the electoral process. You can blame networks for chasing ratings, but ratings = what the collective we watches, and Levinson lets us off the hook far too easily.
Levinson is a talented filmmaker with two interesting subjects at play, but POLIWOOD is too disjointed to make an effective argument, and coming down against TV as harshly as he does is too simplistic an answer for such a smart guy.